The latest edition of Carolina Performing Arts showcased the Martha Graham Dance Company. Under the artistic directorship of Janet Eilber, the company is committed to presenting works by its founder and her contemporaries, but also has "embraced a new vision of programming" that includes works inspired by Graham's legacy. The blend of new and old keeps the performances relevant while still grounded in history. Graham's philosophy of the "appetite for the new" was expressed just as much through these avant-garde choreographers as through her original works.
Graham, a seminal figure in American dance, reinvented the way that we think about the expressive capacity of the human body. She also made it a point to collaborate with other artists whose approach to their own media was just as innovative. Her works, now nearly a century in age, still drip with newness and fresh ideas. The dance company she founded 90 years ago is committed to carrying on her legacy, and attracts and trains some of the best modern dancers in the world. The members of this company demonstrated an incredible unity of style and motion, and yet exhibited a high level of artistic flexibility when performing works by other choreographers.
This particular program included two of Graham's pieces – an abbreviated version of "Dark Meadow" called "Dark Meadow Suite," and "Cave of the Heart" – both originally premiered in 1946. "Dark Meadow Suite" is much less programmatic than many of Graham's works, and explores the way that unconscious and collective memories emerge through dance. "Cave of the Heart," originally titled "Serpent Heart," is a setting of the Greek legend of Jason and Medea. When Medea is spurned by her lover (and father of her two children) Jason for a politically advantageous marriage, she avenges herself by killing his new bride and her own children. Graham's retelling utilizes single dancers as the Greek chorus (Raleigh native Leslie Andrea Williams), the murdered bride (Charlotte Landreau), Jason (Ben Schultz), and a stunning and emotional performance of the sorceress Medea by PeiJu Chien-Pott. The set and lighting, very similar to the original, was simple but dramatic. The horrifying story was told in a way that kept you literally on the edge of your seat, and left the audience emotionally drained from the intensity.
Alternating with the classic 1940s Graham choreography, the recent works (meaning very recent – both works were premiered earlier this month) presented quite a contrast to the older works and to each other. "Woodland," by Pontus Lidberg, was a deeply abstract, thoughtful piece. Strongly music-driven and set to Irving Fine's "Notturno for Strings and Harp," the work explored individuality, group identity, and the conflicting and complementing elements of the two. The music and choreography employed an ABA form with the return to the first section presented reversed with the movements initially facing the back wall flipped to face the audience. Full of subtle, psychological exploration, much of the meaning was left open to interpretation without being noncommittal. Using predominately classic Graham technique, Lidberg managed to leave her personal signature on the work while being faithful to both the spirit and embodiment of Graham's language of movement.
"Inner Resources," according to choreographer and artistic director Marie Chouinard, was inspired by the legend of Wilgeforte. The 11th century saint, upon praying to be delivered from an upcoming marriage to preserve her vow of chastity, awoke the day of her nuptials with an allegedly impressive beard and was promptly crucified for witchcraft. While the only immediately apparent connection between the legend and the work was the bearded ladies, the tangential theme of revealing something hidden was developed extensively. The piece was performed without leg curtains, leaving all of the lighting equipment and wiring in the wings bare – quite effective and even a little visually disturbing. Dancers began the work with their faces hidden under shirts pulled over their heads, then gradually stripped off their own and each other's costumes. They eventually gave their final bows clad in mustaches and not much else. Unfortunately, the overall shock value of the artistic choices obscured the depth of the work. While Chouinard certainly deserves kudos for pushing boundaries, I personally found the partial nudity, female facial hair, and choice of music to be distracting from the choreography.
Martha Graham Dance Company is performing once more in Chapel Hill before leaving town. Some of these pieces are double cast, giving you the opportunity to see a slightly different performance of classic-modern and contemporary choreography by stellar, world-class dancers. Please see the sidebar for details.