The 86th annual American Dance Festival opened its 2019 season with a three-piece concert featuring the work of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor June 13-15. The program included Graham’s “Diversion of Angels,” Cunningham’s “Tread,” and Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera.”

The program was called ICONS; Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor are certainly three of the most iconic modern dance choreographers, period. Each developed his or her own unique technique, established a successful company (though Cunningham had his company disbanded upon his death), and produced a large and acclaimed body of work that has been reset and performed by numerous dance companies throughout the world.

Graham 2, the second, younger company affiliated with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Martha Graham School, performed “Diversion of Angels.” Similarly, Paul Taylor Dance Company’s second company, Taylor 2, performed “Piazzolla Caldera.” “Tread” was performed by Stephen Petronio Company, a New York City-based modern dance company led by Artistic Director Stephen Petronio, who has been restaging the work of post-modern masters (including Cunningham) since 2015 through his project Bloodlines.

Each piece was well-executed with few inconsistencies. It was especially interesting to see these three pieces back to back. Both Cunningham and Taylor danced for Graham before establishing their own troupes, and Taylor danced for Cunningham before he created the Taylor Company. Because they come from the same vein, you would think all three’s works would appear closely related. While there are similarities among the three, including technical details and musicality (or purposeful lack thereof, in terms of Cunningham), the three works emerged completely different and distinctive.

“Diversion of Angels” (1948) is an almost archetypal piece. It depicts three aspects of love, represented by three featured couples, accompanied by a fourth male dancer and a four-member chorus of female dancers. A couple in white represents mature love, a couple in red represents erotic love, and a couple in yellow represents adolescent love. The piece is set to music by the American composer Norman Dello Joio and is classic Graham in its dramatic expression. Classic Graham technical movements are also used, including the use of the contraction in the lower abdomen (the defining feature of Graham Technique) and the tilt (a balance on one leg where the body is parallel to the ground and the legs are split perpendicular to the ground). Graham 2 performed with energy and precision, and with only minor discrepancies when dancers lost momentary balance.

“Diversion of Angels” is a classic Graham work, and with its archetypal and symbolic movement and color (the mature woman moves slowly and purposefully; the yellow woman jumps and flounces around like an adolescent) it seems almost traditional and pretty straight-forward, from a 21st century point of view.

“Tread” is in no way traditional, but the piece is classic Cunningham. “Tread” premiered in 1970 and is a playful, exploratory, and almost random-seeming piece of partnering to a score by experimental composer and frequent collaborator of Cunningham Christian Wolff (performed live this evening by Seth Cluett and Cecilia Lopez ofComposers Inside Electronics). The dancers perform behind seven big metal fans that stand downstage, and the score sounds like static or radiowaves, perhaps mimicking the sound of the fans.

Cunningham was famous for his collaborations with partner John Cage, Wolff’s teacher, who often created scores similar to this, with no evident form or melody. Chance is a theme of both Cage’s and Cunningham’s works, and a lot of “Tread” seems random, with short, sporadic phrases broken up by abrupt pauses. (*Side note* One of the reasons Paul Taylor left Cunningham’s company was because of Cunningham’s fascination with the random. Before performances, Cunningham would essentially have dancers draw straws to see who would perform that night in order to keep things fresh and unexpected. Apparently, Taylor was often unlucky.)

Taylor created “Piazzolla Caldera” in 1997. “Piazzolla” is a sexy and (literally) smoky look into tango culture. The piece features six dancers who dance in partners, in groups, and in solos. Like “Diversion,” the piece is very musical (score by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshski) and dramatic. Also like “Diversion,” there is no explicit narrative, but unlike it, the characters seem to be more literal than symbolic. There seems to be a main character in this piece, a woman (this night performed by Amanda Stevenson) who just can’t seem to find a partner. In the end, she exclaims with her body and remains the last one standing as all the other dancers collapse. The dancers danced passionately, with the men (Johnny Vorsteg,Jake Deibert, and Irving Amigon) particularly excelling in fire and swagger.

This year’s American Dance Festival is dedicated to Paul Taylor, who died last August. Throughout his more than 60-year career, Taylor choreographed a prolific body of work amounting to more than 147 pieces. This night, Taylor 2 dancer and ADF School alumna Stevenson announced that the ADF School would be raising money for a scholarship in Taylor’s memory.

Taylor was the last of the three icons to pass; Graham died in 1991 and Cunningham in 2009. It’s funny how three artists can come from the same place, but as creators end up with extremely unique works. It’s like siblings raised in the same environment, whose backgrounds are the same but whose personalities emerge extremely different. Except for those similar phrases and accents that occasionally show through, they may be unrecognizable as relatives.

But Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor still absolutely belong together on the same stage for their common excellence, if nothing else. As always, it was a pleasure to see such classic and high caliber work presented by this important dance festival.

ADF continues through July 20, with an all-star lineup including Mark Morris Dance Group, Chapel Hill’s own Michelle Dorrance with Dorrance Dance, and Kyle Abraham’s Abraham In Motion. The Paul Taylor Dance Company will be returning July 4 through 6 for its own concert, and the festival will conclude with Footprints, a concert danced annually by the students of the ADF Summer School, this year made-up of work again by Graham, Taylor, and Cunningham. To most easily view a listing of all of these upcoming events, type “American Dance Festival” into CVNC‘s search bar.