At the closing of its 10th anniversary year, Carolina Performing Arts invited one of its biggest inspirations, the Martha Graham Dance Company, which is finishing its 89th anniversary year. In fact, in 2013, Carolina Performing Arts commissioned several of the dances performed at this concert. The seven works presented paid tribute to both Martha Graham and the history of her Company, featuring two works originally choreographed by the master dancer in the ’30s and ’40s as well as several in response to her originals. Varying from beautiful to disturbing, lyrical to angular, the dances took serious, humorous, frightening, thought-provoking, and sometimes arousing subjects and tones through a variety of contexts.

The first two dances were evocative of the harsh realities of war and violence. “Steps in the Street,” from Graham’s original Chronicle program, is an all-women portrayal of “the fateful prelude to war…the devastation of spirit which it leaves in its wake.” As is further explained in the original program notes from its premiere in 1936, this non-literal response to Graham’s refusal to contribute to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin presents a suggestion as to what war can do to a society. Rhythmic steps emerging from ethereal blackness begin the mechanized, angular framework of isolated dancers moving in canon but with no interaction with each other.

“Rust,” choreographed by Nacho Duato, is an incredibly powerful foil to “Steps in the Street.” An all-male cast portrays a much more literal representation of the insensitivity of torture, set in organic group forms full of weight sharing, lifts, and almost constant contact that made unison moments especially poignant. The end of the dance utilized the men’s shirts pulled up as masks, dehumanizing them as if they were prisoners taken hostage. One silent figure walked across as the masked hostages fell, one by one, in time to Arvo Pärt’s unsettling electro-synthesized soundtrack of organ, Gregorian chant, and indistinct rhythmic thumps, until all was silence.

To dispel the specters of terror that “Rust” had just inspired, a more humorous – if absurd – dance followed. Annie-B Parson‘s “The Snow Falls in the Winter” is a take on Ionesco’s play The Lesson, in which a professor grows increasingly frustrated with a pupil who doesn’t learn as quickly as expected, until the professor decides he must kill her. The play has an absurdist format, as does the dance; Parson’s message and prelude to her choreography is that the plot was “awful” and she threw it out completely, so “please don’t look for one.” Rather, the snatches of dialogue the dancers recite and the literal representations of the professor and pupil are explorations of an absurdist dance, featuring the dancers briefly donning hats and moustaches, dancing with microphones, reacting to recorded bits of the play being broadcast at distorted speeds or even backwards…. Moments of lucidity punctuate the dance, but, as the toddler in the audience a row ahead remarked, sometimes there is no meaning and “they’re just jumping…?”

Following an intermission, Graham’s “Lamentation” was presented in a video of her original performance. Three variations on “Lamentation” followed, commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and inspired by a 2007 project to honor the anniversary of 9/11, in which company choreographers were asked to create responses to both the event and Graham’s work. Three variations provided very different interpretations of Graham’s dance, choreographed by Chapel Hill artist Michelle Dorrance, Liz Gerring of the Merce Cunningham tradition of dance, and Sonya Tayeh, most famous for her choreography for the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance.

Graham’s original “Lamentation” utilizes the iconic, visceral motions that this dancer is most known for creating. The complex dance was performed in a simple context: a solo dancer sitting and expressing herself, while cloaking her body in an inhuman swath of fabric. Dorrance’s variation expands on the silent energy of Graham’s solo work, centralizing the action in a trio of men in the center, circled by indistinct movement by a group of circling, searching figures. Gerring’s variation is less emotional but incorporates much more motion between the classic poses Graham invented. It utilizes a moving group versus static soloists, presenting an uncomfortable and unbalanced lament. Tayeh’s variation takes the idea in a totally different direction, with faster, sexual, athletic energy. The many lifts and level changes allow for the struggle of motion between dancers, set against a breathy amalgamation of indistinct voice sounds.

The final work on the program was arguably the most accessible, incorporating more traditional modern dance shapes with lyrical music and beautiful motions. Andonis Foniadakis’ “Echo” is an exploration of the ideas behind the myth of Ovid’s story of Narcissus and Echo. Nymph Echo has been cursed by the gods to be mute except she can repeat the last words she hears spoken to her. She attempts to win the love of Narcissus, who ends up falling in love with his own reflection, spurning sexuality and human contact completely. This metaphorical representation of the story incorporates a man dancing with the representation of his reflection while a woman and her cohort of echoes try to win him over until the reflection finally overtakes everyone else. The work is complex, with the men dancing together, wrapped in long swirling fabrics, backlit by a ghostly set of lights in the ceiling piercing through swirling fog.

I can’t say that I understood all the subtleties of the choreography, but the emotional responses this entire program drew were immense. Even if you are not a dance enthusiast, I would argue that this evening would win you over to the glory that is modern dance. “Echo,” easily the highlight of this evening of dance, is worth the drive out to Chapel Hill all by itself. It is incredibly, if bizarrely, beautiful, as was the rest of the night.

The program was repeated just once, on Wednesday night at 7:30 Memorial Hall.