The Martha Graham Dance Company capped its worldwide tour, celebrating the company’s 90th season, with a performance at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts in Seattle.

Martha Graham's Lamentation. Photo © Hibbard Nash

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Martha Graham’s Lamentation. Photo © Hibbard Nash

Meany Center for the Performing Arts, Seattle – May 7, 2016

Formed in 1926, at the nascence of American modern dance, the longevity of the Martha Graham Dance Company owes much to Ms. Graham’s fortuitously long creative life – she completed her last piece, Maple Leaf Rag, in 1990, a year before her death at the age of 96. Though the company’s repertoire is anchored by Graham’s classic works, the company’s current artistic director, Janet Eilber, speaking at the pre-show talk, reminded us that Graham “always had an appetite for the new”.  The evening’s thoughtfully curated program presented Graham’s classics and new commissions from contemporary choreographers who stayed true to Graham’s aesthetic while forging her lineage into the present.

Dark Meadows Suite, created in 2016, is an arrangement of excerpts from the full length Dark Meadow that premiered in 1946. The piece did well to introduce Graham’s vocabulary and aesthetic, though its abbreviated scenes seem to have lost their original continuity and intention.  The eight dancers and featured pair, Lloyd Knight and Anne O’Donnell,  demonstrated the specificity of posture and gesture in its patterned phrases which evoked folk dance traditions, though their meanings weren’t defined.  Standing with one hand at the ear, fingers together and palms slightly cupped, and the other tucked at the hip, an ensemble of women in ochre-toned cropped tops and long straight skirts concertedly sounded their heels on the ground in a steady, ceremonial rhythm.  Quicker paced phrases showcased the dynamism of Graham’s vocabulary, such as a gallop with knees tucked tightly to the chest and a tilted arabesque turn of hypnotic momentum.  Its duets showed warmth, especially when Knight held O’Donnell at the calves so that she could lean and stretch her arms forward beyond what her own balance would allow.  The bare stage was back-lit by a backdrop of changing colours, while the Carlos Chavez’s strings-based composition was richly layered.  The emotive vocabulary in Graham’s choreography writes an affecting, even if abstract, narrative.

Nacho Duato's Rust. Photo © Brigid Pierce

Nacho Duato’s Rust. Photo © Brigid Pierce

Rust (2013) is by contemporary choreographer Nacho Duato, and its theme about the horrors of terrorism is unsettlingly current.  Five male dancers reenacted violent moments between victims and their captors like kneeling with hands behind their backs and their grey tank top pulled over their faces, then falling heavily to the ground at the sound of a gunshot.  Though reenactments set the scene, the piece didn’t overly rely on them.  Rather, the narrative was expressed through Duato’s eloquent choreography.  As an ensemble, they clamoured around one another, pushing and pulling, then forcefully they grasped the outstretched arms of one man as he pushed forward.  There was an elastic dynamic in the way they were drawn to one another no sooner than they separated.  In a solo, one man crawled heavily and contorted his body while on the ground, exaggerating his weight to express struggle and oppression.  Emotions magnified in these bodily gestures enabled empathy toward  situations unimaginable in many people’s lives, and doing so, gave a nod to this most enduring quality of Graham’s aesthetic.

Lamentation Variations is the company’s on-going commission of pieces, each under four minutes long, inspired by Graham’s iconic 1930 solo, Lamentation.  The diverse interpretations in tonight’s program came from choreographers Sonya Tayeh, Kyle Abraham and Larry Keigwin.  Tayeh’s was a fast-paced and frantic ensemble piece; the feeling of anxiety was amplified by sounds of panting and whispering in the rhythmic staccato soundtrack.  Arms thrashing in all directions expressed a fearless and uncontainable energy.   By contrast, the duet by Abraham was quiet and contemplative, and it showed the pair’s tender and mutual support of one another in lifts, leans and holds.  In Keigwin’s subtly dramatic piece, the ensemble stood evenly spread out on the stage, looking in the direction of the audience while gingerly touching their own face.  A man and woman expressed vulnerability in a duet, performed among the lingering empty spaces between the members of the ensemble, reflecting their haunting indifference.

Katherine Crockett as The Chorus in Martha Graham's Cave of the Heart. Photo © John Deane

Katherine Crockett as The Chorus in Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart. Photo © John Deane

Tonight’s performance of Cave of the Heart (1946), inspired by a story from Greek mythology of the sorceress Medea, affirmed its iconic status in Graham’s repertoire.  PeiJu Chien-Pott captured Medea’s inner torment beneath her emboldened rage.  As she lay on her side, curling and twisting her torso, she expressed the insurmountable emotional tragedy that fueled her violent intentions.  Ben Schultz, as Jason – the object of Medea’s obsession, held an unwavering strength in his warrior-like stance, while Charlotte Landreau, as The Princess – the object of Jason’s change of heart, evoked innocence and fragility in her light and delicate steps.  Leslie Andrea Williams had a remarkable presence as The Chorus, a reluctant witness to the events.  Isamu Noguchi’s set pieces were sculpted, minimalistic and abstract forms, which, as pointed out by Eilber at the pre-show talk, were in the original style that pre-dated the glittery version of the eighties – such adaptation was taken to reflect the times the company was in.  Dance does not narrate well, but the deeply emotional expression of this performance told much more than what the story’s plot could.

Finally, Marie Chouinard’s Inner Resources, which premiered this April, felt disappointingly out of place with the evening’s other works.  To a soundtrack of heavy electronic beats, the all-female ensemble of eight did what they could with the vague vocabulary, which was dominated by eccentric walking styles and gestures with floppy hands that didn’t fully use these dancers’ talents.  Sporting fake moustaches and beards, and then standing full frontal in nude leotards, they seemed to be pursuing shock value.

The company’s voice bears a duality made up of Graham’s classic works and those of other choreographers.  While the dancers show versatility to embrace these new voices, the new works still don’t hold their weight against the Graham classics.  In the meantime, actively ’embracing the new’ paves a way for the company’s future.