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Martha Graham Dance Company Opening Night Gala: Snow on the Mesa, Maple Leaf Rag

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Martha Graham Dance Company
(Graham Company Website)

Snow on the Mesa
Maple Leaf Rag

At the
Rose Theater
Frederick P. Rose Hall
Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center

Martha Graham:
Founder, Dancer, Choreographer

Artistic Director: Janet Eilber
Executive Director: LaRue Allen

Senior Artistic Associate: Denise Vale
Director, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance:
Virginie Mécène
General Manager: Faye Rosenbaum
Marketing and Communications Assoc.: Saira McLaren
Press: Jonathan Marder + Company

Martha Graham Dance Company:
Tadej Brdnik, Katherine Crockett, Jennifer DePalo,
Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Maurizio Nardi, Miki Orihara,
Blakely White-McGuire

Jacqueline Bulnes, Lloyd Knight,
Mariya Dashkina Maddux, Samuel Pott, Ben Schultz,

Jacquelyn Elder, Hanan Misko, George Smallwood,
Oliver Tobin, Andrea Murillo, Lauren Newman. Xiaochuan Xie
Iris Florentiny, PeiJu Chien-Pott

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 15, 2011

(See More Graham Company Reviews)

Martha Graham, Founder, Dancer, and Choreographer of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and I actually shared the same birthday. She was a pioneer and a pillar of strength and encapsulated basic human emotions, especially those of female characters from the frontier and from mythology, drawing inspiration from friends who painted, sculpted, and composed 20th Century music. In 1988, Time Magazine named Martha Graham the Dancer of the Century. During her 70 years as a choreographer, Ms. Graham created 181 ballets and a Modern Dance technique that has been compared to ballet, due to its complexity and depth.

Martha Graham considered herself, first and foremost, a Dancer. I remember seeing her onstage, in her later years. She danced at a point of maturity, when almost all dancers have retired. Ms. Graham never retired, and I recall her accepting bravura audience acclaim, onstage, in her expansive, golden, Asian styled, Halston gown. Her black hair was a severe as her dances. She continued to exude the same, studied presence and poise that have been recorded in photos and films of her earliest performances. Ms. Graham founded her dance company and school in 1926 in Carnegie Hall. In Ms. Graham’s own words, “In all of us who perform there is an awareness of the smile which is part of the equipment, or gift, of the acrobat. We have all walked the high wire of circumstance at times. We recognize the gravity pull of the earth as he does. The smile is there because he is practicing living at the instant of danger. He does not choose to fall.” (Company Notes)

Snow on the Mesa, Portrait of Martha (1995): Choreography and Sets by Robert Wilson, Asst. Director: Giuseppe Frigeni, Asst. Set Designer: Christopher McCollum, Music by George Antheil, Lou Harrison, and Colin McPhee, Costumes by Donna Karan, Lighting by AJ Weissbard, Sound by Brad Fields, Dedicated to Martha Graham and Doris Duke, Performed by the Company.

Part I:
The Wolf Wife
Shaker Interior
Navaho Rug
The Black Rocks

Part II
The World Outside
A Room with Too Much in It
The World Still Outside
Night in the Desert
Very Young: Cachina Clowns
Mirrors and Memory
Very Old: Ghost Walkers
Epilogue: First Snow on the Mesa

Martha Graham created 181 ballets, with the last appearing at the end of tonight’s program. I was hoping to see a selection of Ms. Graham’s works in this very brief annual repertory program, but alas only a few would be shown. There are so many I long to see, even some of the earlier works, like “Heretic”, “Lamentation”, “Frontier”, “Deep Song’, “Errand into the Maze”, “Diversion of Angels”, “Circe”. Instead, on this all important Opening Night in Rose Theater, the first piece, a lengthy one, was created by Robert Wilson as a “Portrait of Martha” and called Snow on the Mesa.

This ephemeral, esoteric, minimalist work was such a caricature of a contemporary (1995) media event, that it was difficult to be drawn in, or even to care, wishing the funds and time and effort had been expended to re-create more of Ms. Graham’s vast oeuvres. Paul Taylor (a Graham disciple) has choreographed 133 dances, and he continues to annually mount at least two-three weeks-worth of his own choreographies. I think the Graham Company would have a healthy annual season if it gave its fans what they want, Martha Graham.

Snow on the Mesa presents heads of wolves, seeming to piercing through the stage floor, a knife, a long stemmed white flower, and women in black robes with stark makeup that taunts Ms. Graham’s iconic image (like Richard Move’s taunting of her in past imitative performances). On a visual level, as a media event, it could have worked differently, presented in a boxed space in MOMA or downtown gallery. A great deal of silence, interrupted by thunder claps, ensues, with the backdrop splashing red where white had shown. This abstract homage to Martha could have served to open at least a two-week season of her oeuvres, but to open a short week of a few of her works, with also a premiere by Pagarlava?

Torrential crashing, silent screams, and rapid onstage kissing are juxtaposed. Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik perform “Shaker Interior”, with Ms. Xie kissing and worshiping Mr. Brdnik, probably a reference to Erik Hawkins. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch’s “Navaho Rug” solo has her in native dress, teeth biting what could be a serpent. Exotic percussion is heard throughout, especially when Ms. Crockett drinks and drinks, reciting lines about torment and desolation, in “A Room with Too Much in It”. In ‘Ghost Walkers”, dancers have long white beards, and the female cast is bare-chested, with transparent filmy material.

As a “Portrait of Martha” I’d so much rather, once again, have seen a collection of her works or a film created from early clips of her dancing. We had already seen “Dance as a Weapon” montage last season, with Ms. Graham’s contemporaries, to be repeated this coming weekend. Mr. Wilson and Artistic Director, Janet Eilber, addressed the audience and commented on the history and creation of this work. They all lauded Ms. Graham and each other, but there just was no “there” there.

Maple Leaf Rag (1990): Choreography by Martha Graham, Music by Scott Joplin, Costumes by Calvin Klein, Lighting by David Finley, Performed by the Company (and special guests).

Ms. Graham’s final work, a lovely, joyful dance to three of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, features the Company on a toggling board, that is, a flexible board that’s built like a bench, but dancers can stand, sway, and dance on it. Unfortunately, an executive decision was made to invite five prominent donors to join the Company as performers in the finale, and they danced out, waving and posing for friends and relatives. While expanding the experience for the donors, it certainly reduced the artistic quality of the performance. These donors could have had their own segment, to speak or introduce an homage to Ms. Graham, a more worthy use of everyone’s time.

However, this work, prior to the suddenly expanded ensemble, brought color, musicality, and authentic Graham crafting to the stage. Maurizio Nardi is one of the most fascinating dancers on today’s stages, as are Katherine Crockett, Miki Orihara, and Tadej Brdnik. Mr. Nardi, with Blakely White-McGuire, were the “Couple on the Bench” in rarified romance. After the intense starkness of the previous work, Maple Leaf Rag was a change of mood and motif.

I remember the 1990 premiere of this work, followed by the proud Ms. Graham onstage in her golden Halston, as she glowed with pride. I love hearing her taped, earthy voice at the onset of this dance. The Company was flawless and fanciful as it dashed and twirled and athletically utilized the toggling board set center stage. This is a charming, crisp piece, that leaves the audience relaxed and upbeat. Kudos to the Graham Company, and kudos to Martha Graham.

Jacquelyn Elder, Miki Orihara,
Mariya Dashkina Maddux in
Wilson's "Snow on the Mesa"
Courtesy of Costas

Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik
in Wilson's "Snow on the Mesa"
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower

Blakeley White-McGuire
in Graham's "Maple Leaf Rag"
Courtesy of Costas

Tadej Brdnik, Jacqueline Bulnes,
Hanan Misko, Xiaochaun Xie,
Oliver Tobin in
Graham's "Maple Leaf Rag"
Courtesy of Costas

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at