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Martha Graham Dance Company: 90th Anniversary Season Gala

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Martha Graham Dance Company
(Graham Company Website)

90th Anniversary Season Gala

New York City Center

Martha Graham: Founder, Dancer, Choreographer

Artistic Director: Janet Eilber
Executive Director: LaRue Allen
Senior Artistic Associate: Denise Vale
Press: Janet Stapleton

Martha Graham Dance Company:
PeiJu Chien-Pott, Lloyd Knight, Ben Schultz
Blakeley White-McGuire, Abdiel Jacobsen, Ari Mayzick
Xin Ying, Charlotte Landreau, Lloyd Mayor, Lauren Newman
Anne O’Donnell, Lorenzo Pagano, Konstantina Xintara
Laurel Dalley Smith, Anne Souder, Leslie Andrea Williams
Guyonn Auriau

The Mannes Orchestra
Conductor David Hayes

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 18, 2016

(See More Graham Company Reviews and Interviews.)

90 Years in 90 Seconds (2016): A Film by Justin Scholar, Assisted by Oliver Tobin. On third viewing, I was ready for the rapid time lapses of this 90 second historical Graham film, and I knew when to focus, before one of my favorite dances or Graham stars would quickly appear and disappear. I hope this is soon online.

Tanagra (excerpt, 1926): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Music by Erik Satie (Trois Gnoissiennes, No. 3), Lighting by Nick Hung, Piano: Julia Hamos, Performed by Blakely White-McGuire.

What pure joy to finally see a live performance, even with live piano, of a Graham work from the first days of the Company’s existence. I wish this would happen more often. This is what longtime Graham fans dream of. Blakely White-McGuire was stunning, superb, stupendous, in flowing chiffony silk, head to foot, with floor pillows and hand-held fan. Set to a portion of one of my all-time favorite scores, the Satie Gnoissiennes, this exotic work is a must-see-again-soon piece.

Heretic (excerpt, 1929): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Restaged by Virginie Mécène, Music Arranged by Charles de Sivry, Lighting by Beverly Emmons, Piano: Julia Hamos, Performed by Jessica Sgambelluri leading the Graham 2 Company.

Here’s another superior Graham work, from the 1920’s, not seen often enough. Ms. Sgambelluri has been reviewed with Graham 2’s performance of Heretic on these pages, and, again, tonight I was spellbound. In stark, internalized emotions, we view nine women (sometimes it’s eight), dressed in severe, black, long, tight dresses with heads covered, as well. They walk and dance with clenched jaws and fists, the image of self-righteousness and lack of forgiveness. The Heretic, Ms. Sgambelluri, is costumed in contrasting white, falling prostate at their feet, every joint and muscle taught with physicality, in anguish for her life. Her blond hair and white costume evoke youthful innocence. One senses raw vulnerability.

Lamentation (1930): Choreography and Costume by Martha Graham, Music by Zoltán Kodály, Original Lighting by Martha Graham, Lighting adapted by Beverly Emmons, Piano: Julia Hamos, Performed by PeiJu Chien-Pott.

Here’s yet another of my favorite Graham works, the 1930 Lamentation, the visual embodiment of a woman’s grief, performed by PeiJu Chien-Pott in the body-length, stretch purple costume, with her head and feet covered, mourning viscerally and gesturally. 1930 could have been 2016, with all the socio-political catastrophes of late, and this one lone woman, in total torment, bending down to her feet, swaying about, her head swung back, then down, was astoundingly poignant. This work remains riveting and relevant.

Lament (from “Acts of Light”, 1981): Choreography by Martha Graham, Music by Carl Nielsen, Costumes by Halston and Martha Graham, Lighting by Beverly Emmons, Performed by Aurélie Dupont, Abdiel Jacobsen, Lloyd Knight, Lloyd Mayor, Ari Mayzick, Lorenzo Pagano.

Five renowned, muscular male dancers, wearing very brief costumes by Graham and Halston, along with guest dancer from the Paris Opera Ballet, Aurélie Dupont, in a loose, stretch white costume, evocative of that in Lamentation, perform Lament to a gripping score by Carl Nielsen. The woman in white is lifted onto the stage by a Chorus of men, the Graham Greek motif, and she mourns, only upright, moving, and carried about by the Chorus. I’d like to see the entire 1981 Acts of Light soon.

Celebration (excerpt, 1934): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Restaged by Tadej Brdnik, Music by Louis Horst, Lighting by Beverly Emmons, Adapted by Nick Hung, Performed by an ensemble of thirteen men.

I do not recall seeing this 1934 work, previously, although I may have seen it in Graham’s original design, as a dance for twelve women. Tonight it was danced by thirteen men! I assume they are with Graham 2 or apprentices, because they are not Company dancers. I also assume there was a need to showcase the men in the Gala, as Graham’s earliest works are mainly for women, as she did not hire a male dancer until 1939. Thus, some confusion among Graham fans tonight. The percussive, brassy score, by Louis Horst, propelling jumping within shifting formations of circles, could just as well have been danced by twelve women, as it was intended. A new piece for the Gala could have been created for the men, so they could participate in their own work.

Woodland (2016): Choreography by Pontus Lidberg, Music by Irving Fine, Costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, Mask pattern designs by Wintercroft Designs, Lighting by Nick Hung, Performed by Xin Ying and an ensemble of four women and four men.

I have been a fan of Pontus Lidberg in past viewings, such as his 2010 Faune. However, Woodland, a silly, ghoulish work for a woman embodying a teen student (Xin Ying), who’s surrounded by eerie creatures in the woodlands, forming four duos of mixed sexuality and emotional motifs, was, to me, not worthy of a Graham Gala. I am not aware that Graham had personal influence on Mr. Lidberg, although that would be interesting. However, Graham did influence Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp, for example, so one of their own works, even one for men, to solve the casting issue mentioned in the previous work’s review, may have been included here; or involvement of Baryshnikov, who danced with the Company following Graham’s death, or of one of the renowned, retired Graham dancers. The Woodland creatures were predatory, or so it seemed from my seating location, so maybe Mr. Lidberg thought of Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Irving Fine’s string composition was not stunning enough to make this work shine.

”Simple Gifts” Theme and Variations (from “Appalachian Spring”, 1944): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Music by Aaron Copland, Original lighting by Jean Rosenthal, adapted by Beverly Emmons, Performed by Aurélie Dupont as The Bride and Lloyd Mayor as The Husbandman.

Happily, tonight’s 90th Anniversary Gala would end on Graham’s own, wonderful early works. “Simple Gifts”, a lovely dance for The Bride and The Husbandman in Appalachian Spring, performed by guest, Aurélie Dupont, and Lloyd Mayor, was lyrical, evocative, and sublime. The moment it ended I could have watched it all over again, and again. The impassioned youthfulness and ebullient optimism, inherent in the gestural choreography, was masterfully presented, especially in Mr. Mayor’s enchanting lifts of the balletically trained Ms. Dupont. Their combined training in Modern and Ballet gave the moment spellbinding fascination.

Steps in the Street and Prelude to Action (from Chronicle, 1936): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Music by Wallingford Riegger, Original lighting by Jean Rosenthal, Lighting for Reconstruction (“Steps in the Street”) by David Finley, Lighting for Reconstruction (“Prelude to Action”) by Steven L. Shelley, Steps in the Street Performed by Leslie Andrea Williams and the women in the Company, Prelude to Action Performed by PeiJu Chien-Pott, Leslie Andrea Williams, and the women in the Company..

Skipping the first part of Graham’s 1936 Chronicle, named Spectre – 1914, the female Company proceeded to perform Steps in the Street and Prelude to Action, Graham’s statement on the emotional ravages of war. Leslie Andrea Williams led an ensemble of nine, fists clenched, torsos focused, in the long, stretch, black dresses, slit for the leg thrusts and cartwheels. The long, silent and sliding steps of the Company of women, led by Ms. Williams, with horizontal elbows, and silhouetted hands and faces were part myth-part reality. The tragic themes unfolded. The Wallingford Riegger score had been heard in the evening’s opening historical film, and it was wonderful to hear it again. In fact, I’d love to catch a live orchestral rendition for listening purposes only, just to fully absorb this music. In the final segment, Prelude to Action, PeiJu Chien-Pott joined Ms. Williams (who has changed to her black-white costume) and the ensemble for their combined forceful, feminine tour de force.

Kudos to Martha Graham.

Blakely White-McGuire
in an excerpt from Martha Graham's "Tanagra."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Jessica Sgambelluri (left) and other dancers from Graham 2
in an excerpt from Martha Graham's "Heretic."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

PeiJu Chien-Pott
in Martha Graham's "Lamentation."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Paris Opera Ballet Étoile, Aurélie Dupont,
in "Lament" from Martha Graham's "Acts of Light."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Martha Graham School students in the first all-male performance
of an excerpt from Martha Graham's "Celebration."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Xin Ying (center) and other dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company
in Pontus Lidberg's "Woodland."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Lloyd Mayor and Paris Opera Ballet Étoile, Aurélie Dupont,
in an excerpt from Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

Leslie Andrea Williams and the Martha Graham Dance Company
in "Steps in the Street" from Martha Graham's "Chronicle."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

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