4/30/24 O&A NYC DANCE REVIEW: The Martha Graham Dance Company

By Walter Rutledge

The Martha Graham Dance Company presented their 98th season April 17 thru 20th at New York City Center. The season offered only four performances featuring works by Agnes DeMille, Martha Graham, Jamar Roberts and Hofesh Shechter. The Thursday night program featured two Graham masterworks Rite of Spring (1984) and her icon Appalachian Spring (1944) and We The People, a new work by Roberts. The audience was treated to a season of live music (a former dance staple now a luxury) by the Mannes Orchestra and the Gabe Witcher Sextet.

If dance makers ever need a refresher course in choreographic form and design look no further than Graham’s Appalachian Spring. This quintessential abstract narrative still speaks to audiences in a clear and unfettered dance voice, which has only gotten more resolute over time. Created during the dark days of the second world war Graham offered encouragement and hope through her vision of faith, camaraderie and the anticipation of new beginnings; in other words, the American dream.

The choreography, costumes, ingenuously minimal set by Isamu Noguchi, and Aaron Copeland’s iconic score combine to embody Graham’s vision. The eight-member ensemble approached the performance more like a theatrical event than pure dance. Each dancer captured the spirit and frontier fervor of a couple being welcomed into the community.

The upright reverend was performed by Alessio Crognale-Roberts with the right combination of good ole protestant fire and brimstone and country compassion.  And his quartet of female parishioners (So Young An, Meagan King, Devin Loh and Marzia Memoli) were as enthusiastic to welcome the couple as they were to be in the preacher’s presence. Leslie Andrea Williams as the Pioneering Woman exuded confidence and a frontier strength. Jacob Larsen as the stoic husband and Anne Souder as his loving bride completed the cast.

Appalachian Spring ends with a quiet and introspective, yet deeply personal and uplifting statement. As Copeland’s Pulitzer Prize winning score concludes the newlyweds are on their porch looking out over the land. The stage begins to fade to black, and we too are suddenly consumed in the afterglow of life’s endless possibilities.   

That evening Jamar Roberts had the daunting task of having his work, We The People, performed between two Graham masterworks. His admirable abstract ensemble work for twelve dancers opened with a solo performed by Leslie Andrea Williams. Williams masterfully took the audience through a series of emotions expressed through movement that ranged from mediative to agitated.

Throughout the work solo sections set to silence would emerge. Was the angst filled dancing soliloquies preludes to the proceeding sections? Or were they flashbacks to prior injustices? One can only speculate, because their relationship to the work was never clearly defined.

Even in pure abstraction the imagery allows the viewer to create their own symbolism. Although Roberts’ powerful movement phrases showcased the dancer’s technical agility; there was no cohesive thread to propel the work.  The dance teetered between story and non-story reducing it to movement for the sake of movement. Program notes would have been helpful to guide the audience along his journey.

Graham was in her glory when confronted with the tribal and ritual elements of Rite of Spring. The look is much more archaic and primal recalling elements of the 1920 Leonide Massine rendering. This might be due in part to Graham performing the role of the Chosen One in the Massine ballet’s April 11th, 1930, American premiere. Instead of a Russian folktale, Graham’s version transports us to her own unique fiefdom. The ballet premiered on February 28, 1984, just seventy days shy of her nineth birthday, and demonstrates Graham’s undiminished and expansive storytelling prowess.

The renowned artist Romare Bearden described seeing the later works of Henri Matisse during a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris. Bearden was allowed to see the later “more decadent” works that were not offered for public viewing. The freedom of the watercolors brought Bearden to tears. In Rite of Spring Graham is also not afraid to color outside of the lines. The moral of this parable is Graham had developed such an understanding and an almost reverence for choreographic design/architecture, like Matisse, she could set her own boundaries.

The set consists of a simple two-tiered platform upstage that cleverly elevates the horizon line. This gives the person/persons residing in this area a deified quality, lifting them above the mundane and ordinary. It also gives the action that takes place in this area greater visual importance.

One of the most visually satisfying moments occurs when the Shaman (Lloyd Knight) circles the Chosen One (Marzia Memoli) encasing her in rope. As the Shaman circles around his victim and the rope gets shorter his movement creates a spiral pattern moving inward towards his victim. This action depersonalizes the Chosen One making her a totem – a ritual symbol of the clan for the sacrifice.

Both roles required the artist to reach beyond the movement and embody the character. Knight creates an imposing Shaman whose walk, deportment and movement were equally commanding. Memoli’s vulnerable demeanor makes her Chosen One the perfect victim. She draws the audience into her fate creating an aura best described as submissive eroticism.

The company has already begun to acknowledge the upcoming Martha Graham Dance Company centennial celebrating the company’s 1926 founding. The dancers are performing at an extremely high-level doing justice to both Graham and the varied repertoire. Regardless, when you experience the Martha Graham Dance Company there is only one diva on stage; and that is Martha Graham. 

Photo Credits:Jacob Larsen and Anne Souder with Alessio Crognale-Roberts in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring; photo by Melissa Sherwood

Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins in the first production of Appalachian Spring, October 30, 1944, Acquired by the Coolidge Foundation (as part of the terms of the commission) Photo by Arnold Eagle

Leslie Andrea Williams in Jamar Roberts’s We the People; photo by IsabellaPagano. 

Marzia Memoli and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring (c) Hibbard Nash Photography

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