By Walter Rutledge
The Martha Graham Dance Company is demonstrating how America’s oldest continuous modern dance company remains cutting edge. Under the direction of Artistic Director Janet Eilber the company has put into play new initiatives to attract a wider and more diverse dance following. Restaging abbreviated versions of Graham classic such as Clymenestra, seasons based around a central theme, and commissioning new works, including the Lamentation Variations have been part of the Graham Company’s 21st century reinvention.
Originally conceived to commemorate the anniversary of September 11th, 2001 tragedy, the works premiered on 9/11/2007. The variations were planned as one time only tribute, but due to the audience response they were added to the permanent repertory with new commissions added each season. For the 2015 season presented four new variations by Kyle Abraham, Michelle Dorrance, Liz Gering and Sonya Tayeh. A total of seven variations (including Graham’s original) were presented.
Ranging from avant-garde to poetic the works are constructed under a specific set of creative conditions. Like Graham’s Lamentation each work must remain approximately four minutes or less in length; in addition, the choreographers would receive a maximum of 10 rehearsal hours, public domain music or silence, basic costumes and lighting design. Choreographers created spontaneous dance sketches based on their reaction to the Graham film of Lamentation.
The works have become a collection of movement sonnets. All were succinct by design, powerful in content and represented artistic individualism. They also expressed the power of making a big statement in a short amount of time- the essence of Graham’s 1930 masterwork.
The Lamentation Variations were performed as a solo work or in groupings of two, three or four. The film (and inspiration) of Martha Graham dancing movements from her iconic, solo, Lamentation preceded each presentation. To see Graham the artist as creator and instrument captured the unique aura of modern dance’s “Empress Emeritus”.
The abstract quartet choreographed by Liz Gering featured Tadej Brdnik, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker and Charlotte Landreau; with Lloyd Knight and Ying Xin alternating roles. The work revolved around the spatial design and relationships. At time it reminisced the constellation; orbiting dancers moving as a trio while a much more stationary Knight/Xin moved on stage left. At one point Brdnik interrupts the solitude of the isolated dancer.
With Knight the interaction with Brdnik seemed more competitive and slightly visceral. The perception shifted with Xin, and appeared expressive and the interaction became the traditional male/female encounter. This literally made it two different dances with two different interpretations (or was it just the way encounters between the sexes are perceived?)
Kyle Abraham had two casts Lloyd Knight and Lloyd Mayor, and XiaoChuan Xie and Ying Xin. Abraham constructed a work with profound yet succinct use of gesture and plastique. This produced a clear and articulate conversation between two people who loved each other, but more importantly knew each other.
Parent/child, brothers, sisters or lifelong friends; the work was more impassioned than passionate- a metaphysical love letter. The gender change of the casts did not alter the visual perception/choreographic messaging. This speaks to Abraham’s artistic honesty and decision to trust his inner voice.
Sonya Tayeh, who is best known for her work on the popular television series So You Can Dance, created a work for seven performers. A high energy, exciting escapade peppered with spontaneous lifts at breakneck speed. Tayeh, who is use to three-minute dance sound bites, was totally in her element here.
Tap dancer Michelle Dorrence cleverly used the rhythmic sounds of tapping feet in the music of her ensemble work. The sound helped create a tension that offset the walking patterns of the ensemble. Lloyd Mayor and Ben Schultz flacked Knight center stage and provided a focused, almost telescopic visual perspective set against a moving backdrop best described as chaos by design. The two men manipulated and dramatically balance Knight with their feet as he hindged backwards. Dorrence created a work with a subliminal social message that seemed to echoes the present climate of more tolerance and acceptance.
Larry Keigwin, Bulareyaung Pagarlava and Martha Graham also presented three additional variations. Keigwin’s witty full company work transformed ordinary actions, (usually performed in a bathroom mirror) into a layered movement language. Keigwin masterfully refocused your attention through a shifting landscape of solos, duets and small group interactions without removing the ensemble from the stage. Pagarlava poetic tone poem adagio four, three men and a woman (XiaoChuan Xie), created a sculptural symmetry and visual lyricism that satisfied both the eye and spirit.
Graham’s Lamentations remains an example of the timeless nature of true art. The simple elegance of design, innovation and unlabored honesty remain the quintessential artistic statement. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch danced with the required understated grace and dignity allowing Graham’s choreography to remain the fulcrum.
The Lamentation Variations showcases diverse choreographers in a thoughtful, yet encapsulated format. It in many ways, is a laboratory for both dance makers and performers. And what better way to move into the 21st century than in the footprint of one modern dance’s greatest 20th century innovators.
In Photo: 1&2) Martha Graham 3) Lloyd Knight 4) Ben Schultz , Lloyd Knight, Lloyd Mayor and company 5) Xiaochuan Xie with Lloyd Mayor, Abdiel Jacobsen and Lloyd Knight
Photo Credit: 1) Andy Warhol 2) Herta Moselsio 3) Hibbard Nash 4) Andrea Mohin 5) Eliana Rowe