“Something old, something new” was once again the theme at the Duncan Theatre as the Martha Graham Dance Company closed out the 2022 Modern Dance Series at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth Beach. Straddling the lifespan of the company from 1926 to 2022, the program March 25 presented was both historical and very current.
Opening and closing the program, like covers of a book, were two of Martha Graham’s most well known ensemble works — Appalachian Spring (1944) and Diversion of Angels (1948). Sandwiched in between were two exceptional “new” works — Scavengers (2021) by Andrea Miller and Immediate Tragedy, a Graham solo reimagined by Artistic Director Janet Eilber in 2020.
With the uplifting and hummable music of American composer Aaron Copland as its backbone, Appalachian Spring was as American as apple pie. As World War II was coming to an end, Graham wrote to Copland and shared her vision of a work she wanted to choreograph that would show how the future of America looked then — as promising as spring in the prairies after a long hard winter. Copland wrote the score following her script and called it Ballet for Martha, but Graham later changed it to Appalachian Spring. In this wonderfully familiar work, the music and the dance are absolutely fused together. So much so that it is impossible for me to imagine one without the other.
Even though Graham referred to her dances as “ballets,” her dances were very far removed from pointe shoes and tutus. They were bold and fiercely feminine. They broke the rules. They were part of the modern movement in art. Graham’s unique form of movement, which was earthbound and assertive, emphasized deep and layered emotions. Barefooted and highly theatrical, Graham’s choreography was a direct reaction to the formality of the classical ballet that had begun flowing into America from other countries, especially the USSR.
In Appalachian Spring, the bright and cheery stage was sectioned off by a minimalist set designed by American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was as much of an artistic rebel as Graham. Their professional relationship lasted over 50 years. Noguchi utilized a stylized Shaker rocking chair, a part of a fence and a few lines of wood to suggest a house set in the wilderness successfully evoking a sense of Americana.
Here was the meeting place for a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Lloyd Knight), some of his followers and a young bride (Laurel Dalley Smith) and husband (Jacob Larsen). The hope for the couple’s new life together was tempered by the role of the pioneering woman (Natasha M. Diamond-Walker) who knew the hardship of life in the wilderness. The musical score, which incorporated the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” ebbed and flowed to the storyline through its 14 movements. Appalachian Spring was classic Graham in every sense. Stark and effective in its message and iconic in its movement — much of which is incorporated into Graham technique classes.
In the last 10 years, the company (which has been dedicated to preserving Graham’s enormous legacy) has forayed into commissioning works from today’s outstanding choreographers. According to the program notes, presenting these works side by side with the historical works of the master “creates multiple points of access” for audiences to continue to view and appreciate the historical importance of Graham — the Mother of Modern Dance.
Scavengers, the company’s newest commissioned work, is by New York-based choreographer Andrea Miller, who had just begun rehearsals when the pandemic hit with its full force. The creative project stalled for 18 months while the world was in lockdown. When she returned to finish the work, Miller became aware of how profoundly this period of isolation had affected the dancers. During the creative period, she homed in on the personal ramifications caused by the effects of this war — the war on COVID. The result was a remolded Scavengers.
Made up of four duets and a solo, which were intertwined with the haunting commissioned score by Will Epstein, the darkly lit work captured the bonding dynamics of couples during or after this time of isolation. The dancers were spectacular. Invested in the work and releasing a fresh display of technical virtuosity, each duet was completely mesmerizing.
The partnering in each duet was flawless and never-ending. The long hair, flowing silky dresses and glistening muscular bare legs of the women complemented the circuitous lifts that the men effortlessly maneuvered. After the couplings, a single woman was introduced who danced an amazing solo. Unfortunately, due to the dark lighting, the starting transition from the previous historical work and the alphabetical listing of names in the program, I couldn’t recognize which dancer was which but — suffice it to say — each one was excellent.
Xin Ying gave a riveting performance in Graham’s powerful solo, Immediate Tragedy, which was choreographed in reaction to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Ying, dressed simply in a long black skirt and white top, was the embodiment of the universal helplessness and deep suffering that women endure during times of war. It was only the subtle flicks of her wrist exposing the red lining of her skirt that hinted of traditional dance and of Spain.
Immediate Tragedy was created and performed in 1937 but it was all but forgotten and thought lost. Eilber reimagined the choreography in 2020 by using photos and other archival references. The solo highlighted that though the pain of war is never forgotten; it is too often repeated. As a response to Ying’s strong performance, I kept being reminded of the horrors the Ukrainian people are enduring right now as a result of Russia’s invasion.
Diversion of Angels, one of Graham’s few plotless ballets, was filled with exuberance and joy and one of the best of her works to end a program. In contrast to her angular and dramatic movement style in other works, the movement was fluid and lyrical, responding to the score by Norman Dello Joio.
Three couples, each depicting different stages of love, cut through the space framed by a chorus of women and men. The Couple in White (danced with stateliness by Leslie Andrea Williams and Lorenzo Pagano ) represented a mature love with its harmonious balance. The Couple in Red (Anne O’Donnell and Lloyd Mayor) represented a new love and its erotic desire while the Couple in Yellow (the ebullient Marzia Mernoli and Richard Villaverde) captured the flirtatious energy of adolescent love.
Though not yet completely booked, Duncan Theatre Executive Director Mark Alexander continued his tradition of announcing the lineup for next year’s Modern Dance Series to his loyal audience. So far, the companies scheduled to appear in 2023 are Momix with their special show, Alice, on February 3 and 4; Ailey II (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s second company) on February 17 and 18; and Argentina’s Malevo on March 17 and 18.