Dance & Music: MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY (World Premiere: “The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians” composed and performed by Jason Moran at The Soraya)

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by Nia Liat on February 23, 2022

in Dance,Music,Theater-Los Angeles

A lost 1952 dance creation by Martha Graham herself — a primal artistic force of the 20th century — is reborn with the Martha Graham Dance Company’s World Premiere of The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians at The Soraya on Saturday, March 19 at 8pm.  The program also includes two classic Graham works Lamentation (1930) and Chronicle (1936).

The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians

The Soraya, is once again helping to make history — this time by fixing history. With segments and score lost to the ages, Martha Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians (1952) seemed like it would just be a footnote in dance history. Therefore, spearheading a reconstruction is a huge task. But Soraya’s Executive and Artistic Director Thor Steingraber premiered another lost Graham work, “Immediate Tragedy” (1936), and it was a huge success. Now, Graham’s Artistic Director Janet Eilber, has found eight emerging choreographers to reassemble what she knows about Canticle’s themes and format, eight virtuosic vignettes for the stars of her company, solos and duets, all connected by an ensemble weaving in and out of these vignettes, each celebrating a different aspect of nature — the Sun, the Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and the Moon, the Stars and Death. (See the rehearsal for “Moon” at the end of this article.)

In that vein, The Soraya co-commissioned Jason Moran, to create a new score for Canticle, which he will play live himself at the opening; it is a beautiful poetic work performed with Wild Up, Christopher Rountree’s exuberant modern ensemble of classical musicians. This event’s world premiere plays The Soraya prior to opening in New York City Center on April 6 and then touring the world. This date coincides with the 70th anniversary of the original, in 1952, and augurs an environmental dance-happening for the 21st century.

In the Soraya blog, Deborah Levine writes that a team of eclectic choreographers bring a gamut of dance languages to the nature-driven themes of “Canticle”: Chinese classical dance, Afro-Caribbean and athletic dance, street dance, hip-hop, rave culture, and modern dance. Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh (Moulin Rouge! The Musical) is the lead choreographer and will create the prelude, finale, and transitions for the ensemble as well as the vignette titled ‘Sun.’ Kristina and Sadé Alleyne, Juliano Nuñes, Micaela Taylor, Yin Yue, and Jenn Freeman are other selected dance makers. The rules of the game were stringent. “They had to stay under three minutes, and create in just 12 hours of rehearsal,” said Eilber. Sir Robert Cohan, who danced in the original cast in 1952, created a new Wind for Canticle in 2020 just before he passed away.

Martha Graham created the dance Canticle for Innocent Comedians in 1952. The piece was built around eight virtuosic vignettes for the then stars of the Graham Company,  Nine extraordinary choreographers from diverse dance backgrounds created this new work for the current Graham Company stars. Sonya Tayeh is the lead choreographer and will create the Prelude, Finale, and transitions for the ensemble as well as the vignette titled Sun. Notable emerging choreographers Kristina and Sadé Alleyne, Juliano Nuñes, Micaela Taylor, Yin Yue, and Jenn Freeman will create Earth, Water, Fire, Stars and Death.  The section Moon will have its original choreography by Martha Graham. Canticle‘s world premiere at The Soraya will be followed by its New York premiere at City Center on April 6.

Jacob Larsen and So Young An in Martha Graham’s Moon from Canticle for Innocent Comedians.Photo Credit: Melissa Sherwood


Lamentation premiered in New York City on January 8, 1930, at Maxine Elliot’s Theater, to music by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. The dance is performed almost entirely from a seated position, with the dancer encased in a tube of purple jersey. The diagonals and tensions formed by the dancer’s body struggling within the material create a moving sculpture, a portrait which presents the very essence of grief. The figure in this dance is neither human nor animal, neither male nor female: it is grief itself. According to Martha Graham, after one performance of the work she was visited by a woman in the audience who had recently seen her child killed in an accident.  Viewing Lamentation enabled her to grieve, as she realized that “grief was a dignified and valid emotion and that I could yield to it without shame.”


Chronicle premiered at the Guild Theater in New York City on December 20, 1936. The dance was a response to the menace of fascism in Europe; earlier that year, Graham had refused an invitation to take part in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, stating: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.”

“In addition, some of my concert group would not be welcomed in Germany” (a reference to the fact that many members of her group were Jewish). Chronicle does not attempt to show the actualities of war; rather does it, by evoking war’s images, set forth the fateful prelude to war, portray the devastation of spirit which it leaves in its wake, and suggest an answer.”

This is one of the very few dances Martha Graham made which can be said to express explicitly political ideas, but, unlike Immediate Tragedy (1937) and Deep Song (1937), dances she made in response to the Spanish Civil War, this dance is not a realistic depiction of events. The intent is to universalize the tragedy of war.

The original dance, with a score by Wallingford Riegger, was forty-minutes in length, divided into five sections: “Dances before Catastrophe: Spectre–1914 and Masque,” “Dances after Catastrophe: Steps in the Street and Tragic Holiday,” and “Prelude to Action.” The Company has reconstructed and now performs “Spectre–1914,” “Steps in the Street” and “Prelude to Action.”


Martha Graham Dance Company
The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians (World Premiere)
Saturday, March 19, 2022 at 8pm
Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya)
18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge
for tickets ($41 to $86), visit The Soraya

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