Dance Review: GRAHAM100–AMERICAN LEGACIES (Martha Graham Dance Company at The Soraya)

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by William Keiser on October 6, 2023

in Dance,Theater-International,Theater-Los Angeles

And An American Classic, Polished and Gleaming

For readers not familiar with the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, I would sum up her contribution in one word: contractions. No, I’m not referring to pre-birth convulsions; Martha Graham technique, in contrast to ballet, is based on “contraction of the pelvis,” a tensing and cupping of the midsection until a c-curve forms in the lower back. Graham, working in the post-war years of the 20th century, made it her mission to create a style which was uniquely American. The one she produced is full of these “contractions,” alongside cupped hands, angular movement, and weightiness. These innovations, in contrast to the previously reigning external ease of classical ballet or neo-Greco-Roman Duncan style, appear to start from deep inside a dancer’s body – and psyche.

Marzia Memoli in Ted Shawn’s Serenata Morisca performed in the world premiere of
GRAHAM100 at The Soraya on Sept. 30, 2023. (Carla Lopez, Luque Photography)

For the 100th anniversary of the company Graham founded, The Soraya (at California State University Northridge) hosted her company in an evening of Graham’s works along with a restaging of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, a classically American midcentury piece heavily influenced by Graham’s work. The show begins with Serenata Morisca, performed in 1915 Los Angeles by Graham, as an artifact to show the “before” to Graham’s mature after. Morisca is followed by Dark Meadow (1946), one of Graham’s abstract works.

Lorenzo Pagano and Anne O’Donnell
in Martha Graham’s “Dark Meadow Suite” (Brigid Pierce)

To the restrained music of Mexican-American composer Carlos Chavez, six sculpted women slap their sides and skip in a circle, then contort their limbs from their cores as they hinge almost to the floor. Their male counterparts, Adonises in Tarzan-esque one-shoulder slings, tensely skip and bare their cupped hands in powerful motions. The ensuing partnering seems to be directed from the women, who at one point lie on top of the men’s balled muscles. The psychosexual, restraint-forward partnering then becomes gloriously lyrical as the men hold the women’s feet and they careen forward, bending their torsos like sails in the wind.

World Premiere of a re-orchestrated version of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo
performed at The Soraya on Sept. 30, 2023.(Carla Lopez, Luque Photography)

The next piece is de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) to its iconic score by Aaron Copland, performed live by fiddle soloist Gabe Witcher and a six-person bluegrass ensemble. Because of its placement in this program, one can immediately parse Graham’s modernist influence on de Mille in the tightly taut dancers, the restraint in the suggestive choreography, and its pastoral American theme.

Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in Maple Leaf Rag
performed at The Soraya on Sept. 30, 2023.(Carla Lopez, Luque Photography)

The show closes with Maple Leaf Rag (1990), choreographed by Graham in her last year of life, with costumes custom made for the piece by Calvin Klein. Maple Leaf Rag is perhaps Graham’s most masterful work. It features a “Joggling Board,” a piece of folk art from South Carolina which was originally used as a prop for dating – couples would stand on either side of the bench-like structure and gradually bounce closer to one another. The piece, with live piano accompaniment of repetitions of Scott Joplin’s rag, features the dancers of the company in unitards performing a kind of mating game, its winky moments cast into relief by the tension of the angular movements, contractions, and cupped hands. Overall, this performance is a splendid trip through Graham’s 20th-century modernism and a treat for LA dancegoers. It only played for one night on September 30, 2023 (a coup for The Soraya), but look for these pieces and more here: The Martha Graham Dance Company’s International Tour Schedule.

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