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Graham 100

Marking a centenary is always an occasion. And for the Martha Graham Dance Company, which was founded in 1926 and is the oldest dance troupe in America, the festivities have just begun. Indeed, officially launching a three-year collaborative celebration with the Soraya in Los Angeles, the company named for the indisputable mother of modern dance delivered a knockout program that will take them around the world, where they will continue to spread the still-relevant, always revelatory gospel of Graham.

Performance

Martha Graham Dance Company: Graham100, choreography by Ted Shawn and Martha Graham,

Place

The Soraya, Los Angeles, California, September 30, 2023

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Alessio Crognale-Roberts and Leslie Andrea Williams (front) with Martha Graham Dance Company in Agnes de Mille's “Rodeo.” Photograph by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

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Even the name—Martha Graham—evokes majesty, innovation, brilliance, with all of those qualities on display in a program of four works that spanned more than a century. Under the artistic directorship of erstwhile Graham dancer, Janet Eilber, since 2005, the company opened the concert with “Serenata Morisca,” a solo from 1916 by Ted Shawn. Having received her initial training at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, Graham danced the work in the City of Angels in 1921. 

Adroitly performed by Marzia Memoli in a gold halter and swirling skirt, this evocation of a Spanish-Moorish dancing girl seduced with filigreed fingers, swaying hips and whirling dervish-like turns, all accented by Mario Tarenghi’s evocative score as played onstage by the outstanding pianist Vicki Ray. 

The live music continued—a rare and most welcome treat these days—with the world premiere of “Rodeo,” co-commissioned by the Soraya and the Graham company. Originally made for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to Aaron Copland’s ebullient bespoke score, the work premiered in 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera House, with de Mille performing the lead role of the Cowgirl and reportedly taking 22 curtain calls. 

And while numerous ballet companies have since performed “Rodeo”—the tale of a rambunctious Cowgirl who tries winning a haughty Head Wrangler, only to go for the kindly Lead Roper instead—this staging for Graham is a first for any modern dance troupe.

Featuring a cast of 16, the five-section work, subtitled, “The Courting at Burnt Ranch,” is set to a re-orchestrated score by Gabe Witcher for a bluegrass ensemble—fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass, and cello—that highlights the music’s Black origins. Along with the captivatingly plonky sounds are Beowulf Boritt’s Western-themed projections and Oana Botez’s fresh costumes, a sherbet-colored array of shirts, flower-appliqued pants and flounced skirts that add oomph to the already deliriously happy dance set on a ranch in the American Southwest.

Alessio Crognale-Roberts and Leslie Andrea Williams in Agnes de Mille's Rodeo; photo by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

Working with the Graham troupe to translate the balletic footwork into the grounded vocabulary of the modern dancers was Diana Gonzalez, who was de Mille’s assistant from 1987 to 1993, and is the associate director and répétiteur for The De Mille Working Group. The result was masterful, with the dancers exceptionally adept, especially in their leaps, supremely slouchy walks and split kicks. Laurel Dalley-Smith’s tomboyish Cowgirl radiated joy in her jumps, her thespian skills also up to snuff, before ultimately donning a skirt to get her guy. 

Exaggerated gestures course throughout the work and mirror various rodeo postures: roping, horseback riding, a cowboy’s stance, with a thigh-slapping square dance all part of the revelry that is testament to an American vernacular. And yes: There’s even a bit of tapping, with Richard Villaverde’s terrific shuffle-ball-change a delight. Alessio Crognale-Roberts’ Head Wrangler and Leslie Andrea Williams’ Rancher’s Daughter also made for superb partners, their noble bearings perfectly at home, whether in haughty or hoe-down mode. 

And while the iconic Copland score is beloved, Witcher’s bluegrass arrangement makes de Mille’s choreography pop, the twangs, plucks and bowings a veritable musical jamboree. A hit in 1942, this new “Rodeo” promises to have legs for years.

Lloyd Knight and Anne Souder in Martha Graham's “Dark Meadow Suite.” Photograph by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

“Dark Meadow Suite” also satisfied both choreographically and musically. Led by Christopher Rountree and performed by the crack contemporary ensemble Wild Up, the commissioned score was written by Carlos Chávez for Graham’s “Dark Meadow” in 1946. At 50 minutes, the original “Meadow” was one of the artist’s most psychological and abstract works—a dance, in effect, of questioning. (In her original program note to “Dark Meadow,” she wrote that it “is a re-enactment of the mysteries which attend the eternal adventure of seeking.”) 

Pared down to excerpts as arranged and edited by Eilber, the work still retains its dramatic potency, with Graham’s signature motifs as radical now as they were then: flexed feet, hunched backs, audible exhales, angled elbows and pelvises, all amplifying the heroine’s own search in this ritualistic opus of fertility and rebirth, with the music key in supporting Graham’s emotional themes. 

Beseeching arms are power personified, the pairings and precise unisons adding to the architectural nature of the choreography, itself enhanced by the earth-toned, color-blocked costumes (with swoon-worthy bare midriffs a decided plus). And while Da Vinci’s anatomical Vitruvian Man may not necessarily come to mind, the moving bodies are perfect representations of proportion, and can certainly be thought of as an analogy for the workings of the universe: None more so than in the exquisite coupling of Lloyd Knight and Anne Souder, whose celebration of their sexual identities highlight the score’s lyricism, their deft—and graceful—balancing a sight to behold.

Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's “Maple Leaf Rag.” Photograph by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

And had anyone wondered if Graham had a sense of humor, they need only look to “Maple Leaf Rag,” the doyenne’s last choreography—her 181st work—that premiered in 1990, a year before her death in 1991 at age 96. Set to an infectious tune by Scott Joplin, a Black composer whose music was a forerunner of jazz—with keyboardist Ray again triumphant on stage—and costumes by Calvin Klein, the dance pokes fun at Graham’s very own movement vocabulary. 

These clichés—from self-referential anguish to rooted footwork—are evident throughout the work, and are also abetted by the whimsical set: A joggling board stretched between posts mounted on two rockers becomes a kind of second stage for the troupe, the dozen dancers bouncing on and off the mobile tightrope (think an elastic balance beam), their entrances and exits a non-stop parody parade. 

Xin Ying, a worthy Graham surrogate, was partnered by a marvelously nimble Lloyd Knight, the duo proving potent in this animated ode to the choreographic muse. A fitting end to a magical evening in the theater, Graham at nearly 100, still has much to offer, with audiences the better for it. In other words: Martha lives!

As a postscript, this writer would like to dedicate her review to the late, trailblazing post-modernist Rudy Perez (1929-2023). In addition to studying with Graham (and Cunningham), New York-born Perez was part of Judson Dance Theater before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, where his insightful teaching, numerous performances and generosity of spirit made him a towering figure in the dance community. 

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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