Martha Graham’s legacy remains something of a problem for the company she founded in 1926, which continues performing her work today. Review after review will tell you that her seminal works feel outdated, even kitsch. Isamu Noguchi’s sets, with their mobiles and stylized sculptures, look like relics of an old avant garde. The women interpreting roles Graham originally created for herself end up looking a lot like Graham, with heavy makeup and strange, angular buns. The audience laughs at moments which are supposed to be serious, as when the “Creature of Fear” (aka the Minotaur) menaces the female version of Theseus in “Errand into the Maze.”
One strategy employed by artistic director Janet Eilber involves soliciting artists to respond directly to Graham’s repertoire. “We want to use the Graham legacy as a springboard for wildly diverse projects,” Eilber said in a recent interview with the New York Times. In 2009, the company performed Graham’s “Celebration” twice, first as it was originally staged in 1934, then with T-shirts and a rock number by Madonna producer Patrick Leonard. Videographers were subsequently invited to make a mash-up of footage from Graham’s “Clytemnestra” in order to it more relatable and accessible for today’s audience. And since 2007, the company has commissioned original work from choreographers—some very different, even antithetical to Graham—in order to respond to “Lamentation,” one of her most famous solo works, with the “Lamentation Variations.”
In the original “Lamentation” (1932), the dancer sits on a bench which she never leaves. She wears a tube of fabric around her upper body, out of which her hands and head poke through. The costume illustrates a sharp division between inside and out; however much she pushes and pulls against it, we’re only allowed glimpses of skin and the surrounding shadow of the interior. It’s a vivid illustration of Graham’s essentialism—she’s not a person grieving, she is grief itself—and she cited it as the work which taught her that “there is always one person to whom you speak in the audience. One.” The principle of Graham’s technique involves a muscular contraction and a subsequent release from the gut, that wellspring of emotion which she called the “house of pelvic truth.” “Lamentation” illustrates the physical experience of loss which arrests the body; the contraction is sustained, never to be released.
The “Lamentation Variations” have turned this solo into a “fount of grief,” as Brian Seibert called it in the New York Times. This season new works from Sonya Tayeh, Liz Gerring, Kyle Abraham, and Michelle Dorrance appeared alongside revivals of previous interpretations from Bulareyaung Pagarlava and Larry Keigwin. Of the four new pieces, Tayeh’s was the most successful at translating the claustrophobic emotional state of Graham’s solo, which is interesting given that of all the choreographers her CV reads as the most commercial (she’s masterminded the backup dancing for the likes of Miley Cyrus and Kylie Minogue). Set to music which consists of sharp, rhythmical breaths by Meredith Monk, Tayeh has her female dancers running between and then throwing themselves into the arms of the men. At one point, principal PeiJu Chien-Pott dives forward into a vertical split, pressing her forehead into and then past her knee; one has the sense that she would press further if she could. At the end of the piece, she runs in place, falls to the floor, then picks herself up in order run in place again.
Sometimes Tayeh is too literal in her reimagining of the original, but hers had something of a dramatic tension which the others did not. Gerring repeats certain gestures—a lunge, a hand catching the foot—but the repetition reveals nothing new of the form. Abraham gives us a duet with an interesting exploration of negative space: two dancers do the same thing in tandem to one another, and like parallel lines, they rarely have the chance to touch. Dorrance, who usually choreographs for tap, seems to have taken up the madding crowd as her theme; the primary conceit involves dancers walking around at a set pace, each on a distinct rhythm.
Another highlight of the “Variations” was Pagarlava’s work, which featured audio of Graham speaking about her performance of the solo, after which a woman told her that “she had seen her nine-year-old son killed in front of her by a truck. She had made every effort to cry, but was unable to. But when she saw “Lamentation” she said she felt that grief was honorable and universal and that she should not be ashamed of crying.” For all Graham’s strength of movement, it’s striking to note just how slowly she talked, and with intermittent pauses which read as hesitation. When we hear the word “killed,” XiaoChuan Xie, the lone female dancer in a group of four, collapses. The audio fades into music from Mahler which sounds tacky on the sound system, but the movement continues to illustrate what looks like a precarious set of interrelationships. At the end, the men hold Xie upside down from the waist; facing the audience, she looks as if she’s walking backwards on an invisible ceiling.
The “fount of grief” ended up feeling like an emotional assembly line. These works were short—no more than four minutes long—and were shown back-to-back, three per night. The cumulative effect was that of a mood board pastiche, a “let’s do sadness in so many different shades and maybe something profound will happen.” The “Variations” didn’t show the company, its namesake, or the choreographers to their best advantage. Graham’s repertoire, which counts as one of the wellsprings of modern dance, needs to be made anew in order to gain traction with today’s audiences. But I don’t think this will happen with “Variations,” which offered multiple riffs on a single theme in the same way that Starbucks sells twenty-six flavors of the Frappucino.
If the tragedies felt hollow, the comedies of the season were a great success. XiaoChuan Xie and Ying Xin performed in the solo “Satyric Festival Song,” one of Graham’s self-parodies, and Annie-B Parson premiered her new work “The Snow Falls in Winter.” In “Satyric Festival” the gestures either repeat themselves into farce (she flips her hair wildly in spastic to-and-fro) or fail outright from the start (she lifts her leg in all seriousness only to lose balance and fall over). The fact that Graham had a sense of humor reminds us that she wasn’t always swimming in deep feelings, which makes her artistic legacy so much more likeable. Annie-B Parson proves to be a genius of the awkward, exploring the teacher-student dynamic with a mix of speech and movement. The ending scene tells us how to write a thank you note, the dancers searching for the gift presumably received before jumping up and down, arms outreached. “Remember to talk about the weather,” one of them says into a microphone.