Lloyd Knight in Sir Robert Cohan’s Lloyd with artwork by Rashid Johnson

Grahamfest95

Martha Graham Dance Company celebrates 95 years

The Martha Graham Dance Company turned 95 on April 18th. The company celebrated this milestone with a trio of performances broadcast live from its studios last weekend. Viewers could purchase programs separately or as a three-pack. Past/Present was the most balanced and satisfying as a standalone. Otherwise, the three-pack was a rewarding investment, despite some overlap in programming and formatting issues.

As with most dance in the time of Covid, solos abounded. This is less of a hardship for the Graham company, which is a small outfit (only 15 dancers) with a long tradition of solo dancing—particularly for women. Martha Graham’s forever muse was herself, swirling and contracting alone onstage in long, exquisite gowns. I would almost feel gipped if I went to see the troupe live and did not get to witness one of these powerful female solos. However, the opening program of the weekend, The EVE Project (created in honor of the centenary of women’s suffrage), consisted almost entirely of them. Though they were danced very well, they were diminished by being clumped together. By the fourth one, “Spectre-1914,” I was fatigued. If you bought the show, watch one per day to properly digest them. “Spectre’s” brilliant stagecraft was inevitably tempered on my computer screen too. Every time Natasha M. Diamond Walker ascended to the top platform in her double-length skirt it looked like a neat trick, but it did not send a chill up my spine like it does in the theater, where she would have towered impossibly like a giantess.

Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Knight in Elisa Monte’s “Treading.” Photograph by Melissa Sherwood

The second program, Past/Present, also featured numerous solos. But they were more differentiated and spaced out. By the second show the pauses between numbers were slightly less lengthy too. A few awkward gaps are a forgivable downside to live broadcasting; it is tricky to mount anything live online. But the pacing and structure was erratic: sometimes an “Up Next” title page stayed up forever, but other times the pauses showcased just the black mirror of my computer for a while first. It was also frustrating that the title pages did not provide more information. They listed only the name of the piece, the choreographer, and the performers. It would have been helpful to include the composer, costume designer, lighting designer, premiere date, etc. during these interludes—all the general program fare. Viewers had ample time to read it! As it was, this information scrolled quickly during the closing credits of each program. It was annoying.  

Presentational glitches aside, the dancing was consistently top notch. Elisa Monte’s “Treading,” which was commissioned by Graham in 1981, was a highlight. This animalistic pas de deux to looping Steve Reich music appeared twice, closing the opening program as well as the final one. It was performed with exacting concentration by Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Knight in both instances. Before it first ran, current MGDC Artistic Director Janet Eilber sat with Monte for a brief interview. The women are company alumna, and their accounts of working with Graham were fascinating. I liked learning from Monte that Graham demanded dancers “be on time,” though that phrase was not a musical correction but rather an enjoinder to be viscerally present. It was also funny to hear the women diplomatically refer to how brutal Graham could be. “She knew it when she didn’t see it,” said Eilber in her soothing, NPR-host voice—which was a pleasure here and in her introductions throughout the weekend.

Leslie Andrea Williams in Nicolas Paul’s “Lamentation Variation” by Melissa Sherwood

“Lamentation Variations” was another hit, and a particularly good choice for pandemic viewing. These variations date from 2007, when Eilber commissioned short pieces inspired by Graham’s iconic “Lamentation” solo to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. The dances did not have to respond directly to that crisis, they were meant to be abstract portraits of grief. The project was successful enough to be added to 8 years later. Three excerpts appeared on the Past/Present program, following a silent clip of Graham herself performing “Lamentation” in the 1940s.

Kyle Abraham’s excellent contribution, from 2015, led off. His mournful little duet was danced here by Lloyd Knight and Lloyd Mayor, though it has been done in the past by two women, as well as a man and a woman. I loved how the dancers shook their heads back and forth at the start to Gabriella Montero’s tremulous piano score. Mayor partnered Knight while he assumed a développé front in a backbend, but then walked away while Knight’s position remained unchanged. He was almost like a figment of Knight’s imagination. It was reminiscent of Suzanne Farrell’s disappearing ballroom partner in the Der Rosenkavalier section of Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes.” I loved the moment when the men clasped hands and Knight brought his forehead to touch their entwined fists. This was my favorite variation, but the solo by Richard Move and the trio by Nicholas Paul were also strong.  

In addition to the broadcasts’ live dances, four films created especially for this anniversary were interspersed throughout the programs. The films employed a novel technique: the dances were shot in front of a green screen and superimposed over paintings by artists represented by the gallery Hauser & Wirth. The cinematography and digital design for each was by Alex Munro, and Oresti Tsonopoulos produced them. They were all good, but the best was Lloyd with Rashid Johnson, which was choreographed for Lloyd Knight, which was choreographed by former company member Sir Robert Cohan, who died in January at age 95. (There’s a reason Knight was in every other piece on each bill, he’s exceptional.) It began with Knight, in silhouette, making slow corkscrews in front of Johnson’s fiery painting (in his signature Anxious Red). Nils Frahm’s music commenced as Knight sped up his turning, with a panicky mien.

The dance consisted of little more than these rotations at various speeds, with occasional seizure-like outbursts and wilting backbends. This approximated the energetic red whirlpools on Johnson’s canvas while also nodding at themes of cyclical oppression and anger. Knight appeared paranoid, frustrated, and stuck. The piece ended in silence like it began, with Knight spiraling slower and slower until he stopped, panting and sweaty. Cohan did not try to make his dance compete with Johnson’s furious brushstrokes. Instead, he had Knight impersonate them. It was intense, and fabulous.

Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight in “Saraband” from Martha Graham’s “Dark Meadow” with artwork by Luchita Hurtado

The film Saraband with Luchita Hurtado was also excellent. It paired a pas de deux from Graham’s “Dark Meadow”—which is about the rituals of Mexico and the American Southwest, set to the music of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez—with a shifting group of biomorphic landscape paintings by Hurtado. Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight placidly executed Graham’s steps. The interaction between Hurtado’s surrealism, Graham’s architectural partnering, and Chavez’s calm score was wonderfully rich. The art, dance, and music seemed made for each other. Likewise, the pairing of Mary Heilmann’s vivid abstract works bouncing around behind Graham’s “Satyric Festival Song” solo felt preordained, and it was thrillingly performed by Xin Ying.

Even post-pandemic, I would happily tune in to watch more of these mashups. It is hard to approximate the energy of a live performance on a screen, even when the dances are not prerecorded. Dance companies have been scrambling during the pandemic to zest up their online offerings. With these films the Graham troupe struck gold. The complex interplay between the dances and the paintings informed each work anew. Even more remarkable, they felt vibrant and alive.

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