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Modern Dance Hold’em

Lassoing is a surprising through-line for a Martha Graham Dance Company performanceThe theme steps generally tend towards the child-birthing variety: contractions and deep squats. America’s oldest troupe (the MGDC turns 100 in 2026, but they are already partying hard) has gotten in on the recent Black cowboy craze and I am here for it. On Saturday night at City Center, Lloyd Knight starred as a hunky square dance caller and Jamar Roberts set his electrifying new protest dance to the music of Rhiannon Giddens—who is fresh off her commercial success playing banjo on Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold’em” track. The first chapter in the Graham Company’s centennial celebration is titled “American Legacies, and they put on a superb and refreshingly diverse Americana-inspired show. Although there wasn’t a dance by Graham on the triple bill, her spirit was very much present. 

Performance

Martha Graham Dance Company: “Rodeo” by Agnes de Mille / “We the People” by Jamar Roberts / “Cave” by Hofesh Shechter

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, April 20, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Alessio Crognale-Roberts, Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight in Jamar Roberts’s “We the People.” Photograph by Isabella Pagano

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A vivid new production of Agnes de Mille’s 1942 “Rodeo” kicked off the night. This iconic work, originally made for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, had never been danced by the MGDC before, though Graham and de Mille were lifelong friends. (De Mille even devoted thirty years of her life to writing a biography of Graham.)  “Rodeo” could easily have come across as dated: its thesis—that tomboys must wear skirts to find happiness—doesn’t sit well today. But in the 40s this was a radical and humorous dance, and the Graham dancers brought a winking energy to it that made it seem radical and humorous even now.  

Every element of the MGDC’s production combined to make it feel alive. Aaron Copland’s classic score was reinterpreted by the fiddler Gabriel Witcher, who led a wonderful 6-piece bluegrass band from the pit. Beowulf Boritt did the projections of ranch pastures and a pseudo-Starry Night.  Oana Botez’s mauve cowpoke garb and acid green dresses with turquoise lace added another jolt. And the Graham ensemble invested themselves so thoroughly—though archly—in the telling of this old-timey tale that it didn’t seem so dusty after all. In fact, the “Rodeo” plot can be summed up quite nicely by the recent lyrics of Ms. Cowboy Carter: “It’s a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown/ Don’t be a bitch, come take it to the floor now.”  

The, ahem, Cowgirl, who initially resisted taking it to the floor was the sensational Marzia Memoli—a whippet-sized Italian woman whose presence brought “Rodeo” into the rich Spaghetti Western tradition. It’s exciting that Memoli is finally assuming bigger roles; her tiny shoulders can more than carry them. She had several excellent solos on Saturday and was standout in all three pieces. (She also danced a plum Graham canon role, The Chosen One, in “The Rite of Spring” the night before.) Jacob Larsen, as the Champion Roper, and Lloyd Knight, as the Head Wrangler, likewise blazed in their saddles. This trio sold their love triangle, but they were tongue-in-cheek about it. Knight, proudly puffing out his chest in his pink vest, mocked butch stereotypes while relishing playing them up. And Larsen’s macho, pumped passes across the back of the stage toed the catwalk line. Everyone in the cast seemed to be enjoying acting out “Rodeo’s” throwback script while also slyly commenting on it.         

Martha Graham Dance Company in Agnes de Mille's “Rodeo.” Photograph by Carla Lopez, Luque Photography

Jamar Roberts’s “We the People” was the opposite. Where “Rodeo” dusted off old American dreams, Roberts and his team slung mud at them. Karen Young clad the cast of twelve in dark, individualized denim getups, including dresses, bralettes, vests, and bellbottoms.This was clever, since jeans are the American uniform, though tailoring matters: the width of a leg or the height of a waistline can evoke anything from hippies to rap stars.Young’s multiple designs wisely covered many bases. Yi-Chung Chen kept the stage black and smoky, no rosy filters here; this dance conjured an America that many theatergoers likely strain to see.But Roberts’s steps created the most tension. He mostly set Giddens’s upbeat, twangy jams to aggressive, front-facing unison dances. I thought of the Maori Haka a few times. In a stirring moment, the group pounded the floor with their fists to a particularly bright plink in the score. There was nothing subtle about the contrast; everything about “We the People” dripped with irony, including the title. It was bracingly moving—and fabulous. 

Leslie Andrea Williams in Jamar Roberts’s “We the People.” Photograph by Isabella Pagano

Lloyd Knight in Jamar Roberts’s “We the People.” Photograph by Isabella Pagano

The piece began with the most Graham-like excerpt of the night: a display of Leslie Andrea Williams’s astonishing power, set in silence. Whether windmilling her arms or hinging sharply out of a low relevé arabesque, she was as commanding here as if she was towering on the platform in Graham’s “Chronicle.” There were three more stunning solos in the silent spaces between Giddens’s numbers, for Allesio Crognale-Roberts, Memoli, and Knight. The lack of music was pointed, these passages were like sober footnotes to the lilting score. Knight’s solo was particularly harrowing. He reached his hands out to the audience in a way that was pleading yet accusatory. At the end, he writhed facedown on the ground with his hands bound behind his back.   

And yet, Roberts left room for optimism. Though many of the steps were hard-hitting and violent, they were done in unison—with all the pleasant vibes that bodies moving as one can conjure. Being united in anger can be a form of joy, for sure, but the dancers also seemed to have leeway to smile at or coldly stare down the audience as they saw fit. Sometimes, they seemed like they were just out line dancing. A duet for Meagan King and Larsen was occasionally cutesy. And a terrific women’s dance, also performed in silence, came across as defiant and proud. The women anchored deep in their thighs, kept their cores wound tight, and moved their arms with flamenco force—all very Graham-ian behaviors. It made me think about how Graham’s wide pliés à la seconde are always a home base and a fighting stance, both a glorification of female power and a recognition that womanhood is a battle. In the same way, “We the People” operated on many levels, tackling the complexities and contradictions of America itself. 

Martha Graham Dance Company in Hofesh Shechter's “Cave.” Photograph by Brian Pollock

Hofesh Shechter’s “Cave,” from 2022, completed the show. It was about as good as dances about clubbing can get. And after the Nederlands Dans Theater’s club-inspired drivel “Jakie” earlier in the month, “Cave” looked like Shakespeare. Thankfully, its cast of 11 got to really bust a move. A dance-off ring provided a nice moment for Laurel Dalley Smith, who channeled Graham by springing into monster lunges. And Lorenzo Pagano was living: spinning his flannel shirt with his hand, then his teeth (like I said, lots of lassoing) and dropping into drag splits. I want to mention the bold dancing of Anne Souder in “Cave” and throughout the night too.  

After getting the first word in “We the People” with her potent solo, Williams got the last word in “Cave” with another intense solo turn, which began in sphinxlike stillness and ended with wild Tina Turner bourrées. She’s such a skilled performer that she differentiated these two linchpin passages beautifully: she was confrontational in “We the People” and inward-focused in “Cave.” But it did feel somewhat redundant, and for this and other reasons Cave” was not the best follower to “We the People.” Though the throbbing “Cave” score, by Âme and Shecter, was worlds away from Giddens’s country melodies, we didn’t need more unison wedges in a dark, spotlit stage. And in general, I believe clubbing catharses are best witnessed from on the dance floor. Still, “Cave” was well-crafted and very well performed by the stupendous Graham dancers. Where NDT’s “Jakie” made me want to put on jammies and watch Netflix, “Cave” made me want to throw on mascara and leather and leave the house. “Don’t be a bitch, come take it to the floor now . . .” 

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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