Martha Graham explores sculptural side of dance

By Jessica Hester

The Martha Graham Dance Company’s sold-out 80th anniversary show at the Museum of Contemporary Art last Thursday converted me from a classical ballet purist to a full-fledged fan of contemporary dance. Graham’s trademark sharp, syncopated movements are the antithesis of classical ballet, but they left me whistling and clapping for more. Graham’s choreographic genius and the dancers’ extraordinary technical feats set the stage on fire and had me dancing in my seat and all the way home.

This performance is a marriage of Graham’s choreography with the sculpture of Isamu Noguchi. Entitled Sculpting Space, the program illustrates the union of two artists renowned for their genius in universality and simplicity. Graham is known for her unadorned, organic movement, and Noguchi for sculpture that, in his own words, is “irreducible.” Together, said Janet Eilber, artistic director of the company, the artists were interested in elemental shapes that were tangible and specific. Prior to her collaboration with Noguchi, Graham had had her dancers perform on an empty stage, rejecting the ubiquitous, ostentatious backgrounds of classical ballet. In this performance, Noguchi’s simple, unassuming sculptures were the perfect complement to Graham’s vital choreography.

The program consisted of three pieces, the first of which was a reconstruction of Theseus’s encounter with the minotaur entitled Errand into the Maze. This piece, by far my favorite of the three, was probably the most exemplary of the Graham technique, a complex vocabulary of sharp movements and poignant artistic expression. In typical Graham fashion, the role of the Greek hero was translated into one for a heroine, danced in Thursday’s performance by the superb Miki Orihara. Now in her 21st year with the Company, Orihara has the calm confidence and technical virtuosity of a seasoned veteran. Her dancing is elegant and expressive, even as she violently contracts her body to mimic the combative theme of the Greek myth. Noguchi’s wishbone-shaped sculpture at downstage-right is a complicated prop brilliantly integrated into the choreography as a symbol of fear, challenge, and, as the heroine collapses against it in the piece’s finale, victory. In short, Orihara is one of the most gifted artists I have ever seen in performance, and her exquisite dancing complements both Graham’s choreography and Noguchi’s sculpture.

In contrast to Orihana’s perfection, Tadej Brdnik, dancing the role of the minotaur, struggled with the technical demands of the role. Perhaps his cumbersome horn headgear threw him off, but his penchés and series of alternating sautés in a pliéd arabesque were weak and insufficiently supported. He was at his technical best in a long and difficult petit allegro sequence and is a fine actor who was quite convincing as the snarling minotaur.

The second piece, Embattled Garden, was a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. In place of the serpent, Graham creates The Stranger, a conniving figure representative of outside knowledge. Graham’s conception of the story, set to a salsa score by Carlos Surinach, also includes Lilith, supposedly Adam’s wife before Eve. The piece tells the story of romantic and intellectual temptation and entanglement. I thought that Lloyd Knight, in the role of The Stranger, and Elizabeth Auclair, as Lilith, exuded a sneaky charisma and sexual tension that was perfect for their roles as manipulators of Adam and Eve. These two dancers were technically breathtaking, and their performance could best be described as athletic eroticism. Knight in particular is an exceptional jumper, and his stag leaps illustrated a clean line and wonderful elevation.

David Zurack (Adam) and Jennifer DePalo-Rivera (Eve) are lovely with their intimate caresses and lovers’ quarrels but are not as captivating to watch as are Knight and Auclair. DePalo-Rivera is at her best in the portrayal of the temptation and fall, in which her hair, worn down for the majority of the piece, is tied tightly with a red ribbon, the color of lust and Noguchi’s African-inspired sculpted tree.

Zurack took the stage again in the third piece, a WWII-era reflection on Americana entitled Appalachian Spring, in which he excelled in his role as a wide-eyed Revivalist preacher. This piece is a testament to American folk-culture and includes square-dance patterns. Eilber said that this piece is Graham’s attempt to “distill the essence of America.” This piece was certainly the most optimistic of the repertory, and the dancers’ sweeping gestures illustrated the wide-open American plains and hopes of a boundless American future. Still, I was bored by this piece: While it wasn’t classical ballet, neither was it ostensibly Grahamian. Katherine Crockett, as the Pioneering Woman, had a grand stage presence, but her role required very little technical proficiency and did not seem to challenge her. Blakely White-McQuire, as the Bride, was ethereal and charming, but her evident ballet training seemed to prevent her from fully assuming the stature necessary for performing in Graham’s works.

Ultimately, I was captivated by the performance. In a talk with the cast and directors immediately following the show, dancer David Zurack suggested that part of Martha Graham’s genius was that “she delved into human nature deeply, specifically, and physically. That’s what the power of her work is; people will always find something to connect to.” Graham’s reduction of movement to its most irreducible makes that movement and the emotion behind it universal. I certainly found something to connect to.