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Martha Graham Dancers offer breath-taking performance

November 30th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Caresa Alexander

LOGAN—The Martha Graham Dance Company swept into town, and its dancers astonished the Cache Valley audience with the agility, zeal and raw emotion for which they are well known. The dances performed this weekend exuded the distinctive sharp movements and political themes that set Graham apart from other dancers of her time.

Janet Eilber, the Martha Graham Center artistic director, served as narrator for the evening and began with an introduction to dances that inspired Graham. In 1916 Graham began as a student at the “Denishawn” School founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. St. Denis and Shawn were pioneers of modern dance, and the Denishawn style of dance incorporates different styles of ethnic dance.

Eilber noted that Graham once said that she showed on stage what most people come to the

theater to avoid. Early critics did not appreciate Graham’s new style of dance and thought that it was ugly. Graham’s vision of dance grew from the movements of contraction and release. The movement of the body originated from contracted muscle and that energy flowed through the body and release as the muscle relaxed. The contraction and release style produced sharp, precise moves.

The evening began as Eilber introduced excerpts from three Denishawn-style solos—“The Incense,” “Gnossienne” and “Tanagra.” The trio was followed by “Serenata Morisca,” a dance that Eilber described as faux oriental style. With high kicks and ankle bells, the dancer’s body moved almost angrily as she performed as a slave girl for her master.

Graham’s original style was apparent in “Lamentation.” The piece began with a dancer sitting alone on a bench, head down, knees apart, toes pointed out. A majority of the performer’s body was encased in a purple cloth. Only the head and feet were seen.

Graham choreographed the piece as a battle “against her Denishawn past, against ballet, and against the conventions of theatricality,” Eilber said. It is a story is of a grieving woman, as a dancer struggles in the purple cloth and the movements created distinct angular shapes as the dancer seems to fight to be free.

“Steps in the Street” and “Prelude to Action” came in 1936 as a response to “contemporary problems threatening the world, the rise of fascism in Europe.” The dances carried an anti-war theme and showed the effects of war. The dance began as performers came on to the stage, walking backward in kind of an aimless way. Arms reached into the air in a helpless and searching action and the dark setting seemed to reflect the time period of the stock market crash and the Depression.

But then the symbols crashed and the background screen turned blue. The dancers appeared more expressive and determined in their movements and the female body was cast “as an instrument of force” ready to lead the world.
“Lamentation Variations” included rare 1930s film footage of Martha Graham. Graham body stretched against the fabric that seemed to keep her prison. Her facial muscles remained true to the contract and release movements as pain. Although the film was in black and white, Graham’s facial expressions of pain and despair and sadness were reflected as she battled the confinement. Graham thought that grief was universal, Eilber said, and one should not be ashamed to cry. Choreographers Richard Move, Larry Keigwin, and Bulareyaung Pagarlava were asked to create a sketch in response to the original “Lamentation.” Their work premiered September 11, 2007 at New York’s Joyce Theater to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. The piece was received with such acceptance that it is now a permanent piece for the group.

The Utah State University Symphony Orchestra accompanied the dancers in the second half of the evening. The audience laughed as Director Sergio Bernal poked his head up from the orchestra pit. American composer Aaron Copeland was commissioned to compose the score to “Appalachian Spring.” It is a “testimony to the simple fineness of the human spirit.” The dance included squared dance patterns, skips, turns and curtsies. The piece tells the story pioneer couple and the hope they had for the future in a new land.

Founded in 1926 by Martha Graham, the Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest modern dance company in the world. During her career, Graham created 181 dance compositions. Her spirit of dance and vision continues today.



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