It was a superlative evening of dance at the Valley Performing Arts Center last night. And it wasn’t only the terrific program of Graham classics—Cave of the Heart, Diversion of Angels, Dark Meadow Suite, Maple Leaf Rag-- that made it so. The real addition was what Wild Up, a local contemporary chamber music ensemble, supplied: a chance to experience Graham’s works as the collaborations originally sounded. America’s modern dance legacy companies have lived under a musical  shadow for years dancing concerts accompanied by often shabby, taped versions of old performances, and in doing so reinforcing their status as anachronistic contributors to a world that had moved on. On Saturday what was clear was this dancing remains wholly vibrant, important, and in so many instances, still better by a mile than much of what has come after them.

Nowadays what we’ve come to call live music for dance seems an afterthought, not so much a substantial addition or amplification of the experience as an upping of its entertainment value. While all of the music for Graham’s commissioned pieces is important as dance music it is also deeply valuable as concert music. The playing on Saturday under conductor Christopher Rountree was perfect, with each piece delivering a distilled impact, competing with and intensifying the dancing at the same time.

Male dancer jumping in a double stag attitude and a female dancer sitting in the background
Ben Shultz and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham's "Cave of the Heart" − Photo: Brigid Pierce

The works on the program included ballets (Graham called them that though they weren’t precisely ballets in the usual sense) from well-known quarters of the Graham opus. Cave of the Heart with Samuel Barber’s music derives from her blood and guts mythology pieces. Graham’s stripped down one act narrative for four characters chart’s Medea’s disintegration and unhinged revenge for her lover’s infidelity. Dark Meadow Suit, with a score by Mexican composer, Carlos Chávez is a community spirited work like Appalachian Spring, situated in an unnamed antiquity. A central couple celebrates their sexual identity. Filled with Graham movement, intimate partnering, and recurring motifs the current adaptation by the company’s current Artistic Director Janet Eilber is about half of what Graham choreographed in the 1946 premiere. All of it is gorgeous. Diversion of Angels places men and women in romantic couplings with the structure of the work growing naturally from the interactions of the pairs of dancers and a kind of chorus of women and a male accompanist. Opening the program was the incomplete and reconstructed Panorama, a didactic fragment of brutalist dance populism from 1935. It was danced for a feverish crowd of 26 dancers. The work, especially stacked up against the music (a recorded score in this instance) was something of an anomaly. Clearly when she moved on with her dancemaking it was away from political content and monumental casts to a personal world that embraced compact human microcosms.

The current company is a fabulously accomplished crew with Graham in their bones but a wealth of added, visible dance information that makes them more than just cutout modern dancers.

In the end, fine details in all of the works on the program prevailed. The current company is a fabulously accomplished crew with Graham in their bones but a wealth of added, visible dance information that makes them more than just cutout modern dancers. They act well and can carry embedded dramatic clichés like they mean it. The three men in Dark Meadow Suite (Abdiel Jacobsen, Jacob Larsen, Ari Mayzik) made a beautiful, finely tuned trio. In the same piece Lorenzo Pagano and Anne O’Donnell filled their duos with epic sweep. Xin Ying dancing the Medea role had a dark, heart-eating fearsomeness that channeled Graham. Ben Schultz gave a commanding performance as a hyper-masculine, striding Jason in Cave of the Heart. Last but not least, the unity, arcing arms, and fleet runs of the four women (So Young An, Mariza Memoli, Anne Souder, Konstantina Xintara) dancing the chorus for Diversion of Angels, were brilliant  evocations of Graham’s intensity and style every time out.

It’s always a thrill to see the Isamu Noguchi set pieces. In Cave of the Heart each of his abstractions--the stepping stones, the polished stone throne, the bristling cage like dress--belongs to a specific character. When Medea finally steps into the dress we understand she has been transformed and lost herself in her blood jealousy at the same time. I would also like to mention Nick Hung’s subtle burnt orange backdrop to Dark Meadow. The ever darkening light seemed to place the dance during an actual dawn to dusk cycle. Along with Graham’s costumes the work invokes the American Southwest. Finally for the music, the serene writing for Diversion of Angels (Norman Dello Joio) and Carlos Chávez’ music for Dark Meadow, especially the writing for strings, were revelations. That they were all independent artists collaborating in building, one commission at a time, an uncertain American art form only magnifies the achievement.

female dancer in yellow unitard on a bench with one male dancer on either side doing a stag leap
Jacob Larsen, Charlotte Landreau, and Lorenzo Pagano in Martha Graham’s "Maple Leaf Rag" − Photo: Brigid Pierce

Concluding the program was Graham’s last work Maple Leaf Rag, a humorous and self-deprecating work set to two tuneful rags and a dreamy concert waltz all by Scott Joplin. The music was played on stage by Wild Up pianist. Richard Valitutto. Graham works this music and her fourteen dancers more like a Broadway professional than a modern dance maven. Clever entrances and exits abound, cadences and musical hits get played for all they’re worth, and the dancers feign Grahamisms in between all the delightful hijinx. For Graham it’s an uncharacteristic chase-away-the-blues kind of work. At the end of her career, after the booze, the painful struggles maintaining her company, she knew she’d had an astonishing run. "Oh Louis, play me the Maple Leaf Rag!”

(The company is now 91 years old. Maple Leaf Rag was created when Martha Graham was 96. That quote invokes the name of her long time accompanist and music collaborator, Louis Horst. The reviewed performance took place May 13, 2017 at the Valley performing Arts Center in Northridge, California.The reconstruction of Panorama was performed by dance students from local arts schools and the CSUN Dance Dept. )

Other Articles