Fresh. Vital. These are not words I expected to use for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance at the Civic Theatre on Wednesday. Graham, the imperious mother of American modern dance, was long ago superseded by her rebellious children, former company members Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor; and later dance makers have moved even further from her often-overwrought style.
What a happy surprise, then, to see the exciting show the Graham company did here, performed by dancers who seemed enraptured by this work. The program, presented by the La Jolla Music Society, included three Graham dances from the 1930s and 40s. There was also a 2019 piece commission the very hot choreographer Pam Tanowitz, a brilliant choice by artistic director Janet Eilber. Although the Tanowitz dance showed a distinctly 21stcentury sensibility, it didn’t shove Graham into the dance-history dust heap. Rather, each woman’s work illuminated the other’s.
In the joyous “Diversion of Angels” (1948), three women, wearing flowy dresses in different hues, represent varieties of love. Leslie Andrea Williams as mature love (in white) takes graceful adagio poses. Romantic love (red), So Young An, strides with big, confident arm swings. Laurel Dalley Smith, as young, flirtatious love, does exuberant leaps in her yellow dress.
Each woman has a partner, who’s more or less in evidence. For mature love, Lorenzo Pagano turns his body into a chair for Williams; he lies prone, and she places her feet on the backs of his thighs and sits on his feet. Nevertheless, the guys seem pretty interchangeable. They’re costumed identically to the two men in the corps—shirtless, with brown pants—and the women often dance on their own or with several men. But who cares, as dancers spring into the air, as if in love with love?
“Ekstasis” (1933) is one of Graham’s signature stretchy-dress pieces, where the solo dancer is like a piece of sculpture as she twists her body and pushes against the fabric. Natasha M. Diamond-Walker made this dance breathtaking, angling her hips, shoulders, knees, and elbows into exquisitely distorted shapes to an earthy, percussive score by Lehman Engel.
It was fascinating to have these dances followed by Tanowitz’s “Untitled (Souvenir).” In true post-modern fashion, Tanowitz appropriated phrases from Graham. For the first few minutes, as one woman ran and another went to the floor, I worried that the piece might be a parody. But the dance develops into a deeply literate, utterly fascinating conversation with Graham’s oeuvre.
Dancers angle their torsos as in “Ekstatis.” A woman kneels on the floor and leans to one side so the top edge of her body is parallel to the floor, and makes this tricky position look natural; the same pose occurs in “Diversion of Angels.” (You can see it in the video.) In case this piece made you as hungry as I am to see more of Tanowitz’s work, her company will be at UCLA February 15-16.
To close the evening, the company did three sections from Graham’s anti-war “Chronicle,” which premiered in 1936 … and felt stunningly relevant in 2020. Martial drumbeats introduce “Spectre-1914,” a solo—or is it? Anne Souder’s voluminous dress, with a heavy-looking blood-red underskirt, is like another dancer with whom she does battle. (You can see a brief excerpt in a video from 1938 here.)
“Steps in the Street”—subtitled “Devastation-Homelessness-Exile”—begins in silence, as ten women in black dresses take tentative sideways steps. A foot ventures out, but each woman pauses, just the ball of her foot touching the floor, before she risks shifting her weight into the step.
Then all tentativeness disappears. The women do repeated jumps in place. That happens again in the final “Prelude to Action.” The stage is filled with powerful women jumping straight into the air! And it’s one of the most thrilling moments I’ve experienced in decades of watching dance.