Performing Arts: Dance
April 18, 2016
Ninety years is a long time, and a major feat for any dance company. This year the Martha Graham Dance Company celebrates this milestone by continuing to honor its past while deftly remaining relevant to a new generation of dancegoers. On opening night, Artistic Director Janet Eilber programmed two Graham classics, Night Journey (1947) and Cave of the Heart (1946), and two new works: Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s AXE (2015) – his last work for the stage – and a world premiere by Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard titled Inner Resources, along with an eye-popping, rapid-fire film montage, “90 years in 90 seconds” by Justin Scholar.

During intermission, we heard loud banging noises coming from backstage, like falling blocks or construction rubble. When the curtain went up, we realized the Ek piece had already begun: a young man (the handsome Ben Schultz) stands center stage, casually and confidently chopping wood with an axe on a small tree stump (the audience actually hooted and hollered at his skillful swing!). The exquisitely intense PeiJu Chien-Pott enters in a galumphing sideways walk with her back to us, dressed in a grandma-like skirt and top, and little laced shoes. Moving dejectedly around the stage (to Albinoni’s adagio in G minor), she seems invisible as she reaches, turns, pushes, and does a tilting side “attitude” while furiously shaking her arms and head: in Ek’s signature movement style, she uncannily evokes strength and vulnerability at the same. When she leaves for a moment, he lies down limply on the stump, but her return coaxes him to move chunks of wood around, and to dance not only with her, but like her. The interaction has the feel of a mother with her grown son – perhaps Ek’s way of referencing his debt to Graham, or to his own mother, Birgit Cullberg, with whom he co-directed the Cullberg Ballet before succeeding her.

Programmatically, the contrast with Chouinard’s Inner Resources is brilliant: a backdrop lit blood-red, with dancers cat-walking on the tips of their reinforced dance sneakers, vogueing and street-improving solos to an electronic score by Louis Dufort. With their blue button-down shirts pulled up over their heads, the eight women look like a battalion of modern-day Lamentation figures or a group of gym bunnies in burqas. Eventually they strut downstage and reveal their faces, each woman wearing a different kind of moustache – modern-day Duchampian Mona Lisas bursting from the frame. The dancing is energetic, frenetic, and fun, with lots of shaking limbs, jazzy kicks, Chaplinesque mugging and even references to jookin’. At the end, we watch them all disrobe in slow motion, lifting each other as they remove articles of clothing, always staring right at us, in a yet another challenge to societal restraint.

Last but not least, the two Graham works, which book-ended the program, were given very strong, focused performances by the entire company. Blakely White-McGuire was a cold and convincing Jocasta in Night Journey, the Oedipal story danced in flashbacks, surrounded by a fabulously strident and anxious Greek chorus of women led by Xin Ying. And in Cave of the Heart, Graham’s distillation of the story of Medea, PeiJu Chien-Potts again revealed she is a consummate heir of the Graham legacy.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson

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