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Martha Graham Dance Company winter tour

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The Graham Company performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach last night. (The complete Company tour schedule -- February through June -- is printed below.)

The house was large and enthusiastic, and remarkably varied. When we walked into the lobby I could feel a level of anticipation and excitement that is very rare nowadays. A woman in her 20s who is a reporter on the local paper mentioned to me that she'd always wanted to see Graham's company and was thrilled finally to get the chance. (She had heard that the company had gone out of business.) There were packs of students from several of the nearby university dance programs, a number of whom were there to cheer Jacquelyn Elder, a young, locally-trained member of the company. There were high schoolers, dance and arts teachers, the usually ballet crowd, elegant winter folk from Palm Beach, willowy artistic types, tweedy academics (minus the tweeds; it was a very warm evening). Names like "Merce" and "Yuriko" were being tossed around.

I know very little about Graham's technique or modern dance in general. But I attended a lot of Graham performances in New York during 60s and 70s I admit I was hoping for one of the Greek tragedies, especially Night Journey. What we got was different -- some of it expected, some of it surprising. Strung together, it made a marvellous program, introduced briefly and very effectively by the revived company's Artistic Director, Janet Eilber, herself a former Graham principal dancer.

Two brief solos opened the program. Serenata Morisca, choreographed by Ted Shawn, and Graham's famous solo Lamentation. The Shawn piece -- conceived, as Eilber said, in a style "that Graham emerged out of -- and rejected" -- is now charming and as harmless as an 18th century court dance. All the suggestive naughtiness -- and almost all the exotic pseudo-orientallism -- that once it fasscinating and controversial in 1916 is gone. But it has taken on "charm," and it was nicely danced by Jacquelyn Elder.

Lamentation (1930) is something I sometimes associate with still photographs of Graham herself -- that is, with poses rather than with movement. The tubular costume encloses the dancer like a chrysallis, allowing her to change shape-- in effect, to sculpt and re-sculpt herself. 77 years after the premiere it still a thrilling concept. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, lean and statuesque, with a remarkable jawline, created austere and beautiful pictures. I confess, however, that I found myself thinking more about how wonderful she looked than how much her character was suffering.

Appalachian Spring was a good choice. For some reason I've always dislliked the score and the subject-matter. (I'm not a big fan of Americana.) The central figures of the ballet -- the Bride and Husbandman -- were a little out of focus and were upstaged by the performances of the supporting dancers. The star of the piece for me was Maurizio Nardi as a very charismatic, very mysterious Revivalist, a genuine visionary rather than a charlatan, esepcially in the short, fast, twisting solo in which he seems to be speaking on tongues. Katherine Crockett was powerful and statuesque as the Pioneering Woman. The 4 silly young ladies of the church (the "followers") have some of Graham's witiest choreography. They stole the show for me whenever they were on. For the record, the dancers were Jacqueline Bulnes, Jacquelyn Elder, Mariya Dashkina Maddux, and Atsuko Tonohata.

After the Intermission came one of my own favorite Graham pieces, Diversion of Angels. Three couples (the women indentifiable by the colors of their dresses -- white, red, yellow); a corps of 4 women and one extra man -- everyone comes and goes, meeting and separating, rushing across the stage. It's speedy, witty, intricate, full of unexpected movement and off balance poses. There's even a girl -- the lady in red -- tossing her pony tail. It's Graham doing Balanchine or Robbins, though in her own language. It's a close as you'll ever get to "Martha goes to Broadway."

All the men were athletic and technically strong, though Mauricio Nardi was the eye-catcher, his arabesques a little more off center, his torso atilt, his extensions longer and in a more interesting line. Nardi partnered the lady in white, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, elegant, mysterious, and even possibly a little tragic in white satin evening gown (half pants, half skirt). Blakeley White-McGuire as the lady in red was fast and independent. Jacquelyn Elder, and Lloyd Knight, as the couple in yellow, were the very young, carefree, ardent and agile version of the others.

The final piece consisted of three selections from the 1936 ballet Chronicle. (Graham rejected an invitation to perform at Hitler's '36 Berlin Olympics. According to the program notes for the NYC premiere in the same year, "Chronicle does not attempt to show the actualities of war; rather does it, by evoking war's images, set forth the fateful prelude to war, portray the devastation of spirit which it leaves in its wake, and suggest and answer.) Only three "sketches" from the ballet were performed. All the dancers are women.

The opener, "Spectre -- 1914" is a Graham solo performed by Elizabeth Auclair This is one of those chin up to the balcony pieces that include a lot of manipulation of skirt (black, but lined in scarlet) and forceful arm gestures. There are frequent brief pauses (or poses) to allow us to see the sculptural effect. Auclair's performance was strong and moving. There was a reserve in Auclair's dancing which I cannot imagine in Graham but which made the figure and her dance mysterious and deeply sad.

The second sketch "Steps in the Street: Devastation -- Homelessness -- Exile" was for corps and one soloist. The strange port de bras, the ritual movements, the solidity of movement, the apparently endless inventiveness. Everyone on stage was technically stong working well in ensemble.

In sketch three ("Prelude to Action: Unity -- Pledge to the Future") Elizabeth Auclair returned, now wearing white. The corps increased the speed, executing incredibly fast and spring jumps.. It was exhilerating, without any particualar moral lesson -- except possibly: "How thrilling it is to be a free, young, strong woman in a time of peace." The experience made me long to see the entire 40-minute ballet as performed back in 1936.

For those interested in how historical reconstruction of old ballets is done, here's the note from the program:

Spectre-1914" researched and reconstructed in 1994 by Terese Capucilli and Carold Fried, from film clips and Barbara Morgan photographs. "Steps in the Street" reconstructed in 1989 by Yuriko and Martha Graham, from the Julien Bryan film. "Prelude to Action" reconstructed in 1994 by Sophie Maslow, assited by Terese Capucilli, Carol Fried and Diane Gray, from film clips and Barbara Morgan photographs.

For those outside NYC who might want an opportunity to see the revived Graham company on tour, here's their schedule, including several performances which have already taken place:

February 1, 2008 Greenvale, NY

Tilles Center for the Performing Arts

February 8, 2008 Gainesville, FL

Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

February 10, 2008 West Palm Beach, FL

Kravis Center for the Performing Arts

February 16, 2008 Syracuse, NY

Mulroy Civic Center Theater • WITH LIVE MUSIC

February 23, 2008 Interlochen, MI

Interlochen Center for the Arts • WITH LIVE MUSIC

February 26, 2008 Newnan, GA

The Centre for the Performing and Visual Arts

February 29, 2008 Memphis, TN

Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center

May 20, 2008 Charlottesville, VA

Paramount Theater

May 23, 2008 Williamsburg, VA

Phi Beta Kappa Hall • WITH LIVE MUSIC

June 13, 2008 Saratoga Springs, NY

Saratoga Performing Arts Center

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