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Martha Graham Dance Company: Night Journey, Axe, Inner Resources, Cave of the Heart

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Martha Graham Dance Company
(Graham Company Website)

90th Anniversary Season

New York City Center

Martha Graham: Founder, Dancer, Choreographer

Artistic Director: Janet Eilber
Executive Director: LaRue Allen
Senior Artistic Associate: Denise Vale
Press: Janet Stapleton

Martha Graham Dance Company:
PeiJu Chien-Pott, Lloyd Knight, Ben Schultz
Blakeley White-McGuire, Abdiel Jacobsen, Ari Mayzick
Xin Ying, Charlotte Landreau, Lloyd Mayor, Lauren Newman
Anne O’Donnell, Lorenzo Pagano, Konstantina Xintara
Laurel Dalley Smith, Anne Souder, Leslie Andrea Williams
Guyonn Auriau

The Mannes Orchestra
Conductor David Hayes

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 14, 2016

(See More Graham Company Reviews and Interviews.)

90 Years in 90 Seconds (2016): A Film by Justin Scholar, Assisted by Oliver Tobin.

Tonight marked the opening of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s 90th Anniversary Season. Graham, an iconic pioneer of Modern Dance, founded her Company in 1926. Janet Eilber, the Company’s Artistic Director since 2005, has been bringing newly commissioned works to the audiences, as well as the archived Graham oeuvres. What’s similar between the early Graham works and the newer commissioned works seems to be an inherent, thought-provoking theme with impassioned gesture and mime, focusing on maximizing the excellence of each dancer and the Company as a whole.

Throughout this 2016 season, each evening will open with the Company’s new 90 second film, with stills and movie clips juxtaposed and overlaid, in chronological order, with the earliest clips including Ms. Graham dancing her own works, and the latest clips including members of the current Company. I loved the film, but wished I could pause it to better see some of my favorite works and past Company stars.

Night Journey (1947): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Music by William Schuman, Set by Isamu Noguchi, Original lighting by Jean Rosenthal, adapted by Beverly Emmons, Performed by Blakely White-McGuire as Jocasta, Lorenzo Pagano as Oedipus, Abdiel Jacobsen as Tiresias, Xin Ying as Leader of the Chorus, and six women in the Company as Daughters of the Night.

Night Journey brings to the stage the tale of Oedipus, his mother and wife, Jocasta, the blind seer, Tiresias, and the female chorus, tonight led by Xin Ying. The ballet is set during Jocasta’s “instant of death”, when she realizes she has weaned and bedded the same man, who stands before her, having embraced and kissed her moments before the seer reveals that Oedipus was born from her own womb. As Jocasta, Blakely White-McGuire was severe and gripping, using her entire body to demonstrate angst and alarm. Lorenzo Pagano was magnetic, as he morphed from husband to a tortured son, sliding off stage in ruin. Abdiel Jacobsen, as always, was masterful and compelling as the blind seer, while Ms. Ying brought gravity and foreboding to the moment, as Leader of the Chorus. The six Daughters of the Night, stamping strong bare feet against the floor, in iconic Graham rhythmics, expanded the William Schuman score, performed by The Mannes Orchestra, conducted by the capable David Hayes.

Axe (2015): Choreography by Mats Ek, Music by Tomaso Albioni, Set and Costumes by Katrin Brännström, Lighting by Jorgen Jansson, Sound by Tomas Bolin, Performed by PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz.

I will say that this newly commissioned, avant-garde work, by the Swedish choreographer, Mats Ek, left me puzzled, to say the least. PeiJu Chien Pott circles the stage while Ben Schultz chops, yes, chops wood with a real axe. Not to mention the inherent danger, should this seasoned dancer accidentally let go of the axe near his stage partner or nearer his own body, one must mention the sheer audience boredom. This is not a brief work, and the percussive effect of Mr. Schultz’ axe is far less interesting than that of a drum or wood block. He chops actual logs from a pile, walks back and forth to get yet another, and sometimes re-chops and re-chops the finer slices of the log, until they almost splinter. He’s very good at this task, but the stage is not in Vermont. We’re at City Center for the Martha Graham Company. Ms. Chien-Pott becomes silently hysterical (as did some in the audience), trying to get her mate’s attention, and, I assume, that’s the inherent, impassioned gesture and mime, I mentioned above, as required for inclusion in new Graham programs. Unfortunately, I’ll see this again this season.

Inner Resources (World Premiere): Choreography, Artistic Direction, and Visual Concept by Marie Chouinard, Music by Louis Dufort, Lighting Concept by Marie Chouinard, Design by Nick Hung, Costume Concept by Marie Chouinard, Design and construction by Barbara Erin Delo, Performed by Laurel Dalley Smith, Charlotte Landreau, Lauren Newman, Anne O’Donnell, Anne Souder, Leslie Andrea Williams, Xin Ying, Konstantina Xintara.

The Montreal choreographer, Marie Chouinard’s Inner Resources was yet, for me, another anguished premiere work this anniversary season. Eight female dancers pull blue jackets over their head, stand before a red backdrop, and pose. The women don mustaches. This piece seemed a total waste. For an anniversary season, I would rather have seen the addition of two more Graham works.

Cave of the Heart (1946): Choreography and Costumes by Martha Graham, Music by Samuel Barber, Set by Isamu Noguchi, Original lighting by Jean Rosenthal, adapted by Beverly Emmons, Performed by PeiJu Chien-Pott as Medea, Abdiel Jacobsen as Jason, Anne O’Donnell as Creon’s Daughter, Leslie Andrea Williams as The Chorus.

Now, here is iconic Graham, well worth the wait. PeiJu Chien-Pott added a new dimension to Medea, as she seethes at Jason’s rejection of her, while he showcases The Princess, Creon’s Daughter, about on his shoulders and arms. Ms. Chien-Pott allows the audience to see her seething, slithering pain, no inner conflict here. When she drags the lifeless Princess across the stage in a burlap sack, this Medea has a self-satisfied predatory demeanor, her muscles bristling at the weight of her baggage. Abdiel Jacobsen, as Medea’s lover, Jason, father of her children, dances in his renowned, astounding athleticism. He’s at first oblivious to Medea’s jealousy and impending revenge, even lowering one woman on top of the other, as if to physically make them bond. Later he demonstrates grief and disbelief with full body tension and the force of his limbs. Anne O’Donnell, in the role of the Princess, seems vulnerable and ingénue, although her presence serves to torture her rival, Medea. She bounds about in youthful abandon. Leslie Andrea Williams, as the Chorus, exuded warmth and understanding, a trembling fear for fate.

It was good to see the restored Noguchi sets, sparkling and strong. It was also good to see, for the first time, some new Company dancers, all in fine form. The Mannes Orchestra, a large ensemble with Mannes School of Music, in performing some musical scores, was well practiced and prepared for combined orchestrations and solo interludes.

Kudos to Martha Graham.

Martha Graham Dance Company
in Marie Chouinard's "Inner Resources."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

PeiJu Chien-Pott
in Martha Graham's "Cave of the Heart."
Courtesy of Brigid Pierce

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at