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Martha Graham’s Everlasting Legacy

by Debra Danese for The Dance Journal | Photo credit: Brigid Pierce

Martha Graham’s legacy proved to be withstanding this past week! The company presented excerpts from her extensive repertory as part of Annenberg Center’s Digital Series. The program came together seamlessly and showcased pieces that best-represented elements of Graham’s signature technique. On Thursday, December 10, 2020, the live stream event took place with a stripped-down cast of two to adhere to pandemic restrictions.

In true Graham fashion, the company adapted by selecting prominent solo and duet works that exemplified Graham’s use of emotion and modernism. Dancers Lloyd Knight and Xin Ying performed with the technical precision that one would expect from members of an elite company. The four featured excerpts showed both the dancers and choreographer’s versatility in movement and moods. Each piece was preceded by archival footage and photos which gave a rare and unexpected glimpse into Graham’s extensive catalog of work.

Ying’s solos, Lamentation and Satyric Festival Song, encompassed two very different themes that Ying delivered with conviction. Lamentation had her encased in a tube-like jersey performing on a bench. The costuming emphasized the angular lines created by the sharp movements. Satyric Festival Song was similar in that Ying was creating pictures throughout. Her movements were no longer restricted, and her expression matched the tongue-in-cheek subject matter.

Appalachian Spring (excerpt) was a two-for-one in that we were treated to footage of Merce Cunningham in the role before seeing Knight perform it. Knight’s interpretation was powerful and exact. His control and precision hit every musical cue and left me wanting more. (The piece was just under 2 minutes.)

The final excerpt, Dark Meadow Suite, is considered one of Graham’s most architectural works and it was easy to see why. Ying and Lloyd’s lines were perfectly matched. Select phrases were developed using different levels and ways of partnering. Movements- such as a hinge- were repeated and built on with interesting variations. The technical aspects of the filming were especially advantageous here. The camera angles were subtly changed providing the audience different visual perspectives without missing a beat.

The light design throughout the program added a dramatic backdrop. Performing without an audience, the dancer’s bows were received in silence. This came as another stark reminder of the impact the pandemic continues to have on the arts.

The dancers joined Annenberg Center Executive and Artistic Director, Christopher Gruits, onstage for a post-show Q&A. Janet Eilber, Martha Graham Dance Company Artistic Director also participated remotely. Viewer questions came from the live chat and touched upon the obstacles of preparing the program during COVID. Eilber pointed out the importance of breath in Graham’s technique-the contraction and release she is known for-and how that was challenging for the dancers to do while rehearsing in masks. However, Eilber felt Graham would have dove into the digital format of presenting dance if she were here now and faced with our current restrictions.

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