Martha Graham Dance Company
photo credit: Chris Jones

Martha Graham Dance Company returns to Annenberg Stage

Pioneers, Stars & Raves

The Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) is currently on a US tour and returned to Philadelphia for a three-performance run at Penn Live Arts with a program of two premieres and their penultimate repertory classic. Artistic director Janet Eilber introduced the program to a nearly full Zellerbach Theater, reminding the audience that MGDC, at 97, is the oldest established dance company in the US.

But since Eilber took the company’s reins, she has kept Graham’s repertory works from becoming dance museum relics by streamlining some of the works and removing set pieces. For instance, Eilber collaborated with contemporary choreographers to explore Graham’s towering artistic legacy with a new generation of dancers and audiences. This program reimages Graham’s lost choreography on a work from 1952 that was so dynamic that it inspired Paul Taylor to become a choreographer.

The concert opened with Graham’s most beloved work Appalachian Spring, danced at every MGDC tour. Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s minimalist prairie set in place as the choreography is reverently performed to composer Aaron Copland’s equally iconic score. 

As the characters assemble on a wedding day scene, Natashia Walker-Diamond Walker embodies stoic dignity as The Pioneering Woman. Anne O’Donnell brings a spritely youthfulness as the Bride, a role that Graham danced well into her 50s. Alessio Crognale tackles the equally challenging role of The Preacher (initially danced by Merce Cunningham) with its hints of tortured desires. Lloyd Knight, the ‘husbandman,’ gives a solid technical performance, but only with some rote phrasing of Graham’s characterizations of frontier swagger. The corps of four ‘followers’ of the preacher in their ruffled dresses, further decorated with their demur skips and poses.

This performance had real energy in the front half. Its lyricism and movement portraiture of a bygone era are still charming, but Graham’s choreographic storytelling is, by now, a bit frayed by its success over the years and countless performances. Some of Graham’s pioneering choreography is so known that it can look like parody, a victim of its own success in performance. In other moments surprisingly prescient, the preacher moves between the four congregants in a prototype vogue ballroom ‘duckwalk.

But as certainly was evident on this night with this audience and in countless other performances since its premiere in 1944, Appalachian Spring has an inspiring foundational mystique all its own. 

Martha Graham Dance Company

Janet Eilber conceived Graham’s lost 1952 opus’ Canticle for Innocent Comedians’ by commissioning several choreographers to reconstruct the piece. Sonya Tayeh, the lead choreographer on the ensemble sections, and dancemakers Sir Robert Cohan, Jenn Freeman, Juliano Nunes, Micaela Taylor, Yin Yue, and Alleyne Dance, each creating duets themed with musings on Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars, and Death/Rebirth. The half-hour piece in eight scenes and scored to solo jazz piano by composer Jason Moran, who performed it live at the premiere performance last year. 

The curtain comes up on ‘Sun,’ the ensemble invocation by Sonya Toyeh, with dancers in three groups, bodies pressed together, and their torsos snaking around each other. Karen Young’s costume designs of colorful long tunics over black tights are reminiscent of Graham’s mythic styles. And the communal architecture is allusive to many of Graham’s ballets. 

The eight duets followed, with the dancers rotating parts in each section per performance. Among the standout sections was ‘Earth.’ Choreographers Kristina and Sade Alleyne’s ‘Earth’ scene was danced with a noble intimacy by Lloyd Knight and Richard Villaverde (formerly of BalletX), and Juliano Nunes’ shimmering duet ‘Water’ danced a quiet sensuality by Anne Souder and Xin Ying,    

Choreographer Yin Yue’s ‘Fire’ section is a dramatic trio for Jacob Larsen, Lorenzo Pagano, and Villaverde. It has the luster of a warrior dance, with scrambling footwork and precision arm movements fueled by percussive keyboard runs by Moran.

The solo highlight is ‘Moon’ danced without music because it is the rescued excerpt from Graham’s original choreography. Graham’s balletic variants are fresh as ever as danced with, well, luminous artistry and precision by Anne O’Donnell. 

Tayeh brings the full ensemble back for a cathartic, ‘Closing Dance.’ As ambitious as ‘Canticle’ is, it could be strengthened with more choreographic range considering the number of dancemakers involved.   

Hofesh Shechter’s CAVE was the rowdiest of anecdotes, and the audience embraced its energy immediately. A dozen dancers in costume designer Caleb Krieg’s ragtag club couture, in tandem with shadowy lighting designs by Yi-Chung Chen, catch Shechter’s sculptural silhouettes in motion that gives way to convulsive aerials and feral expressionism.

From there, this piece dives deeper into its incantatory solo by Leslie Andrea Williams, deeper into the communal evocations of the work. Williams’ ending solo is imbued with survival instincts in a lost world expressed in this dance.

There are some ballroom diva dives, flashes of twerking & orgiastic body waves, club grinds, and druggy body flailing like a night at the Catacombs after hours in the day. The dance mashups just kept coming. Richard Villaverde, the former BalletX dancer, drew shouts of approval for his Flashdance reverse turn variation to the floor.

Shechter clusters everyone together as the techno dance rumbles under them. They pulse as one before they give way to a raging dance mashup, only to file offstage with the transcendent Leslie Andrea Williams left standing centerstage before she collapses ever so slowly to the floor.

The audience didn’t immediately get to their feet at the end. This substantive statement will undoubtedly be a signature work on the current Graham repertoire. Even with unabashed show-dance moments, considering Graham’s towering orthodoxy, CAVE struck as joyously as Martha’s 20s anti-establishment masterpiece ‘Heretic.’

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