On Saturday, May 13th the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge had their season’s grand finale performance, “Martha Graham and American Music” a selection of pieces from the iconic choreographer’s repertoire set to music performed by Christopher Rountree’s orchestra “Wild Up”. The evening began with opening remarks from Thor Steingraber, the Executive Director of VPAC, who described the dire status of national arts funding under the current administration. The message underscored how drastically the climate had changed since my last visit to VPAC six months prior—a stark reminder of the political climate artists now face and must strive to survive in.
The Martha Graham company, a 91-year-old company which was founded in 1926, has had much of its work funded by grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, a long-standing organization founded by the Kennedy administration, and threatened with closure. Graham revolutionized and redefined contemporary dance as an American art form, and was not only the first dancer to perform at the White House, but was also granted the United States’ highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1998, TIME Magazine named her the “Dancer of the Century.
“A dance reveals the spirit of the country in which it takes root. No sooner does it fail to do this than it loses its integrity and significance,” Martha Graham wrote in the 1937 essay A Platform for the American Dance. On this note, Steingraber left us with an affirming thought, either we could watch TV and stay at home and see how we’re different, or we could come here and see how we’re the same. The audience responded with thunderous applause.
The first piece of the night had its premiere in 1935 at the Vermont State Armory, and was set to an avant-garde score by Norman Lloyd. Graham was a visionary and forever altered the future of dance, impacting generations ahead of her. “No artist is ahead of his time” she said “he is his time, it is just that the others are behind the time.” I could not help but think about the opening remarks again, and imagine how this piece was perceived by audiences in the 1930s, and yet remain as pertinent today.
This dance was a reconstruction of the original, and featured 28 student dancers from Northridge, Granada Hills and LA County arts high schools. The youthful energy and excitement was palpable in the air. The bright blue monochromatic backdrop and blue lit floor, set the dancers apart in their electric red colored costumes, which were designed by Graham herself. These patriotic colors echoed the opening sentiments once more, but red had its own loaded political Soviet connotations at the time. Graham was a master not only of movement, but moreover movement in color and this imbued her dance with a symbolic activism. Only youth could fully capture and represent that dynamism on stage.
As the mass moved in unison to the militaristic music, in and out of repetitive formations, they became a chorus of scurrying electrons at one moment, melancholic statues rising from what could be the depths of a lake the next. The dancers jumped with articulated appendages like puppets whose spines remained mostly erect, and could only find expression through their extremities. Their hands and feet had a language of their own, flat palms, closed fists, and flexed feet symbolically represented open and closed systems, freedom and constraint.
Graham’s style broke with convention in how she electrified the body, and played with contraction and release. These students were forced into geometric synchronized shapes in shifting space, but then also broke out in demonstration.
Conductor, Christopher Roundtree’s orchestra “Wild Up” energized the audience with a searing sound, and left our hearts palpitating. He spoke about his orchestra like a circuit that connects the audience, musicians and music in a feedback loop.
DARK MEADOW SUITE
After “Panorama,” the Company’s Artistic Director, Janet Eilber, came out and briefly introduced the next few pieces starting with “Suite”, made up of excerpts from a longer work, “Dark Meadow” which originally premiered in 1946 in New York City. She spoke about “Suite” as a reenactment of ritual, an abstract search for connection with another, within oneself, and with the larger community. The ritualistic piece was inspired by Graham’s love of the American Southwest and Mexican natives and was accompanied by Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez’ score, which the dancers used as counterpoint to their percussive bodies and stomping feet.
There was an autumnal feel in colors and tones, the dancers wore orange and black costumes set against a burnt orange backdrop, reminiscent of a setting sun. The women’s costumes were modern and empowering, with exposed abs, like the center of the earth, a core of strength, restrained but grounded. They danced in rhythmic patterns, gathered in circles and communed with nature.
In the second half of the piece, four couples danced in unison balancing off of each other. The men held the women at their hip and steered them to the light like captains of a ship. They leaned out like plants towards the sun, shifting their positions to soak up more rays. Martha Graham’s original program note explained “Dark Meadow is a re-enactment of the mysteries which attend the eternal adventure of seeking.” The audience seemed enthralled by the mystery, murmuring vocal approvals at the end of the piece.
DIVERSION OF ANGELS
With “Diversion of Angeles,” which was first shown in Connecticut in 1948, the focus began to move from the collective to the individual, set to Norman Dello Joio’s romantic score. Graham was deeply influenced by Kandinsky’s paintings, which she said nearly caused her to faint when she first saw them. She was startled by his modernity, but also saw a kindred spirit, and vowed to translate that feeling she had into movement. Graham’s costumes in this piece recall his art, and highlight three different aspects of love represented by the colors, yellow, red and white through three different female dancers.
The yellow dancer, Laurel Dalley Smith, wore a ponytail and ribbon in her hair, an exuberant smile and lifted and twirled through the air with a youthfulness and untainted joy, head over heels in happiness. This first love is adolescent and carefree. The red, embodied by Anne O’Donnell, was a more sensual but also mercurial love. The couple struggled to maintain composure in a world without gravity, and without balance. The final incarnation or stage of love was more restrained, formal and stoic both in movement, costume and expression. Leslie Andrea Williams, represented a more mature, spiritual love dressed in white. This performance was perhaps the most relatable and intimate of them all, and the audience erupted in a loud applause filled with cheers. Two older women beside me exclaimed, “We’re getting our money’s worth!” To which the other replied, “the real McCoy, what a treat!” “That’s Martha Graham.”
CAVE OF THE HEART
If the previous piece represented the exalted height of humanity, the heart, and its affinity to love, then this piece was its antithesis and dove into its deep, dark twisted chambers and its destruction. “Cave of the Heart,” from 1946, is based on Euripides’ tragedy “Medea,” and warns of the horrors betrayal can breed. Medea sacrificed her life for her love, which left her exiled from home, but once her husband left her for another woman, she plotted to murder his new wife.
The set was one of many designed by Martha Graham’s long-time collaborator, the Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi. His landscape work was visible on stage through his meticulous placement and arrangement of the space divided into three areas. To one side there were rocks lined up in an equidistant formation on the ground, in the middle there was an amorphous organic sculptural element, and on the other side a rectilinear wireframe of metallic branches rose up to the sky.
The couple of lovers, Charlotte Landreau and Ben Schultz balanced on the rocks, while Medea, played by Xin Ying, observed from the perimeter, hidden behind the metallic tree. If her venomous green dress decorated with snakelike patterns wasn’t telling enough, her asymmetrical and off-kilter ponytail displayed a more visible derangement. Samuel Barber’s sinister piano and shivering horns further accentuated her spasmic dancing. At the height of the scene, Medea transformed the metallic tree from sculpture to costume, and wore the caged corset of wobbling wires, using it like a tentacled torture device. She approached the couple with this destructive wireframe pushed by vengeance to end her rival’s life. The women behind me were transfixed and tried to decode the actions on stage. “That was weird” they whispered, “evil,” “something else.”
MAPLE LEAF RAG
The last performance of the evening ended on a more redemptive note, with some meta-humor on the artistic process. “Maple Leaf Rag” from 1990, was Martha Graham’s last ballet and a “play within the play.” The multi-colored leotards designed by Calvin Klein provide a classical context for some comical fare, as the dancers pranced around in a pensive and parodic manner – an ode to a self-aware and light-hearted mocking of Graham’s own work and persona. She overtly played against the serious and codified conventions in dance, and rather than “setting the bar high,” Graham’s main set piece here was an unnaturally low ballet barre which dominated the stage. It winkingly failed to serve its purpose as a static pillar, and undulated with the dancers who misused it to their amusement. The climbed on the bar like tight-rope walkers, and rested on it for extended breaks. The dancers had fun in dethroning and humanizing the body through their vaudevillian-like gestures, with slaps on the arse, pirouettes and more. Richard Valututto played the piano on stage with the performers, as much a part of the story and punctuating the humor. Scott Joplin’s score accentuated the dancers as a merry band of pranksters. One dancer wore a long white dress, which she playfully transformed, lifting her skirt over her head and crossing the stage multiple times in a repetitive fashion as a transition element for comic relief. The entire piece elicited continuous laughter from the audience, as consistent as a laugh track. It was an uplifting ending to the night. “The body says what words cannot” according to Graham. In an environment oversaturated with misappropriated and misunderstood words, dance may be the most universal and unifying language of them all.