Martha Graham Dance Company in Taipei

Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, Taipei
March 17, 2018

David Mead

Carrying on her heritage, their short Taipei season showed that the Martha Graham Dance Company have some fine dancers. You can argue about whether the Graham repertory was danced authentically (a truly knotty term that means different things to different people anyway), and indeed whether that’s even possible given today’s very different dancers, but this day of two programmes provided a fascinating insight into her work. It also showed how the company is now looking ahead, with some very appealing new choreography from contemporary dance-makers.

The afternoon’s programme got off to an underwhelming start with Steps in the Street, the second section of Chronicle, from 1936, seen in full in the evening. Elbows sharply angled, hands to their hips and necks, heads turned as if looking over their shoulders, a congregation of black-clad women step very deliberately back onto the stage from both sides before slowly coming together against Leslie Andrea Williams, who stands apart. It has power and it’s easy to see how new and modern this must have looked when new but while Graham constructs some effective abstract patterns there is little else of interest.

Xin Ying (centre) in Pontus Lidberg’s WoodlandPhoto Brigid Pierce
Xin Ying (centre) in Pontus Lidberg’s Woodland
Photo Brigid Pierce

Errand into the Maze, Graham’s 1947 duet very loosely based on the Greek myth of Theseus’ journey into labyrinth was an altogether different matter. Graham sends a woman on the mission, Taiwan’s own Peiju Chien-Pott (簡珮如), the dance suggesting that the maze may as much in her mind and her Minotaur, the powerful Ben Schultz, as much a representation of her own fears, as either being real. Freer sections to brighter music contrast starkly with sharper dance to more threatening accompaniment. Time and again she puts her hands out, palms raised as if to stop or ward off someone or something, and beats her thighs as if in despair.

Coming up to date, Pontus Lidberg’s Woodland is a little gem, superficially lightweight and easy-going but with mysterious undertones. There may not be any teddy bears having picnics in Lidberg’s woods but it’s certainly a strange place full of surprises. After an opening skittish solo from one of the women, the cast of nine slowly assemble. The dance is playful and at one with Irving Fine’s lovely Notturno for Strings and Harp. From the group emerges a reflective and thoughtful Xin Ying (辛颖). Dressed differently, she seems a stranger, especially when the other eight leave only to reappear wearing rather elegant horned masks. They stare at her. She seems curious as she removes their masks, yet very vulnerable. Utterly believable, every now and then she steps aside and looks as she wonders if this is all a child’s dream.

Xin Ying (above) and ensemble in Pontus Lidberg’s WoodlandPhoto Brigid Pierce
Xin Ying (above) and ensemble in Pontus Lidberg’s Woodland
Photo Brigid Pierce

Whatever the meaning, the dance was the most fresh and alive of the day. Lidberg’s choreography is fluid and full of detail. Light, neat, quick steps call for sharpness and musicality, getting both in full measure. As in one or two of the Graham pieces, there are bigger jumps too that seem to come out of nowhere and other references to her vocabulary. Perhaps the biggest connection comes in the drama and tension between the soloist and ensemble, though.

The afternoon concluded with Graham’s take on The Rite of Spring, created in 1984 when she was 90 years old. Some moments are incredibly powerful, especially the ensemble sections where Graham marshals the dancers brilliantly, and especially the men; this is a very male-dominated community. Other moments struggle badly, though, failing to even get close to Stravinsky’s score. The choreography for the priest (here danced by Abdiel Jacobsen) in particular characterises him weakly, especially when set against the other males. His sudden, random choice of the Chosen One (Charlotte Landreau) does make one sit up in shock, though. Although she protests and thrashes around in despair, her dance fails strangely to make you feel for her. What it does feel like, is an eternity before the deed is finally done. The priest having at one point produced a rope as if to strangle her, and then wrapping her in it, death comes simply by two men holding her aloft.

Martha Graham's The Rite of Spring(dancers here: Ben Schultz and PeiJu Chien-Pott)Photo Wang Xiao Jing
Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring
(dancers here: Ben Schultz and PeiJu Chien-Pott)
Photo Wang Xiao Jing

The evening programme got off to an excellent start with Dark Meadow Suite taken from Graham’s 1946 Dark Meadow, an abstract work inspired by her love of the dance of the native peoples of North America. Performed to music by Carlos Chavez, the choreography has more than a sense of ritual about it, especially in the way the cast frequently congregate in circles. As they celebrate, they slap their hips, pound their heels percussively into the floor and, most dramatically, spring into the air, almost it seems without preparation. Elsewhere there are hints at mating and beyond as the men lay atop their partners before varying them away on their backs. The cast all performed with great intensity.

Graham’s 1933 solo, Ekstasis, has been long lost but research by Virginie Mécène, director of the Martha Graham School and artistic director of Graham 2, uncovered sufficient photographs and written recollections by Graham (there is no film) for her to reimagine the dance for Chien-Pott.

Martha Graham's Dark Meadow Suite(dancers l-r: Anne O’Donnell, Laurel Dalley Smith, Leslie Andrea Williams, So Young An, Charlotthe Landreau, Marzia Memoli)Photo Brigid Pierce
Martha Graham’s Dark Meadow Suite
(dancers l-r: Anne O’Donnell, Laurel Dalley Smith, Leslie Andrea Williams, So Young An, Charlotthe Landreau, Marzia Memoli)
Photo Brigid Pierce

It was in Ekstasis that Graham first experimented deeply with what was to become her unique way of moving and from which her technique was born. True to that, in a pool of light and in a form-fitting full-length white dress that reveals only Chien-Pott’s face the dance slowly builds. She was like a piece of sculpture coming slowly coming to life as she discovers the possibilities within her body. There is no way to know just how faithful to the original the dance is but it feels true. As Chien-Pott languorously but so deliberately twists and turns, initiation and connection of movement between the hips, pelvis and shoulders was clear for all to see; far more so that in any other piece on the two programmes.

Mécène’s choice of music, the mystical, eastern-flavoured Interludis meditatius VII, part Catalan composer Ramón Humet’s Homenaje a Martha Graham rather than Lehman Engel’s original score is inspired. Spellbinding.

Lamentation Variations was conceived in 2007 to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 and gives contemporary choreographers the opportunity to create new interpretations of Graham’s iconic solo. A film of Graham dancing was followed by three such responses.

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Virgine Mécène's reimagining of Martha Graham’s Ekstasis,which will be danced on the company's forthcoming visit to TaipeiPhoto Brigid Pierce
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Virgine Mécène’s reimagining of Martha Graham’s Ekstasis
Photo Brigid Pierce

Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s work uses a recording of Graham recounting an audience member’ s grief as prelude to a soft and gently lit quartet that vaguely suggests loss. Azsure Barton’s dance is a duet for two women, together but different. The dance is as sharp, jagged and full of attitude as Bulareyaung’s is smooth. Typical New Yorkers maybe, with a typically New York response. Most evocative was Larry Keigwin’s variation for the full company, five minutes or so of dance that speaks volumes. The ensemble stand apart from one another, very definitely individuals, but as a community they have a powerful presence. They stare out as if trying to communicate something. They reach imploringly and scream silently. There is a huge amount of detail.

Graham’s original Chronicle, her response to the rise of fascism in Europe, was near an hour long. Here, the company presented three of the original dances. It’s hard to know whether the cutting down helps or hinders. While there are times when the choreography and performance are powerful and communicate fully, they are but moments in an otherwise uninspiring piece in which the three dances fail to hang together well.

‘Spectre 1914’ from the opening ‘Dances Before Catastrophe’ section is a solo for a woman in a voluminous scarlet-lined, black dress that billows as she moves, danced here by the fiercely impressive Chien-Pott. The colours are certainly indicative of the darkness and blood that was to come but it is the dress rather than the dance that provides the drama.

‘Steps in the Street’, from ‘Dances After Catastrophe’, worked rather better in this context (or perhaps it was simply just seeing it a second time) than it had done when viewed as a standalone dance in the afternoon. Meant to be a demonstration of the devastation of spirit, I found more a display of stoicism in the face of adversity. ‘Prelude to Action’, which closed the original work, apparently speaks of defiance and a call to arms. There’s a lot of action and complex, overlapping patterns to its powerful music. Probably more 1930s than anything else on the programmes, perhaps its best seen as just that. I certainly struggled to find much meaning.

As a day, it was an interesting window on the past, even if the panes might have been a little misted over at times. The dances certainly show just how good Graham was at harnessing the power of the ensemble, creating patterns and using music. Disappointing was that it felt sometimes like the soul of the dance was missing. There were some lovely expressionist poses but, with some notable exceptions, the movement sometimes seemed to be about external position alone.

On the plus side, the company is still with us and we should be thankful for that. Under artistic director Janet Eilber and with its new choreography it has also clearly found a way forward without losing touch with the past. That too should be welcomed enthusiastically.