After 18 months of struggle and yearning for the vibrancy of live dance and theatre, Executive and Artistic Director of The Soraya Performing Arts Center, Thor Steingraber, gifted the expectant audience with the Martha Graham Dance Company Friday, November 19, 2021.
After these many life changing months, the Graham Company, (Founded in 1926) was masterfully regenerated by Janet Eilber’s brilliant hand. Her Artistic Direction and astute understanding of the Graham art and expertise helped breathe new life into the company. With her guidance, the dancers not only stood on the shoulders of one of the giants of dance, but Eilber imbued a sense of life and joy into what could have been only a shadow of the original.
Having seen Graham some 60 years ago, and marveling at technique, stunning imagery and emotionality of the former company members (Mary Hinkson, Bertram Ross, Pearl Lang, Stuart Hodes, Yuriko Kikuchi, Clive Thompson, Ethel Winters, Dudley Williams…and more), I was not certain that anyone could live up to the original. However, seeing the performance this Friday was a major revelation. The young dancers technically, sensually and emotionally astounded all. The Company dancers Lloyd Knight, Xin Ying, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, Lloyd Mayor, Ann O’Donnell, Lorenzo Pagano, Anne Souder, So Young An, Alessio Crognale, Laurel Dalley Smith, Jacob Larsen, Marzia Memoli, Richard Villaverde, Leslie Andrea Williams and Kate Reyes each went above the expectations for the rolls they took as their own. In particular there were some standout performances by both soloists and corps.
Under the expert baton and intelligent reimagined music of Christopher Roundtree and the nearly 30 piece Wild Up Orchestra, the air was filled with electric anticipation and finally, live music. While the lighting of the great Jean Rosenthal and adaptation by Beverly Emmons (Appalachian Spring) , Yi-Chung Chen (Immediate Tragedy), and Burke Brown (Scavengers), artfully illuminated the direction of each piece.
The first piece, Diversion of Angels, with music by Norman Dello Joio, premiered in August of 1948. The staging represented an imaginary garden where love takes place. Graham describes the piece as three aspects of love: Mature love in white is the perfect balance, Erotic love in red countering balance, and the excitement of adolescent love in yellow.
Natasha M. Diamond- Walker’s regal legginess and Alessio Crognale’s strong mature love was elegant, using elongated movements as the couple caressed during balances, angular arms, rising lifted legs with lyrical assuredness and stillness.
Anne O’Donnell with Lloyd Mayor are excellent as the Red couple. O’Donnell adds fire in her solo pieces and pas de deux and steps up the movements countering the legato lines in Dello Joio’s romantic and percussive music. This juxtaposed against the maturity and staid motions of the Diamond-Walker.
The young vivacious yellow couple, Marzia Memoli and Richard Villaverde brimmed with energy and covered the stage like shooting stars, alighting and skimming the floor with enthusiastic leaps and lifts. Memoli’s wild youthfulness brightened the stage and lifted the spirits.
The gorgeous corps’ in their rust colored costumes, originally designed by Graham herself, in tandem with the choreography, patterned the actions to fugue forms, artful counters, females and males movement in lines with and against each other, resolving to off- balanced lunges that turned into elongated poses that extend forever. It, as the Greek chorus, clearly brought to mind Graham’s brilliant capacity for imagery and design.
Next came the powerful Immediate Tragedy – “dance of dedication” (Graham). It premiered in July 1937 and was done in recognition of the Spanish women who fought side-by-side with men against Francisco Franco’s fascist government during the Spanish Civil War. The music was reimagined by Christopher Rountree’s moving and eclectic score. The Danceturgy is by Neil Baldwin and the direction by Eilber in consort with the brilliant lead dancer Xin Ying. Ying so empowered and embodied the sense of courage, sorrow and strength that by the end of the piece it was difficult to imagine another doing it, other than Graham herself.
The stunning Scavengers, premiered on October 26, 2021 at the Joyce Theater in New York City was choreographed by the gifted Andrea Miller who was keenly aware that the pandemic experience, after 18 months, impelled us all into a changed world. This brought a fresh challenge to Miller and the remarkably facile dancers of the Graham Company.
The completed piece emerged as a sensual and beautifully crafted work made up of four duets and one solo. In the theme, a soul seemed to find its way to another on the dance floor. And with creative invention and a primal need, the couples explored ways of getting to know each other more intimately. The solo dancer, on the other hand, found intimacy in her own aloneness. Intermittent blackouts insisted the changes that found her in different locations, perhaps a metaphor of life-changing diversions as many found in the effect of these last months.
Alessio Crongale and Leslie Andrea Williams, Laurel Dalley Smith and Lloyd Knight, Marzia Memoli and Jacob Larsen, Lloyd Mayor and Anne O’Donnell, Anne Souder were aesthetically beautiful and individual with their own strengths and dynamic force. They fascinated the audience moment by moment with their freedom as each move seemed to be created on the spot.
The music by Will Epstein used the human voice, and percussion to evoke a humanity that matches that of the dancers. The costumes by Oana Botez are in jewel tones of emerald, burnt orange, royal, and adorn the dancers bodies with panels, drapes, and styles that work, never interfering, but only adding to the ways of the dance.
After a brief intermission, the audience attended to the final work on the program, Appalachian Spring, one of the classic and beloved pieces of the Graham repertoire premiered in1942 at the Library of Congress. The expansive music of Aaron Copeland, juxtaposed against the sparse angular set by Isamu Noguchi had the proper severity of American Gothic and the optimism against a deep blue sky of the hopes and spirit of this new country. It celebrated the life and dreams of a young bride, (Laurel Dalley Smith) who showed the excitement and apprehension of her new life with her Husbandman (Jacob Larsen) who tried to calm and appease her fears.
The scene was punctuated by the imposing Pioneering Woman, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, whose powerful expansiveness seemed to lead the way for the young couple. On the other hand the zealous Preacherman, with energy and righteousness danced by the boundless Lloyd Knight added a fervor so compelling to his young true believers, the Shaker followers, So Young An, Marzia Memoli, Kate Reyes, and Anne Souder, who like little ducklings attended to the Preacherman’s every whim.
And in the end, this feast of one of the great companies of our time, was a true gift to Los Angeles audiences. Seeing the greatness of the work, without watered down, tired out, nor insult of a faux company was a true gift for newcomers and those who know better. Thank you to the Soraya, Steingraber, Eilber, Graham (of course) and the artists who made it possible to see the real thing.
To learn more about the Martha Graham Dance Company, please visit their website.
To learn more about The Soraya, please visit the website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Martha Graham Dance Company – Xin Ying in Martha Graham’s “Immediate Tragedy” – Photo by Melissa Sherwood