Worlds collided Saturday, March 19th, at The Soraya Center for Performing Arts, when the Martha Graham Dance Company brought in contemporary choreographer Sonya Tayeh.  This collision did not bring the synergy that might have been expected but instead created an insurmountable rift.

The first half of the performance was pure Graham, her technique, her gift for narrative and the attention to infinite detail, all brought to the stage by her 96 year old company. “Lamentations” the first offering of the night, premiered in 1930 in what would have been called groundbreaking work.  The surprise is that it still is.  A lone dancer entombed in a tube of purple jersey becomes the essence of sadness and woe.  Within the restricting tube, the dancer, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, pushes against the cloth to create sculptures of angular despair. Only her face can be seen peeking through as if searching for release then retracting in fear and isolation.  Diamond-Walker is a consummate Graham dancer and though encased throughout, every move is clearly articulated and she conveys the “honorable and universal” nature of grief. This is a signature Graham work and is as powerful today as it was more than 80 years ago.  The starkly, aggressive and finally poignant music by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly is brought to life by Wild Up, the live orchestra conducted by Christopher Roundtree.   The pinpoint perfect lighting was designed by Martha Graham and adapted by Beverly Emmons.  Finally the unique costume design that forces the brilliant choreography is by Martha Graham.

While captured in the emotion of what we have just seen the curtain closes and a large screen fills the proscenium.  An early film of Ms. Graham performing “Frontier” a work from 1935 begins.  There she is a young, pretty pioneer in her prairie dress and though Graham’s reality is the confines of a tiny studio we feel the immense horizon stretching before her simply by her precise understanding of movement.  We see her as alone yet brave, determined and “jubilant at overcoming the hazards of a new land.” Ms. Graham brings us into her world with simple choreography and lucid storytelling so that we too see the vast horizon along with her. Regular collaborator Louis Horst composed the hopeful music, which is again ably rendered by Wild Up and Christopher Roundtree.  Noted sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi created the simple yet effective set.   The film is by Julien Bryan and Jules Bucher.

Martha Graham Dance Company - Leslie Andrea Williams in "Chronicle I Spectre" - Photo by Luis Luque

Martha Graham Dance Company – Leslie Andrea Williams in Graham’s Chronicle I “Spectre” – Photo by Luis Luque

In 1936, Wallingford Riegger composed the ominous music for “Chronicle” with choreography and costume design by Martha Graham.  This is an anti-war composition in three parts.  Part One; “Specter 1914” is the dread of what is to come. Lighting slowly reveals the intense Leslie Andrea Williams posed on a platform.  Her massive black skirt surrounds her revealing a slim circle of red at the hem.  Here Graham effectively creates a dance of dread.  The music is portentous, and with the addition of snare drums we know that war is coming.  The choreography is anguished with its long holds and off kilter sensibility.  Williams is fiercely accurate and when she pulls her skirt up to reveal its crimson underside we know there will be blood.  Chillingly fascinating this solo held the audience in it’s grip.

Part Two; “Steps In The Street” Using the power of silence the women of the company deal with “devastation, homelessness and exile” as they cross the stage and exit leaving soloist Mariza Memoli alone when the music begins. With a strong kinship to Greek and Egyptian styles Graham uses patterns in fascinating ways throughout this segment, never losing the awkward twist of the body or the strange use of hands. Whether walking, jumping or posing there is reason behind the movement and relevance to the music.  Throughout Graham does not lose focus and neither does the audience.

Martha Graham Dance Company - Leslie Andrea Williams in "Chronicle III Prelude to Action" - Photo by Luis Luque

Martha Graham Dance Company – Leslie Andrea Williams in Graham’s Chronicle III “Prelude to Action” – Photo by Luis Luque

“Prelude To Action,” is the final part to this trilogy.  Again regal Leslie Andrea Williams takes center stage in her long white dress with a black stripe down the front like a codpiece.  Is she the general rallying the troops or the symbol of unity as the company dancers surround her in a dazzling display of endlessly inventive choreography and staging? The build within the music is matched by the stage work until a frenzy of jumping brings us to the end and an instantaneous standing ovation.

The demanding music is again played live by the excellent Wild Up with Christopher Roundtree.  Original lighting was by Jean Rosenthal with reconstruction by David Finley and Steven L. Shelly.

The accomplished company dancers are, So Young An, Laurel Dalley Smith, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, Devin Loh, Anne O’Donnell, Kate Reyes, Aoi Sato, Anne Souder, Xin Ping and the aforementioned, Mariza Memoli, and Leslie Andrea Williams.

Martha Graham Dance Company - The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians - Photo by Luis Luque

Martha Graham Dance Company – The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians – Photo by Luis Luque

There is no doubt that Martha Graham was a magnificent choreographer, designer, innovator and dance pioneer, but moreover she was a master storyteller.  This is her legacy and it will be hard to follow.

In looking to expand the reach of the company Artistic Director Janet Eilber has brought in contemporary choreographer Sonya Tayeh to revive Graham’s lost work “Canticle For Innocent Comedians.”  Focusing on eight nature themed vignettes she is joined by choreographers, Alleyne Dance, Sir Robert Cohan, Juliano Nunes, Yin Yue, Michaela Taylor,  Jenn Freeman and Martha Graham.  Tayeh is responsible for the opening and closing and all interlude dances in an effort to make this a cohesive whole.  Pianist and jazz master Jason Moran is the composer and played live at this performance.

Janet Eilber – Photo: © Hibbard Nash Photography

Janet Eilber – Photo: © Hibbard Nash Photography

I have seen and liked the work of Sonya Tayeh and had high hopes that this would be an exciting new collaboration.  Sadly my hopes were dashed from the start.  Tayeh is not a modern dancer and it appears that she does not have a clear grasp of the art form.  Her work is contemporary jazz and in this case, is not the best of that form either.  The dancers give their all, reaching endlessly for some elusive something, expressing angst and apprehension for unknown reasons and generally working hard with no understanding of the theme.  Much of the choreography was repetitive, with clumsy lifts and awkward staging.  With each choreographer working in the same style, the segments, “Sun, Earth, Wind, etc.” became indistinguishable from one to the other.  The transitions or interludes only served to muddy the waters. On the heels of the masterful, meticulous work of Graham these lacks could not have been clearer.

Jason Moran’s score with its multitude of notes was not specific enough to guide the choreographers but felt more like an extended improvisation.  The unattractive costume design that did nothing to compliment the dancers was by Karen Young with apt lighting design by Yi-Chung Chen.

The dancers who all worked hard were Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, Lloyd Knight, Jacob Larsen, Lloyd Mayor, Marzia Memoli, Anne O’Donnell, Lorenzo Pagano, Kate Reyes, Anne Souder, Richard Villaverde and Leslie Andrea Williams.

This collision of artists falters when it should soar yet; I am hopeful that Janet Eilber will continue to search for the perfect match so that the company may flourish.  Martha Graham, the artist, deserves nothing less.


To learn more about the Martha Graham Dance Company, please visit their website.

To see The Soraya’s full performance season, please visit their website.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Martha Graham Dance Company – Natasha M. Diamond-Walker in Graham’s “Lamentation” – Photo by Luis Luque