Seventy-five years ago today, Martha Graham performed at the brand-new Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Then, as now, her work remains triumphant and nearly indescribable. Tuesday night, her 85-year-old company returned to a packed FAC for a beautiful and moving performance.
I hate to say it, but no video or photograph can accurately portray the show. I am not a dance critic, but I believe most dance aficionados would agree that a dance performance is not something you watch, it’s something you experience. In the same way a live concert makes the music feel personal or viewing a painting is like seeing a living, breathing being, live dance is witnessing something miraculous.
The show began with a multimedia montage, Dance is a Weapon, which portrayed dances by Graham’s contemporaries, sparked by the issues of the day: economic crisis, racism, riots and the rumblings of fascism in Europe. The four opening dances were excellent; striking movements made with incredible precision. Tensile energy charged the dancers’ bodies; not one muscle, finger or toe out of form.
Beautiful as they are, when the company performed two suites from Graham’s own ballet, Chronicle, at the end of Dance is a Weapon, all the others were nearly forgotten. It’s incomparable to anything in my experience, a pounding, battle-charged dance that’s at once angular, architectural, forceful, while also graceful, flowing and in all appearances, effortless. Comprised of the full company of female dancers dressed in black and one soloist in a striking white dress, the works whirled in an abstract manifesto of politics and war.
After intermission, the company performed three Lamentation Variations. These dances were commissioned when the company opened on Sept. 11, 2007. To honor the date, they consigned up-and-coming choreographers to watch a video of Graham performing her classic Lamentation and create a new dance based on it. The choreographers could only use music in the public domain, create simple costumes and lighting concepts, and were limited to only 10 hours of rehearsal time.
The results were extraordinary, especially Move Variation, performed by principal dancer Katherine Crockett. Composed by Richard Move, the music is a short section from Radiolab’s experimental stretching of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (they extended it, without distortions, over a 24-hour period). In Move Variation, Crockett slowly dances from one side of the stage to the other, illuminated by a bright warm light positioned off to one side that seems to beckon and then forcefully pull her toward it.
When the Indy spoke to Crockett, she said this dance holds a unique beauty, in its broken quality, which is intensified by the slow, drawn-out movements.
“I feel like there’s these reference to 9/11, definitely,” she says. “Where I’m being pulled, a spirit is being pulled out of me, there’s an energy being pulled. I have these moments where my leg is way up and I’m kind of hovering over the ground, and for me, that’s like falling out of the towers, falling space.”
Crockett spoke of sharp, dismembered, awkward positions that tell of the struggle of this soul that seems to be in limbo, slowly dissolving into the light.
“I feel like it’s a very cold place but it’s being drawn towards that light and in the end I turn my back to light but then I arch, so I’m arching towards the light and I walk off stage.”
Equally moving was the Keigwin Variation, which featured the full company on stage touching their hands and faces nervously, before all dropping to the floor like dead bodies. More abrupt and raw than the others, it showed the strange beauty of anxiety.
The program’s tone lightened after that, with a performance of various suites from Appalachian Spring (which was done in place of the scheduled Diversion of Angels due to an injury suffered by one of the male leads).
Composed by Aaron Copland, Graham’s ballet recalled American industriousness and the possibilities of the land. The main characters, the Husbandman and the Bride, danced a few solos together, emanating enthusiasm and youth, tempered with warmth and tenderness.
Appalachian Spring turned out to be a more appropriate choice for Colorado Springs, as artistic director Janet Eilber introduced another main character, the Preacher (or Revivalist), who makes his first appearance onstage followed by four fawning young women. Graham created the Preacher to attach a sense of belonging to her pioneer community, citing the way cults seem to take root in America (I didn’t catch if that was considered a good thing or not). Her Preacher is as charismatic as he is devoted, and it’s hard to know which is more important to his followers, Eilber said, to the delight of the audience.
Indeed, the Preacher’s dances are extravagantly doubled-sided. In his introduction, he sallies away with his four followers, postured like a dandy, flirting ever so slightly, striding past as they tip-toe like school girls to make a path. Later though, he chastises the Husbandman and Bride with a completely different dance, marked by angular jumps, awkward, electrified reproaches and a menacing, pointing finger aimed at the couple.
Some find modern dance too abstract or bizarre to understand or appreciate. With this company, though, it’s not difficult to derive the deeper meanings and the emotive force that galvanizes each dance.
But if nothing else, one can enjoy this as a celebration of the power of the human body. Here, the dancers proudly display their strength and their training — apparent in every high kick, turn of the hand and jump.
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