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Poppin’: Martha Graham Dance Company.

This Modern Century
By Mae G. Banner

Martha Graham Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., June 29

The history of modern dance in America is short, and the limbs on dance’s family tree are distinct. One of the sturdiest and most enduring is Martha Graham (1894-1991), whose company, revived after a long court battle over the right to dance her works, performed a hundred years worth of Graham classics and their rediscovered antecedents in a thrilling concert at Jacob’s Pillow.

The evening opened with four brief dances from Graham’s apprentice years with Denishawn, the company led by Pillow founder Ted Shawn and his wife Ruth St. Denis. Seeing these dances was like being part of an archaeological dig, complete with undreamed-of treasures.

Those early 20th-century audiences must have felt like transgressors. In their time, these dances, so pure and contained to modern eyes, must have been shocking. Katherine Crockett danced as St. Denis in The Incense (1906). You could see Crockett’s bare feet; you could see the breath come from her diaphragm as she moved delicately, deliberately, between two silver incense stands at the sides of the stage. Making balletic “swan” arms, she moved sideways from stand to stand, lighting the incense and letting the shape of her arms merge with the rising smoke. It was deliciously, almost naughtily mystical.

Next, Tadej Brdnik portrayed Shawn as the male priest in Gnossienne (1919). Bare-chested, with a wide gold ring around his waist, he danced in profile before a black curtain, like a figure on Egyptian frieze, to Satie’s tantalizingly dissonant music. His movements were punctuated with sudden jumps, like Nijinsky’s Faun, but more muscular.

In Serenata Morisca (1919), Alessandra Prosperi was a gamine, swishing her long, coffee-colored skirt and looking at us over her shoulder, a gleam in her eye, a red rose in her hair. It was easy to see why Shawn was so taken with the young Graham that he began to make these teasing solos for her.

Graham made Three Gopi Maidens for her own company, newly founded in 1926. At the Pillow, three corps dancers skipped and floated in a romp with Cristophe Jeannot as Krishna.

Graham’s enduring solo, Lamentation (1930), was danced stunningly by company principal Elizabeth Auclair. Lamentation looks like a Barlach sculpture, its blocky shape seeming to pulsate with emotion. Auclair sat on a bench, her body enveloped in a tube of slate-gray jersey. She stretched, then contracted her waist, bent forward, folded her body in half, covered her face and retreated into the sheath like a moth in a cocoon. She, herself, was the lament.

Satyric Restival Song (1932), newly reconstructed and danced by Erica Dankmeyer, provided an extreme contrast with Lamentation. The costume (Graham designed and made most of her early costumes) was an eye-popping jersey sheath of multi-colored horizontal stripes. The dance popped, too. Dankmeyer repeated jumps with bent knees and crossed feet, did percussive toe and heel steps, slapped her knees with her fists, and turned her vibrating body into a giggle.

Graham always saved the dramatic solos for herself, but in works like Steps in the Street (1936), billed as an antiwar dance, she cast her corps as the masses. Eleven women in black enacted this abstract drama, their bodies forming the angular shapes of Russian Constructivist art.

The generous concert ended with two certifiably modern dances, one a masterpiece among Graham’s mythological works and the other a somewhat tired-looking work from her later years.

Errand into the Maze (1947) with music by Gian Carlo Menotti and set-pieces by Isamu Noguchi, enacted Ariadne’s encounter with the Minotaur. In it, the young Ariadne faces her fears and her burgeoning sexuality and emerges with new confidence. Fang-Yi Sheu was Ariadne and Martin Lofsnes the bare-chested, bull-horned Minotaur who caught and held her between his elbow and thigh.

He drove his body onto hers over and over until, with a great jump, she sprung up and mounted his back, turning onto her own back with her knees bent and her feet planted firmly on his spine. The woman ended the dance alone, in soft triumph.

The final ensemble piece, Acts of Light (1981) began with a duet between the powerful Crockett in fire-engine red and a rather submissive Lofsnes. A dominatrix, Crockett got what she wanted from the man in his white dhoti. Next was a lament by Virginie Mecene, who danced against a nearly naked male quartet (it’s well-known that Graham used her male dancers as accessories to her dramatic power) who knelt and leaned back, linking arms, but allowing Mecene to thread through. A concluding “ritual to the sun” looked like one of Graham’s technique classes.

We could see Graham’s aesthetic in action, see how the dancers got ready for the severe freedom of her choreography, and incidentally, how her ideas were expanded by choreographers like Paul Taylor, who began with Graham and founded his own company in 1954. So, that’s where those knee-pivots came from.

Portrait in Blue

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence with Nnenna Freelon

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 10

Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday was Nnenna Freelon’s show all the way. The dance company Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, her collaborators on the project, served mostly as moving decor for the jazz singer’s idiosyncratic readings of Holiday’s songs.

The show, which also featured flashes of digital film by Robert Penn, was a world premiere last week at Jacob’s Pillow. Actually, it was Set One of what will be a full-evening work when it’s shown in November at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Set One focuses on Holiday’s childhood and early life, when she was Eleanora Fagan. She later took the stage name Billie Holiday, and, at the peak of her career, sax-man Lester Young named her Lady Day.

Freelon and her scintillating four-piece combo took center stage and pretty much filled the space, which left the Brown dancers a much-truncated playing area downstage. The dancers used the foreground to chilling effect in the final piece, “Strange Fruit,” which Freelon intercut with “Willow Weep for Me.”

For the opening songs, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “God Bless the Child,” and a slow and haunting “Them There Eyes,” the dancers moved in procession around the periphery of the stage (shadowy figures behind the jazz combo) or sat quietly at Freelon’s feet like children who learn from the singing and storytelling of a griot.

Freelon, barefoot like the dancers and sometimes moving along with them, introduced each song by telling fragments of Holiday’s life, intoning her words like a poet at an urban slam. She told how Holiday overcame a violent, impoverished childhood, including being raped at age 10 by a neighbor—this was the catalyst for Freelon’s “Them There Eyes”—to win respect as an incomparable singer.

Some compelling kinetic moments included tiny Camille Brown’s Afro-inspired shimmy in a gold cocktail dress, the procession of women who laid their huge white gardenias on the ground as if placing flowers on a grave (we could smell the gardenias and that was wonderful), and Keon Thoulouis, his hands gesturing tears and his body almost still as the dangling man who hangs from the poplar tree in “Strange Fruit.”

The evening opened with Brown’s Grace, made in 1999 for the Alvin Ailey dance company. The Pillow’s intimate stage made a larger-than-life showcase for this West African-based meeting of Saturday night party-goers in red with Sunday morning believers in white. To the holy music of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” the two groups merged in shared spirituality.

—Mae G. Banner

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