Martha Graham Dance Company.
Mae G. Banner
Graham Dance Company
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence with Nnenna Freelon
Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 10
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 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.