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Celebrate: a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

We Can Dance if We Want To
By Mae G. Banner

Martha Graham Dance Company
Sept. 12, the Egg

More than a concert, last Fridayís performance by the Martha Graham Dance Company could have been called Life Imitates Art Imitates Life.

The nearly full house at the Egg in Albany understood we were part of a momentous event even before the companyís executive director (Marvin Preston) took the stage to announce that this was the troupeís first performance outside New York City since mid-2000 and the first stop on its projected world tour.

This flowering follows a three-year court battle with Grahamís sole heir (Graham died in 1991 at age 96) over who holds the rights to perform the divaís 181 dances, many of which pit a lone heroine against a harshly disapproving world.

In real life, Grahamís dancers won, and their every performance is a celebration.

Artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, both longtime Graham dancers, chose a program that worked backward from Grahamís last dance, the self-mocking Maple Leaf Rag (1990), to a reconstruction of Sketches from Chronicle (1936), a still-powerful work of socialist realism.

Maple Leaf Rag is a big ensemble dance set to Scott Joplinís piano rags, which were wittily performed by Pat Dougherty. An insiderís treat for those familiar with Grahamís repertory, it also functioned on Friday as a primer for the serious works to come. Watching this collage of signature Graham moves was like looking at a silent movie that patched together all we would need to know about the characters capering or sailing across the stage.

Here were the bare-chested muscle men stepping in squared-off rigor that delineated a thigh, a knee, a foot. Here were the women in their coiled hair buns, springing about like a set of Martha clones. Here was the back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead gesture from Letter to the World made famous in the Barbara Morgan photograph, the Appalachian Spring prance, the Jocasta lift with legs wide apart.

Through it all, like a running joke in a burlesque show, swept the tall woman in yards of white jersey, wheeling her skirt above her head like a ship in full sail as she cruised the stage with goofy gravitas.

The 26-member company is composed of dancers from many countries, most of whom joined the troupe after Grahamís death, so itís thrilling to see them performing her work with the strength and clarity Graham intended. Errand into the Maze (1947), a duet that unpacks the myth of the Minotaur from Ariadneís point of view, cast soloist Alessandra Prosperi and corps member Christophe Jeannot as erotic antagonists.

Errand is one of Grahamís ferociously theatrical works in which costume, makeup, music, lighting and set are essential elements in the unmasking of deep emotions. Ariadneís white dress with a tracery of black rickrack echoes the twisting rope that lies on the floor in Isamu Noguchiís set, leading the way to two elongated Picasso-like forms that are the gateway to the maze. Gian Carlo Menottiís strings and drums underscore the tension. We go through this journey with the dancer.

In contrast to the drama of Errand, Grahamís Diversion of Angels (1948) is a lyrical, almost balletic dance for three couples and a corps of five. Graham, who designed most of her own costumes, presents a mirthful woman in yellow (Erica Dankmeyer), a stinging woman in red (Virginie Mecene), and the Martha figure in white, powerfully danced by principal Katherine Crockett, a goddess who appears statuesque even when she falls and rolls.

Grahamís men are usually minimally clad foils for the more complex women. In Diversion, the men leapt and jumped all around the central woman in white, or sank to the floor to worship her. Sometimes, they sat in couples with the corps women to frame the yellow or red coupleís brief duets.

These sculptural frames, the full-scale runs with crescent arms, and the menís adoration of their partners all foreshadow Paul Taylorís lyrical choreographyóno surprise, since Taylor danced in Grahamís company almost 50 years ago. Diversion is a delightful key to the genesis of his style.

In Spectre-1914, the first sketch, principal Elizabeth Auclair is doom itself. Draped in a voluminous black skirt edged in red, she sits, larger than life, on a monument of circular slabs. Her costume is part of the architecture. As she strains upward or moves her torso severely from the waist, she flails her skirt, revealing the full red underskirt that becomes a cloak, a flag, the revolution itself.

The sky turns darkest red, the music fades, and we are led to Steps in the Street. An ensemble of women in black pass this way and that, gesturing with open arms or fists, crossing their wrists in front, moving like the gears of an all-consuming machine. Yet, any one of them may show a distinct movement motif at any time. Graham is showing us the power of the pattern, countered by the uniqueness of each individual in the crowd.

Graham, of course, is the consummate individual. Even when she was being ďcorrectĒ for the 1930s, her own character was striding in the opposite direction from the mass. This lone woman takes backward steps that, because of their insistence, seem to move forward. She exits alone to reveal the white-gowned figure of Prelude to Action, who, the program says, represents unity and a pledge to the future.

Now the dance becomes a call to action. The dancers gather at the central figureís open-armed command. The human machine uncoils to form a phalanx. A spirit of inspired fervor whips them into fast runs and cartwheels, till they revolve around the central figure like atoms around a nucleus.

Finally, they come forward to the edge of the stage and extend their right arms, palms out, to us. I wanted to yell, ďStrike!Ē

In each of her many incarnations, Graham made a lasting mark that, praise the goddess, has not been erased.

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