Walter’s World: Martha Graham Dance Company

April 5, 2011

By Walter Rutledge

The 85th season of the Martha Graham Dance Company opened with the grandeur and élan the world has come to expect from this modern dance pioneer. The season was housed in the Frederick P. Rose Hall, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. This state of the art facility has an old world charm, recalling the quant opera houses of Europe. The theater is acoustically perfect and there is not a bad seat in the house.

The opening night performance began with a revival of Robert Wilson’s’ Snow on the Mesa. The work originally entitled A Portrait of Martha was a series of twelve mediations or thoughts. Each section is derived from an aspect of the life of Martha Graham both the prolific, visionary artist and the indomitable spirited individual.

The work is visually stunning. Wilson masterfully combines theatrical elements into a work beyond dance and conventional theatre. He accomplishes this without making any one element truly secondary or supportive, instead they all contribute equally and completely to create an unforgettable theatrical feast.

The costumes designed by Donna Karan seamlessly integrate into the work, enhancing the visual power. AJ Weissman’s lighting was executed with clarity and percision, establishing it as a design element and not a light show. The Kabuki style make-up assisted in transcending but not defining the work; we were in a new realm, not the past or the future, but in it’s own time and space.

Wilson has fashioned other portraits in film. Snow On The Mesa created in 1995 (four years after Graham’s death) is the only portrait designed as a theatre work. During the intermission Wilson spoke sincerely to the audience about his first and last encounters with Martha Graham. She was a formidable force and had a profound impact on his life.

The program concluded with the delightful Maple Leaf Rag. Choreographed by Martha Graham at age 96 the work is a lighthearted look at the creative process. The result is a comic, witty work that cleverly spoofs themes synonymous with classic Graham masterworks, while the subtle subtext, and choreographic structure remains true to the innovative Graham canon.

Artists who have been blessed with longevity have been given the incredible gift of retrospection. To recount a life well lived, to explore humanity; and to rediscover and reinvent the universal story. Maple Leaf Rag is the final complete work by Graham, and how befitting.

Graham took use back to a time of her youth, channeled her mentor and lover Louis Horst, and loving honored the creative spirit. Maple Leaf Rag is the equivalent of a choreographic sonata, as opposed to a requiem. Despite the fact that so many of her characters confronted death I believe Graham never dwelled on her own mortality; instead she immersed herself in the wonder and immortality of creating. Long live Martha Graham.

Photo 1) Mariya Dashkina Maddux 2&3 Martha Graham

Photo credits 1) Albert Watson 2) Yousuf Karsh 3) Barbara Morgan

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