Martha Graham Dance Company made the case for its founder’s significance in the modern era with two programs last weekend at Northrop Auditorium. Friday night’s performance was structured chronologically, offering a contextual look at Graham’s development as an artist.

Artistic Director Janet Eilber narrated Graham’s history, a life that spanned 70 years of 20th-century dance and choreography. Her words were punctuated by a series of reconstructed dances, including work by Graham and artists who influenced her — such as Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Graham studied and performed with Denishawn, the modern dance pioneering company.

The reconstructed “Gnossienne (A Priest of Knossos),” choreographed by Shawn, provided some cringe-worthy examples of cultural appropriation, filled with veils, flowing cloths and other stereotypical images of Middle Eastern culture, complete with a slave girl and sexy priest from some imagined faraway land.

The piece illustrated a fascination with non-Western cultures that was present in the work of many great modern artists, including Graham. Indeed, her version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which she choreographed in 1984, was soaked in a primitivism that felt uncomfortably outdated.

That’s too bad, because two other Graham pieces — the aching solo “Lamentation” and the wonderfully bizarre “Panorama,” the latter performed exquisitely by University of Minnesota dance students — struck a fresh chord. “Panorama” pounded with an infectious energy as the large cast of red-clad women danced in unison, creating interweaving patterns.

Peiju Chien-Pott’s performance of Graham’s groundbreaking 1930 solo “Lamentation” illustrated the choreographer’s authentic voice. Remaining seated, her bent legs spread to each side and dressed in a tube that covered her whole body, Chien-Pott expressed depths of emotion just from the movement of her torso, her head and hands peeking through the cloth to accent the mesmerizing work of loss and sadness.

A film of Graham performing “Lamentation” was also shown as part of the evening. The company has used that piece as inspiration for an ongoing project called “Lamentation Variations.” Three variations, one from 2007 and two from this year, were performed. None reached the level of innovation in the original.

 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.