Martha Graham Dance Company reminded the audience at Northrop on Saturday why her creativity still resonates and is relevant today.
The troupe presented "Chronicle," created in 1936 in response to the rise of fascism in Europe and to express the tragedy of war. With Russia's war on Ukraine, it brought out the emotional and thematic resonance. The dance was thought to be lost but was reconstructed after film footage and photographs were discovered in the 1980s.
It began with a breathtaking solo, "Spectre-1914," danced by Xin Ying. She donned a Graham-designed overly long skirt. It had a crimson underskirt that accentuated the abstract shapes the dancer created with her outstretched limbs.
In the stylized "Steps in the Street" section of "Chronicle," the dancers held their bodies in contorted shapes, moving in precise synchronous movements. They evoked soldiers or even weapons. The performance was flawless in its execution of Graham's distinctive vision and patterns.
Of the eight vignettes — Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars and Death/Rebirth — celebrating the different aspects of nature in Graham's "Canticle for Innocent Comedians" (1952), only one survived. And that was thanks to a film that was taken. MGDC used that vignette, "Moon," as a starting point to create a new work with the same title.
Conceived by Janet Eilber, a former Graham dancer, the piece featured choreography by seven other artists, and a new score by jazz pianist/composer Jason Moran. The project was one of nine Northrop Centennial Commissions, with funding that was generated in part from donated tickets of canceled performances during the pandemic.
"Moon" was a tender, riveting highlight. It contained stunning partnering work, where Jacob Larsen swung So Young An like a pendulum, later cradling her on his knees from a crouched position.
The other vignettes paid homage to Graham's sensibility. Sonya Tayeh, who choreographed the first vignette, "Sun," as well as the transitions that tied the piece together, was the most successful at honoring Graham's style while also creating work that shined in its own right.
Keeping the title of the original work with entirely new choreography inspired by Graham may have been a misstep, however. A new title referencing the original would have been more appropriate.
At the end of the concert, the Northrop audience was treated to a preview of "Cave," by Hofesh Shechter, to be premiered at the City Center Dance Festival in New York on Wednesday.
Taking inspiration from club music and raves, the work had a pulsing beat. The energetic connection of the dancers as they moved together harked back to the earlier Graham pieces, even as Shechter's work found new territory to explore. Yi-Chung Chen's lighting added to the work's dramatic feeling of anticipation and ecstatic release.
For much of her career, Graham resisted documenting her work. It's hard to imagine that, especially in this era when we save even the most mundane moments on our phones. So MSDC's commitment to share her work is just as important as its support for new dances by an emerging generation of choreographers.