martha graham dance company

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Martha Graham Dance Company in Pontus Lidberg’s “Woodland.” Photo by Brigid Pierce. Courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company.

Even in its focus on the future, the Vail Dance Festival is not without a warm respect for the past. The Martha Graham Dance Company embodies this notion so eloquently, it seems pretty perfect to dedicate an evening of the festival entirely to this historic company.

The evening opens with Dark Meadow Suite, a meditation on Graham’s fascination with the American Southwest. An abridged arrangement of Graham’s Dark Meadows, this iconic piece reflects the eternal venture of seeking and exploring both the land around us and the urges within us. It is at once both organic and erotic. One particularly moving section features 4 couples creating scenes in unison, balancing body weights to express the changing dynamics of their relationships. At one point, they appear to be rowing a boat, the women tipped forward into masts, the men grounded paddles against the current. A few times I let my focus soften, allowing the company to bleed together into one congruent picture. Everything they do comes with significant weight, like gravity pulling paint down a canvas.

I was especially excited to see the famous Lamentation, in equal parts for its fame and for the dancer who performed it last night, the beautiful Carla Körbes. The solo is strange and angular, full of oppressed shapes and fidgety movements. Graham’s choreography and staging convey the anxiousness of true lamentation, that feeling of wanting to crawl out of one’s own skin when in mourning. Körbes is deliciously restless.

Always looking ahead, the program continues with a series of new interpretations of Lamentation. Lil Buck presents his first commission for a major company, paying tribute to Graham’s distinct bladed hands in the context of his signature smooth style. Bravo to the festival for branching out; I would love to see where Lil Buck’s choreography can take him. The next variation is an eerie duet by Aszure Barton, danced with haunting subtlety by Anne Souder and Xin Ying. My favorite of the three, this variation includes startling moments of stillness, the girls expressing exquisite distress, screaming without sound. The final variation features the entire company in a composition by Larry Keigwin. This is perhaps the closest interpretation, cupped hands caging in faces like mourning clothes, nervous energy expressed in tilting and twitching. The piece ends with the fragmented falling of the cast in an effectively grim requiem.

Act II opens with a sumptuous study of shapes. Ekstasis, danced with poise by Anne Souder, explores Graham’s discovery of the elongated hip thrust. The solo feels like its dancer is inside a cave, the hollow sound of rattling xylophone bones and mist falling around Souder.

Next up is Michelle Dorrance‘s take on the famous Satyric Festival Song, a parody piece made by  Graham in reaction to criticism of the seriousness of her work. Graham’s solo makes fun of itself, a skill Dorrance seems to have in spades. Her tap-ified version of Satyric Festival Song– which she learned in the official Martha Graham style before adapting- is upbeat, playful, and funny.

The final piece is a excellent presentation of the full company, Pontus Lidberg‘s  Woodland. A bit more contemporary, Woodland showcases Graham Dance Company’s strengths both in movement and in acting. It paints a beautifully theatrical picture, the classy neutral-toned costumes keeping masked dancers from creating a forest scene that is anything but cliché. A stunning solo from Xin Ying blends into a full company creation. After a long festival featuring exciting pairings of dancers who may be unfamiliar with each other’s dancing styles, it is actually a bit refreshing to see the well-oiled machine that is the Martha Graham Dance Company. The familiarity of these dancers can be sensed from the back form of the amphitheater and it is a quite welcomed kinship.

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