Saturday, February 01, 2014

Modern Masters

Cal Performances presents
Martha Graham Dance Company
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
January 31st, 2014

As January comes to an end and February begins, Cal Performances is all about iconic modern dance. For two nights, the Martha Graham Dance Company takes the Zellerbach stage in a program of Graham’s most celebrated works: “Appalachian Spring”, “Cave of the Heart” and “Maple Leaf Rag”. Of course, Graham technique is the common denominator that runs through the entire evening, providing the formal structure and foundation of each work. But content-wise, the three pieces are very different: one deconstructed narrative, one dramatic story and one abstract composition.
Katherine Crockett in "Appalachian Spring" 
Photo: John Deane

“Appalachian Spring” tells a classic tale of hopeful anticipation. And even though it premiered almost seventy years ago, the universal message and vast physicality keep it relevant today. Right from the start, this dance shepherds its characters towards the future and what lies ahead. As each of the eight cast members enter from stage left, slow, methodical walks propel them forward onto their front leg. These reaching motions continue throughout the thirty minute work: in the husbandman’s travelling saut├ęs, the followers’ parallel sissones and the bride’s arabesque airplane turns. There was also a deep feeling of community amongst the characters; a sense of joy and comfort that they were looking to the horizon together. The most serious moment in “Appalachian Spring” is the preacher’s variation two-thirds of the way in. But even in that dramatic sequence, a glimmer of reassurance shines through. Difficulties, sorrow and pain will come, but in those moments, no one is alone.

As much as “Appalachian Spring” is hopeful, 1946’s “Cave of the Heart” is dark. Based on the story of Medea, “Cave of the Heart” explores the cycle of jealousy. An angsty dance for four, the piece follows Medea as she experiences early inklings of jealousy and then as those initial emotions build into uncontrollable rage. The Graham contraction is a perfect vehicle for such a narrative. It starts with a deep internal impulse, which then radiates outward and grows to overtake the entire body. “Cave of the Heart” shows how quickly jealousy can turn into insanity, consuming the entire human spirit, and taking over like a multiplying virus.

The last piece on the program was also the final piece that Martha Graham completed, 1990’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. A humorous romp for one featured couple and an ensemble chorus, “Maple Leaf Rag” is quite literally Graham technique set to music. All the highly stylized aspects of Graham were present: cupped hands, prances, upper body curves, the tilt in second position. I even saw a Graham fall on one. But the movement was not at all stuck in the past; in fact, the dance shows how her syllabus was able to maintain its physical integrity yet also how it evolved over time. If neo-classical modern dance ever existed, “Maple Leaf Rag” is it. Though the term is more commonly reserved for a style of classical ballet, “Maple Leaf Rag” has all the characteristics of neo-classical choreography: speed and precision, a re-thinking of traditional movement and an emphasis on how the choreography punctuates the score.

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