Martha Graham legacy intact

The oldest modern dance ensemble, now in residence at Skidmore College, performed a program of histo

How do you cultivate an appreciation for a dance legacy? Apparently, for the Martha Graham Dance Company, you talk about it.

The oldest modern dance ensemble, now in residence at Skidmore College, performed a program of historic dances at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Friday night. The concert featured seven works and a lot of talking by Artistic Director Janet Eilber. Prior to each piece, she gave a spiel, placing the dance in the context of history and Graham’s artistic growth. She also made reference to critics’ comments, favorable and otherwise, and showed a few dim slides and fuzzy film clips.

It was instructive, but it stilted the flow of the evening. These comments are better reserved for program notes or presented in pre-show talks. Perhaps Eilber, like Graham, is loathe to give up the stage. Or she can’t contain her desire to teach. She was once the company’s education director.

Regardless, the talk starched the dances that are, for today’s audiences, on the stiff side already.

Graham’s works were vital to the development of dance throughout the Western world, there is no doubt. But much of the dances, as seen at SPAC, looked old-fashioned. They were rescued and made vibrant only by the top-notch company dancers, who kept the dances relevant by performing them with zeal.

They all deserved applause. Katherine Crockett was alluring, with her arms snaking to the sky, in the ritualistic “The Incense.” Jennifer DePalo, a Hudson Falls native, was fetching in “Serenata Morisca.” With bells tinkling on her ankles, she twirled and kicked in her yellow skirt, looking like a shooting star in constant motion.

Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch didn’t quite grasp the depth of “Lamentations,” a Graham signature that begged for honesty. She attacked the movement, sharp and brittle, which formed this portrait of loss. But she came up short emotionally, as if the dance was merely an act of moving.

The dancers who studied with the company at Skidmore College brightened the subdued program as they blazed in unison in “Panorama.” Graham’s works often ooze a combativeness, and “Panorama” was no exception. Dressed in red, the performers marched and charged as if going to conquer a foe.

Graham’s pugnaciousness was ripe in “Chronicle,” a 1936 dance that was her statement of opposition to war in Europe. Two excerpts were shown, “Steps in the Street” with the sturdy Miki Orihara, and “Prelude to Action” with the commanding DePalo. Graham’s trademark twisted torso and angular arms were in full bloom here. Her modernist vision was complete.

“Errand Into the Maze” was a metaphor for another battle, that of the sexes. Dancing in and around a Isamu Noguchi set, Elizabeth Auclair and David Martinez were paired in this strange duet, replete with sexual tension and violence. This was a difficult-to-perform piece, as Auclair must hold sway as the heroine who slays the monster, and Martinez must dance with a bar stretched behind his head. They rose to the challenge.

Everything looked dated when compared to Graham’s last work before her death, “Maple Leaf Rag.” From 1990, this dance was a delightful romp, a relief from the angst, as Graham poked fun at her dour nature. Here, Crockett in a large skirt moved across the floor to the plunking of a piano with Grahamesque reserve. Then Scott Joplin’s cheery “Maple Leaf Rag” would begin. And all the dancers hit the boards, stepping blithely.

Graham had a sense of humor after all. Who knew?

Categories: Life and Arts

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