Since Martha Graham’s death in 1991, her dance company has been through its share of trials. But the 88-year-old Martha Graham Dance Company has emerged triumphant, looking better than ever. The modern dance ensemble, which opened the Saratoga ArtsFest on Thursday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, left audiences dazzled and breathless.
Its impassioned performance showed that great art, no matter its age, endures, especially when it so lovingly preserved by those who understand and cherish it. That was clear in the program opener, Graham’s masterpiece “Appalachian Spring.” Created in 1944 with composer Aaron Copland and artist Isamu Noguchi, the work told the tale of a bride and groom entering their martial prairie nest during simpler times, when Americans were driven by optimism and faith in their sweat and prayers. It’s all played out to the wonderfully sweeping and well-known Copeland score that defined the pioneering spirit of our people.
The work was crystalline: straight lines that suddenly dashed into swarming circles. The characters — the bride, husbandman, pioneering woman, preacher and his quartet of followers — entered as if walking a carpeted church aisle. There was reverence in every halted step as they held their palms together, pressed against their breastbone in prayer.
Each character was clearly drawn by Graham, but the Bride, danced by Blakely White-McGuire, penetrated depth, rushing through feelings of romance as she blew kisses to the groom, as well as apprehension as she touched, fell and tumbled along the floor timbers of her new home.
Yet every dancer deserved praised as each depicted their characters with dignity and humble honesty.
In “Appalachian Spring,” Graham demonstrated her innocence. But in her “The Rite of Spring,” created in 1984 to Igor Stravinsky’s strident score, Graham explored the darkness of the human soul. This ritualistic dance, about the springtime sacrifice of a maiden in order to ensure a hearty fall harvest, was disturbing for its brutality.
Xiaochuan Xie danced The Chosen One, pulled off the back of her kin, by a robed Shaman, portrayed by Ben Schultz. As she struggled to be free, the Shaman’s giants goose steps and puffed out chest had all the other men and women cowering, and covering their eyes and mouths. Following the original story of the rite, Xie was tossed about, dancing to her death. Throughout, the others encircled her, twisting their torsos sharply as if tightening her death noose.
The maiden, for her part, shivered, convulsed and kicked, as life seeped from her.
Xie’s performance was terrifying and riveting, as was the overall piece.
These classics were in stark contrast to the frenetic pace of “Echo,” a new work by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis. Based on the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo — apropos for the Graham company as its founder looked to myth for inspiration — the shadowy dance was a whirling mass of urgent longing.
PeiJu Chien-Pott flung herself, with her long hair whipping, at Lloyd Mayor who was only interested in chasing his mirror image, danced by Lorenzo Pagano.
It was a desperate trio as none could find satisfaction. Still, they pawed and reached out for each other as the compelling and mysterious choral and orchestral score by Julien Tarride urged them on.
Even without the narrative, “Echo” was striking, for its atmosphere and the dancers’ delivery of its hyper-energized force.