Above: Blakeley White-McGuire as Jocasta in Martha Graham's NIGHT JOURNEY; Hibbard Nash Photography
Thursday April 14th, 2016 - Celebrating their 90th anniversary, The Martha Graham Dance Company opened their season at City Center with a program that featured two Graham masterpieces, a world premiere, and a powerful Mats Ek duet originally created for film. The Mannes Orchestra under the baton of David Hayes provided live music for the two Graham works. And the dancing was magnificent.
NIGHT JOURNEY, Martha Graham's telling of the Oedipus story as a flashback in the mind of Queen Jocasta in her final moments of life, premiered in 1947. William Schuman wrote the score, which is atmospheric and rhythmically inspired by the twists and turns in the narrative. The Isamu Noguchi set, and the costuming (Martha Graham's designs), create a sense of timeless drama.
Although Blakeley White-McGuire made a gorgeous 'Company farewell' performance last February, goddesses have the power to disappear and reappear at will. When Nir Arieli and I stopped in to watch a rehearsal last week, Blakeley was there, sportingly holding down a spot in the 'chorus' and looking radiant as ever. "Something's up!", I thought. You can't imagine how happy I was to find the White-McGuire name listed for Jocasta tonight.
Her performance was a marvel in every respect: Blakeley's supple strength, her Olympic-athlete physique, her intrinsic sense of character and of dramatic nuance, and the compelling surety of her dancing produced a glorious personification of the tragic Jocasta. One of the most distinctive beauties in the history of dance, Blakeley's performance held us enthralled from start to finish; the wave of cheers that greeted her solo bow was so genuinely deserved. Surely she could feel the love pouring across the footlights.
Above: Lorenzo Pagano in a Brigid Pierce portrait
Surrounding this paragon of dance, the Company put up vivid cast of colleagues, making NIGHT JOURNEY tingle with the sense of impending doom. Handsome as a young Greek god, Lorenzo Pagano displayed a physique at once boyish and manly - perfect for Oedipus, who is both son and husband. Lorenzo danced passionately, and with intense physical intimacy in his duet with Blakeley. Both dancers inhabited the Noguchi bed (which might also be thought of as a torture rack or a sacrificial altar) with deft assurance.
As Tiresias, the blind seer, Abdiel Jacobsen gave a powerful performance, moving about the set with an eerie sense of mission. Abdiel returned at the end of the evening as Jason in CAVE OF THE HEART, giving a knockout performance.
Above: Xin Ying, in rehearsal (photo by Nir Arieli)
As NIGHT JOURNEY's Leader of the Chorus, Xin Ying's mastery of the choreography's demanding steps and ornate gestures showed her yet again to be a most valuable and vivid Company member. Stillness can be as telling as movement in a Graham work, and Xin Ying's long-sustained pose upstage as the protagonists swept thru the drama was compellingly thoughtful and moving: anyone who has ever had their warning advice ignored will know the feeling of being numbed by frustration and pensively preparing to face the consequences. A sextet of new/newish Graham women were excellent as the Daughters of the Night: Laurel Dalley Smith, Charlotte Landreau, Lauren Newman, Anne O'Donnell, Anne Souder, and Leslie Andrea Williams all looked beautiful in their Art Deco-esque gowns and danced with assurance.
Last October, we had a studio preview of Mats Ek's AXE; it resonated superbly in the studio setting, and it took on a more epic - yet till intimate - feeling on the City Center stage, which was stripped back to the bare walls and riggings. In this domestic drama, Ben Shultz chops wood while his wife furtively rushes about the stage; she seems at once ignored by - and essential to - him.
Ben Schultz (above, in Brigid Pierce's photo) stunned the audience at AXE's curtain-rise with his skill at splitting logs. How many people in the crowd, I wonder, have actually ever seen it done? Ben is a natural, recalling a time when men developed their muscles thru physical labor rather than with a gym membership. The character's dedicated focus on the task at hand occasionally developed slight cracks, as when he reclined momentarily on the tree stump and seemed to be thinking of walking away from it all.
PeiJu Chien-Pott (photo above via Hibbard Nash photography) was an agile, furtive spirit; knowing her husband's labor is essential to the domestic comforts of the immediate future, she nonetheless seems to wish for a look or a smile from him. Neither is forthcoming. PeiJu 's range as a marvelous dancer has been broadened by this role: she gave an outstanding performance.
The genuine appeal of AXE - to me - lies is the juxtaposition of the performance of a mundane, repetitive task with the profound, timeless beauty of Tomaso Albinoni's music. The audience witnessed the work in palpable silence; the ovation for Ben and PeiJu was an inevitable reaction to their uniquely powerful joint performance.
French-Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard has created Inner Resources for the Graham dancers: an ensemble of eight women take part in this work, which was having its world premiere tonight. Ms. Chouinard is known for her proclivity for gender-bending and stage nudity, and these elements were seemingly to have been part of this new work. The dancers, hidden under jacket/hoods much of the time, did sport fake moustaches and beards; but instead of going all the way, their stripping halted at flesh-tone body tights. Thus a dancework that was seemingly intended to provoke and tantalize instead came off as a noisy and rather disorganized waste of the dancers' talents. Hopefully the girls had fun with the creative process; the piece included some pointe-work. As Inner Resources stretched long, my patience was tested.
But all's well as ends better, as the hobbits like to say. And so the evening finished with a wonderful performance of Graham's CAVE OF THE HEART. Again the Noguchi sets and the Graham-designed costumes created the ancient/contemporary atmosphere that sustains the Graham mythic works. Here the music is by Samuel Barber, atmospherically played by the Mannes musicians.
PeiJu Chein-Pott, capitalizing on her success in AXE, gave a rich and detailed portrayal of Medea; the character spends a lot of time brooding, and PeiJu broods beautifully. Her solos, which include lots of floor time, are danced with passionate restlessness; a series of turns across the space give the illusion of cartwheels, and PeiJu's final triumphing pose provided a vivid finish.
Abdiel Jacobsen (above, photo by Brigid Pierce) as Jason, awash with vanity yet attentive and caring towards his young bride, employs his handsome features and striking physicality to the fullest - a dancer exuding charisma from every pore. His athletic solo in CAVE OF THE HEART was arresting in its power and clarity.
Anne O'Donnell, in a white tunic, was the naive princess-bride who has put all her trust in the deceitful Jason; Anne's girlishly impetuous solo was finely danced, and her reaction to the first signs of having been poisoned made for a keen dramatic moment. Making a striking impression was Leslie Andrea Williams in the role of The Chorus. This young dancer has a wonderful way of moving and a surprisingly well-developed sense of presence. Leslie's dancing shows clear lyrical authority, and her facial expressions are nobly registered: she seems so at home on the stage.
A long and affectionate ovation marked the end of the evening.
The performance had opened with a brief film, 90 Years In 90 Seconds, in which archival footage and still-photos of Martha Graham and the dancers who have carried her work triumphantly across the decades and into the 21st century were meshed in a high-speed rush down memory lane. Fleeting glimpses of many dancers I have known and admired were a treat.
During the interval, I ran into the Company's Senior Artistic Associate, Denise Vale. It was Denise who kindly arranged our recent studio visit. Then Wei and I were delighted to have a chance to catch up with one of our favorite ballerinas, Faye Arthurs.
Just in! Great production photos by Brigid Pierce from the actual performance:
PeiJu Chien-Pott in CAVE OF THE HEART
From CAVE OF THE HEART: Abdiel Jacobsen and Anne O'Donnell observed by Leslie Andrea Williams
PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in AXE
Blakeley White-McGuire and Lorenzo Pagano in NIGHT JOURNEY
Blakeley White-MGuire and Lorenzo Pagano in NIGHT JOURNEY