Chronicle of a Phenomenal Night: Martha Graham Dance Company at the Power Center


Martha Graham Dance Company

Photo by Hubbard Nash

I went to the Martha Graham Dance Company's April 26 performance at the Power Center and was blown away. (The troupe also performed April 27.)

I’ve seen the Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) on several occasions before, as well as many of the endless companies the group's namesake has inspired, but never before have I loved them so much. The dancers performed four pieces: Secular Games (Martha Graham), Deo (Maxine Doyle & Bobbi Jene Smith), Lamentation Variations (Aszure Barton/Nicolas Paul/Larry Keigwin), and Chronicle (Graham). Each piece was emotional, wholly different, and an example of ferocious physical ability.

MGDC is in its 93rd season, which makes it the oldest dance company in the United States; they first appeared in Ann Arbor in 1932. Watching on Friday night, I was struck by how fresh Graham's choreography feels, even almost a century later. Graham is credited with the creation of a new American art form in modern dance. Her movements use sharp angles and the pull of gravity, both of which set her apart from ballet. Her work is also unbelievably difficult. There are moments in her choreography where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: for example, one dancer did a series of split leaps into the air from a standing position across the length of the entire stage. Even the onstage pauses in movement, which are usually put into a piece to give the audience a moment of stillness and the dancers a moment to breathe, are angular and uncomfortable.

There is no rest for a Martha Graham dancer. 

Secular Games opened the night. Graham debuted this work in 1962. It was the lightest piece of the evening and contained moments of genuine humor, something I previously thought an impossibility from the otherwise serious Graham. The dance centered on playful beach scenes and the performers tossed a beach volleyball, laughed, danced with a large towel, and more. The piece felt both of the time (very “rock 'n' roll”) but also, with the use of Graham’s signature cupped hands and odd angular poses, modern and futuristic. 

University Musical Society co-commissioned the second piece, Deo. Whatever they paid to help bring this piece into the world, it was worth it. The entire night highlighted the work of women as part of The EVE Project, celebrating the anniversary of the 19th amendment, and this piece particularly stood out. Two women choreographed #Deo, which was loosely based on the myth of Persephone and featured six women. I didn’t follow the story but it also didn’t matter: It was a visceral showing of women’s sorrow and rage -- and was absolutely stunning.

The third dance was inspired by Graham’s signature 1930 solo within a fabric tube, Lamentation. This newer version is titled Lamentation Variations and contains short pieces choreographed as reflections of 9/11. MGDC performed three parts of it on Friday. The last piece was particularly haunting; it finished with a stage full of dancers fallen on the ground save for one man and woman in an embrace. Then the woman fell through his arms, leaving the man’s arms clasped around nothing. It was a devastating portrait of loss.

Graham choreographed Chronicle, the final work, in 1936 after turning down an invitation from Hitler to perform at the Nazi-hosted Summer Olympics. The dance, which has been reconstructed by the company, is a meditation on fascism and starts with a single dancer performing a solo in a black dress with a red lining. Graham is renowned for her use of fabric. In the solo, the dancer uses the dress to envelop herself in more and more red as the dance progresses. In the second two sections of the dance, the stage is filled with up to 11 dancers at a time, all of whom are women. Graham’s signature cupped hands and angular poses match the pounding drums to present a world on the brink of war.

Chronicle was a sobering end to a phenomenal night.

Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.