The late Martha Graham was nothing less than an icon in the dance world, permanently revolutionizing the art form with her innovative choreography and methodology. The eponymous company that carries on her rich legacy brought a couple of her most iconic works to Berkeley over the weekend — with another thrown in just for fun. It was a stunning program with performances that would have made the founder proud.
When the quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland was commissioned to write a score for an equally quintessential American dance work back in the 1940s, he simply titled it “Ballet for Martha.” Although it has been performed many times by many other troupes, the renamed “Appalachian Spring” might still be called “…for Martha,” so completely do the Graham dancers inhabit it. As straightforward and pure as the “Simple Gifts” Shaker hymn which recurs in the score, it shows a boy and girl on the eve of their wedding, with a preacher and his four followers and a pioneer woman in attendance to bless the union.
Mariya Dashkina Maddux made a lovely bride, alternating between joy, fear and longing for the children she would bring into the world. Lloyd Mayor was The Husbandman, her more stolid groom, with his eye to the future and his hand to the plow, and Natasha Diamond-Walker was the dignified Pioneering Woman, kind of the mother-of-us-all. Humor was provided by Lloyd Knight as the high-jumping hellfire Preacher and his worshipful flock. All framed by famed architect Isamu Noguchi’s stark set, it was like early Americana personified (without the sweat and blood and dirt). But a curious circumstance of present-day America thrust it into the 21st Century. In the small cast I counted an African-American, Asian, and perhaps a Hispanic dancer among the Caucasians. And if that isn’t modern America, what is?
While “Appalachian Spring” shows its debt to the world of ballet, from which it sprung, “Cave of the Heart,” a retelling of the Medea legend, done only two years later, in 1946 (see archival footage, above), is pure modern dance: feet turned inward, not out; jerky, angular gestures; crawling and writhing on the floor and, at one point, using the scenery as costume. In a Graham dance, walking can be an event and a hand held to the mouth can indicate words of warning or a scream, as well as placating words of love. All are in evidence here in the dramatic recounting of a mythic tale of betrayed love and horrific revenge.
Miki Orihara was a mesmerizing Medea, the jealous sorceress who commits the worst of murders to get back at Jason, once a hero, now the author of her misery. He was danced by Tadej Brdnik, first with macho posturing, then with heartrending grief at the loss of everything he held dear. Charlotte Landreau took the role of the young princess, his new lover — all lightness and joy until the agony of her death — and Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch was an imposing Chorus, warning of the doom that was to come. Sets, again by Noguchi, and costumes by Graham herself contributed to the stunning stage picture. Members of the Berkeley Symphony executed the dramatic Samuel Barber score with elegant grace.
“Maple Leaf Rag,” set to Scott Joplin, is a romantic romp for just about the entire company, led by Blakely White-McGuire and Mauricio Nardi, as couples pair off around a balance beam (or is it an especially pliant and wide ballet barre?) while a mysterious figure in white (Graham?) swirls somberly and repeatedly across the stage. Marc Shapiro handled things at the piano with aplomb.
The last work (1990) done by the choreographer, “Maple Leaf Rag” parodies her own moves and style and puts to rest the rumor that “Mirthless Martha” had no sense of fun. Not a lot of substance here but one could think of it as a refreshing palate cleanser after the heavy fare that preceded. An altogether satisfying repast.