It’s been nearly thirty years since the Martha Graham Dance Company performed in Paris at the invitation of Rudolf Nureyev, then artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet and a veteran Graham guest artist. Since then, Graham’s company has survived numerous setbacks, including the loss of its founder and lengthy legal battles that once threatened to undermine the choreographer’s significant legacy. Now, another artistic director of the POB, Aurélie Dupont, has taken a keen interest in the company. In 2016, as a recently retired étoile, Dupont performed as a guest artist in New York’s Graham Gala, a moment that coincided with her nomination to lead France’s most venerable dance institution. Deepening ties between the two companies, Dupont extended an invitation to the Graham dancers to open the Paris Opera’s 92nd season with a mixed program at the historic Palais Garnier in September. This coveted honor is reserved for one company per season; other recent guests include New York City Ballet and the Danish National Ballet.
Under the artistic leadership of Janet Eilber, the Graham company performed for a total of six evenings in Paris. Audiences attending the first three performances saw Cave of the Heart, while the company’s final programs at the opera house opened with Appalachian Spring, a ballet that had previously never been performed in France. Accompanied by the National Paris Opera Orchestra on September 6, Aaron Copland’s suite benefitted from Christopher Roundtree’s energetic conducting. Sadly, the dancers were unable to connect with the score’s oscillations between buoyancy and melancholia, displaying more technical bravura than emotional depth. Their faces were particularly problematic, with pasted-on expressions, save for Natasha M. Diamond-Walker in the role of the pioneer woman. Here, more than anywhere else on the program, questions of legacy came to the fore. Today’s Graham performers resemble classical ballet dancers displaying a verticality that eschews the matriarchal earthbound aesthetic of previous years. While one can expect that current dancers are versatile and have not been trained in a single technique, the women are extremely thin and appeared ethereal, rather than drawing on the pelvic strength that Graham so rigorously articulated. Noguchi’s sets remain fresh and modern, featuring a minimalist house frame that provides the perfect expression for the possibilities of an American future not yet realized.
All six performances included Virginie Mécène’s reconstruction of Graham’s solo Ekstasis (1933), featuring Aurélie Dupont in an exceptional and brief return to the stage. Despite the fact that Ekstasis (from the Greek “standoff of forces”) is performed standing in place, Dupont’s strong presence radiated across space, a highlight of the evening. Her sensual explorations of the articulations that oppose the movements of the pelvis and shoulders are based on extant images and texts by Graham. While reconstructions are often a point of contention among historians, Mécène, program director of the Graham school and head of the Graham 2 company, has facilitated an illuminating glimpse into the choreographer’s movement research, highlighting the energy drawn from the ground and pelvis that informed Graham’s larger movement vocabulary.
Ekstasis was followed by an omnibus presentation of Lamentation Variations, an ongoing project that invites diverse choreographers to reflect on the universal themes of grief inspired by Graham’s iconic solo of 1930. Prior to performing short pieces created by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Nicolas Paul, and Larry Keigwin, an archival film of Graham performing her own Lamentation was screened on stage in order to create a bridge between past and present. The dancers often appeared more at ease in these new variations, mainly performed in a contemporary balletic style, than they did in Graham’s choreography featured elsewhere on the program. Supporting new works that resonate with the company’s history while exploring a universal theme is an intelligent and creative endeavor for the company. Nonetheless, most of the new choreography and costumes were derivative of popular dance artists’ work in Europe, with Graham’s early choreography appearing more original than these variations created between 2009 and 2018.
All six programs closed with Rite of Spring, a symbolic choice in the city that witnessed the controversial premiere of Nijinsky’s original in 1913. Rarely seen in the United States where it has been widely criticized, Graham’s Rite was created near the end of her life in 1984. However, her personal history with the ballet dates back to 1930 when she danced the role of the Chosen One in a performance of Léonide Massine’s choreography. Her late 20th century version draws on Native American mythology from the American Southwest, while glimmers of historic productions surface at times, chiefly when the women’s chorus is featured in profile (a holdover of Nijinsky’s motifs inspired by Greek art that have been passed down through Massine, among others). Overall, one can understand why Graham’s production has been criticized. From its predictable symmetry to signature Graham phrases that feel recycled, the choreography also illustrates Stravinsky’s percussive score without penetrating its primal power. But at the Palais Garnier, Charlotte Landreau danced the Chosen One with such fierce abandon, supported by a strong performance from Lloyd Knight as the Shaman, that the ballet managed to transmit the mythic power that Graham is celebrated for. The rest of the company was also in fine form for Graham’s Rite, accompanied by the National Paris Opera Orchestra.
It’s clear that the company is at an important crossroads, conserving its heritage while investing in the future. One can only hope that American funders will take notice of this important week in Paris, which provided French audiences with a rare glimpse of Graham’s impact on 20th century dance. Her technique and choreography are worth preserving, and naturally, they will evolve with each new generation of dancers. How much so, I suspect, will continue to be the subject of much debate and not just for Graham dancers. Paul Taylor’s recent death, in addition to the loss of 20th century giants, such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Pina Bausch, raise similar concerns. Like the open frame of Noguchi’s house in Appalachian Spring, Graham’s ongoing legacy is under construction.