In 1930, Martha Graham sat on a stool and, with jutting knees and elbows, strained against the tube of stretch jersey that encased her, as if it stood for her grief. The Martha Graham Dance Company opened its 2007 two-week season on September 11. To honor the memory of that world- shattering day six years ago, the company asked three choreographers to create variations on Graham’s epochal solo. The theme is provided by excerpts from a 1932 film study of Lamentation that isolates ghostly, dissolving visions of the choreographer’s beautiful, stoic face, her clasped hands, her body lifting to heaven and bending down into darkness.
To an excerpt from George Crumb’s Apparition, Aszure Barton’s starkly elegant variation pens two black-clad women (Miki Orihara and Yuko Giannakis) in a circle of light. They echo Graham’s hand gestures and, like her, reach out in space. But they also hike up their skirts, jump, and fall. Giannakis howls silently once, but she smiles nervously, giddily too, even when Orihara stands at the perimeter of the light, facing away.
For Richard Move, lighting designer Beverly Emmons creates a glowing path along which Katherine Crockett travels. Like Graham in Lamentation, Crockett angles her elbows and flexes her feet, but she also perches perilously on one leg, the other thrust high like a sustained cry. The score by DJ Savage (computerizing a single measure by Beethoven) surrounds her with din as she turns and bends within the curtain of her hair.
Larry Keigwin masses 20 company members wearing drab street clothes. To Chopin’s Nocturne in F, they touch their faces as if verifying their existence and clap their hands in silent applause that flutters like a heartbeat. Twitching and writhing, stumbling blindly around, they fall slowly as the piano notes slip into silence.
Eighty years have passed since Graham first showed her choreography in New York. She died in 1991, and her company has since weathered financial and organizational problems, as well as a debilitating lawsuit over her legacy. Happily, the strategies of executive director LaRue Allen and artistic director Janet Eilber made 2006 and 2007 remarkably successful.
Much depends on the dancers, and if all the performances were as thoughtful, unforced, and richly nuanced as those of Elizabeth Auclair and Tadej Brudnik in Night Journey, Graham’s works would seem timelessly vibrant. This 1947 masterpiece, with a powerful score by William Schuman, views the Oedipal tragedy through the memories of Jocasta, who, in the moments before her suicide, re-
examines her life as mother and wife to the same man. With cinematic fluidity, their duet encompasses both her roles. To be as riveting as Night Journey was on opening night at the Joyce, the chorus of women (led by the gifted Blakely White-McGuire) must be ferocious, remorseless in their precision, and the blind seer Tiresias as implacable as the fateful message that his staff thuds out against the floor (Mauricio Nardi’s strong performance is marred only by the upward tilt of his face).
Embattled Garden (1958) never was a major work, although it has a terrific score by Carlos Surinach and two vivid set pieces by Isamu Noguchi that echo in hot colors the brasses and Spanish riffs in the music. Adam and Eve, the Stranger, and Lilith (in some myths, Adam’s first wife) tangle like couples at a wife-swapping party. Intentions—who wants whom, when, and why—are muddled together. I remember traces of wit in long-ago productions (you have to smile at the final image of Adam slowly stroking his wife’s ponytail up his groin), but, although David Zurak, Jennifer DePalo, Carrie Ellmore- Tallitsch, and Nardi (the opening-night cast) perform with wonderful zest, they project only generalized lust.
Each program features a laudatory speech by a guest celebrity, but the nine Graham dances on view—six of them superb—transcend words.