The Martha Graham Dance Company filled Sadler's Wells with an audience of students. Graham was an icon of modern dance, and works like Appalachian Spring or Lamentation are vital dance history.
The company is a museum of Graham choreography, and sometimes it feels like it. Graham made her great roles for herself, and they lose power without her. This programme is weaker than the first: it has more of her solos, more dances where the Graham heroine is the point. Even so, they're worth seeing for Graham's authority as a choreographer, her command of pace, of stage space, of dramatic tension.
Appalachian Spring still looks like a great work. The dances are beautifully framed by Isamu Noguchi's set, spare wooden bars outlining a farmhouse, a barn or chapel. Aaron Copland's music, written as his "Ballet for Martha", was warmly played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Aaron Sherber.
The archetypal figures - bride, groom, pioneer woman, preacher - are outlined in spare gestures and in bright, sharp-footed dances. The preacher is followed everywhere by dizzy girls in bonnets. As they group and regroup around him, his prayers are woven into something like a hoedown. The dances for the bride and groom celebrate love and daily life in lovely social dances.
This was a lightweight performance. Those springing steps need stronger rhythm, more texture to the turns and footwork. Graham surrounds the dances with space, figures standing still against the sky. This cast lacks the authority for such stillness, for the weighted gestures. They go through it with the earnest glare of dancers who want you to understand what they're feeling.
A series of solos is dominated by Lamentation, first danced in 1930. A woman sits on a bench, knees turned firmly out, wrapped in a tube of blue jersey. She grieves through stretches and contractions, folding in on herself, fabric pulled taut over squared elbows and arching torso. In this revival Elizabeth Auclair reaches and pulls with clarity, but doesn't show you why this dance was a revelation.
By 1947, when Graham made Errand into the Maze, she had moved into her Greek phase: bigger myths, heavier archetypes. The errand is the woman's confrontation of her own fear, the Minotaur at the heart of the maze.
The Minotaur is another of Graham's tricky male roles, a phallic creature for the heroine to react to. The heroine's struggles are titanic and exactly paced. Alessandra Prosperi and Christophe Jeannot make her recoil and recovery clear, but they don't keep the tension.
I don't imagine that Maple Leaf Rag, made in 1990, was ever more than it is now. This is Graham the ageing celebrity, cashing in on her own prestige. It's built as a jolly finale with jokes of Graham clichés.
The company mug cheerfully, and Scott Joplin's music makes this popular.
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