Last Thursday, I traveled to Vail, Colorado to see Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) perform as part of the Vail International Dance Festival (VIDF). The Festival has a unique mission, mashing together artists from different genres of dance (think hip-hop with ballet, or tango with contemporary) to create something fresh and new. Damian Woetzel, the Festival’s director (who is a retired New York City Ballet principal dancer) has curated VIDF with a mission to create community and collaboration in the arts. (Here’s an interesting New York Times article about Woetzel and VIDF if you’re interested in learning more.) The Gerald Ford Amphitheater, where the Festival is located, is an absolutely stunning outdoor theater in the Rocky Mountains. The Amphitheater is right next to the serene and eye-popping Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (fun fact: Betty Ford studied with Martha Graham – quite a fitting connection for this trip!).
This was the first time I’ve seen MGDC live, despite having watched videos of their performances and reading about the company and Graham herself. I was struck by the intense physicality and signature geometric movements that Graham’s choreography demanded of the company. Every movement was so specific, yet the dancers moved with grace and agility. I was in awe of how much strength was necessary to not only make every movement polished, but also to stop abruptly mid-movement to strike one of those gorgeous geometric poses that is a signature of Graham’s choreography.
The repertoire for the evening was Diversion of Angels (1948), Errand (a slightly different, sparser version of Errand into the Maze after the majority of the company’s props were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina), At Summer’s Full (1940), and Echo (2014, choreographed by Adonis Foniadakis – the only piece on the program not choreographed by Martha Graham). All except At Summer’s Full will be performed here in Minneapolis. (Side note: we are lucky enough to have two different nights of repertoire when MGDC come to Northrop! I will definitely be at both nights of repertoire, as I couldn’t get enough of this company.) To save you from what could be novel-length blog about the full evening's fantastic repertoire, I’ve picked my two personal highlights to tell you about: Errand and Echo.
There were only two dancers in Errand: Ben Schultz who depicted the Minotaur, and Blakeley White-McGuire who depicted Ariadne, a Cretan princess who has to confront the Minotaur. While reading the program notes, this passage about Errand stuck out to me: “[Graham] brilliantly transformed [the confrontation] into a woman’s metaphorical encounter with her deepest inner fears. The role Graham herself performed is one of her most empowered and vivid heroines, and has continued to challenge generations of the troupe’s leading female dancers.” White-McGuire accepted that challenge with voraciousness as she hurtled herself across the stage and onto, away from, and into Schultz. Schultz danced ferociously with the giant staff on his shoulders, and even executed controlled falling with it as part of the choreography; the staff truly became an extension of his body. There were so many intense and difficult body counterbalances between the two of them that required an incredible amount of faith (not to mention strength) in the other to not fall or injure themselves. At one point, as we watched White-McGuire’s rib cage heave in and out during a brief moment of stillness, my mother leaned over to whisper, “It’s amazing how the human body works!”
Echo was the final piece of the evening, and left me giddy with excitement. Foniadakis’ choreography definitely echoed (no pun intended) Graham’s choreography, with his own very unique twist. He starts with the myth of Narcissis and Echo, and uses flying skirts, intense physicality, and challenging partner work that all are reminiscent of Graham's work. However, we see none of the signature Graham pauses to hold a pose. Instead, Echo is a magnificent, fiery whirlwind. The dancers literally let their hair down for this piece, so flying hair and skirts became part of the choreography. Peiju Chien-Pott, who portrayed Echo, was phenomenal, as was the duo of Lloyd Mayer and Lorenzo Pagano who portrayed Narcissis as a man in love with his own image. Their dancing was sensual and completely in sync, despite the flying speed of the choreography. The crowd loved the piece, and it got a standing ovation. I know our Northrop audiences will love it just as much.
Needless to say, the evening's repertoire truly exhibited how the MGDC dancers use their bodies to the absolute fullest limit (and remember, this was with serious altitude challenges from being in the mountains!). I sincerely hope you can join us for either or both of the Martha Graham Dance Company repertoire evenings on April 10 and 11; the company will leave you feel charged and inspired.