On the eve of the day we learned that we still can’t elect a woman as qualified as Elizabeth Warren president, the Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with The EVE Project, an uncompromisingly feminist program of works showcasing women as creators, intellects, thinkers, and warriors. In an era where girls and women still have to lay claim to the #MeToo mantra, Graham’s works were equal parts inspirational and instructive, aside from being exquisitely danced by a formidable company of 19.
Modern dance was founded by freethinking, independent women — Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis preceded Graham, but with her independent spirit, boundless creativity, instinctual eye for art, design, high fashion, and her era’s pop culture zeitgeist, Martha is our Ur mother of modern dance. Her lengthy career was marked by multiple masterworks that literally set the course for mid-century modernism with her preference for both mining emotional landscapes and letting the body speak her own inner psychological narratives.
At 94, the Graham company is the country’s oldest continuously performing dance company. When Graham died in 1991 at 96, the company faced some difficult years when the works looked shopworn and the dancing was only passably Grahamesque. Presently, under the astute direction of former Graham dancer Janet Eilber, this legacy American troupe is now in top form.
Eilber has brought together a cadre of exquisite dancers who have not only mastered the lifeforce of Graham — the power of the pelvis and the expulsion of breath that create that richly physical expression of emotion, the contraction and release. But other Graham staples include the torque of the body, mainly in the oppositional pull of the shoulder against the push of the hip. These dancers, too, are streamlined, though still able to access the weighty, solid groundedness Graham technique demands, they can soar and stretch endlessly. Both earth and air inhabit their realm.
These days, we talk about the body’s core as the center of strength and power. Graham accessed that vital lifeforce a century ago by experimenting with her own body in the 1920s and ’30s. She based an entire movement language on harnessing the pelvis and the breath, contraction and release to both propel the body and collapse it.
A wonderful video montage titled “Eve Forging” by Justin Scholar set the stage for a program meant to celebrate women and the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. At center, Graham dances in “Frontier,” one of her iconic Americana works. Before a wooden fence she gazes outward on a vast landscape, her leg cocked up on the railing, swings in an arc. Around her photographic portraits of twentieth-century female changemakers come into focus — Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, Sally Ride to note a few. These are women who, like Graham, made a difference and left an indelible imprint.
“Diversion of Angels,” from 1948, is both an abstraction colored with painterly brush strokes of yellow- and red-costumed dancers and a meditation on love in its three stages: adolescent flirtatious love, romantic love, and mature love. As the flirts, Charlotte Landreau, clad in a yellow torso-defining full-legged jumpsuit (design by Graham), and Lloyd Mayor, chase each other with skipping leaps. He whips her in a lift around his waist and up on his shoulder where she balances on a knee, her leg behind in arabesque. In red, So Young An zooms across the stage in slashing runs. Lloyd Knight scoops her up, cartwheels her and they melt into splits circling one another on the floor.
As the mature couple, Natasha Diamond-Walker uses her powerful centered stillness to command attention and the company of dancers often seems to orbit around her. When she and her partner Alessio Crognale embrace,they reach for the other’s face, cradle in arching lifts. The men also become a Greek chorus, heel stepping and balancing in wheeling arcs. I love, too, how the women reach their arms above head and one shoulder juts out before they run off; this stylistic Graham initiation is so wonderfully highlight by this company of dancers. “Diversion of Angels” beautifully evokes many of these essential Grahamisms, reminding us how vividly she allowed the body to speak and sing.
The evening’s oldest work, “Ekstasis,” is a solo from 1933 that clarifies Graham’s use of the torso as central to everything she created. Gorgeously performed by Anne Souder, the work is a study in angles and curves as she cocks out one hip and cantilevers her torso in the opposite direction with sensuous power. Shoulder and hip tension build up oppositional forces in the body. The result? Stunning, as is the torso-hugging shift dress Graham designed, simple, elegant and suitably elastic. Most surprising about this study, with choreography “reimagined” by Virginie Mecene, is how downright sexy Martha must have been performing this.
“Lamentation Variations” is an ongoing choreographic experiment that Eilber has honed from a 2007 one-off into a purposeful way of forging the company’s future-looking path. Graham’s seminal 1930 solo — it’s the one where she’s seated on a bench swathed in a tube of purple fabric, oozing psychic pain with every gut punch and elbow jab. Eilber invites choreographers to react to a 1943 film capturing Graham in the role, with a few rules: just 10 hours of rehearsal, public domain music or silence, no sets or props basic costumes and no longer than four minutes.
For the Kennedy Center, Choreographers Aszure Barton, Liz Gerring, and Michelle Dorrance were enlisted and music included George Crumb, Michael J. Schumacher, and Dorrance and Jaco Pastorius, respectively. Each brief study had serendipitous moments that spoke to either physical, emotional, or dynamic manifestations of the work. Barton’s duet was so stunningly silky and slightly morbid if felt like a suspenseful trailer danced with utmost liquidity by Laurel Dalley Smith and Anne O’Donnell. Gerring’s lunges and falls, and walking patterns drew from a post-modernist playbook, while Dorrance’s — no surprise for the tap genius — parsed out rhythms with walks pauses, kneels and rises for a group of 10 dancers. Later for “Untitled (Souvenir),” of-the-moment modernist Pam Tanowitz set in motion a number of quirky skitters, scoots, jumps and asymmetrical groupings of eight dancers clad in fashions by TOME (Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin) set in motion to longtime collaborator Caroline Shaw’s strings and sound composition.
With anti-war and feminist tropes, “Chronicle” packed a powerful punch, showcasing the company’s 10 women in a rousing call to solidarity and, need it be said, still? — revolution. The work, which premiered in 1936, was created between the two world wars, just 16 years after women gained the right to vote. Built in three parts, it was Graham’s response to fascism. The previous year, she had been invited to perform as part of the 1936 Olympics in Germany. She refused and made “Chronicle,” which, she noted is not an “attempt to show the actualities of war” but evokes “war’s images.”
Stunning and fearless Leslie Andrea Williams, clad in another Graham-designed costume, a black fitted dress with a voluminous scarlet-lined skirt, rests on a platform, Sphinx-like in profile, but ready to pounce. As she rises, her hands cupped like a Graham contraction, her body tilts off-kilter, the sweep of her leg whipping the skirts. The dress becomes a shawl, a shroud, and with the crimson showing, Williams drips with blood. This is “Spectre – 1914.”
As “Steps in the Street” opens, a company of black clad women enter, slowly, individually, one by one. Each has one arm bent, elbow at the shoulder, the other tensed at the hip, with their bodies torqued, their slow backwards steps, it’s as if they’re bearing a burden — a basket, a child, the weight of the world itself resting on their shoulders.
All angles — elbows, knees, flexed feet and wrists — the women form a regiment, traverse the stage in linear paths, carving space in unison. Wallingford Riegger’s music has urgent drumming and pressing horns and the women clench their fists, raising their arms up. Lunging and gouging gestures, a foot-tapping walk performed with march-like precision and sturdy sure moments of repose build into larger locomotion, jagged stag leaps, cartwheels and another singular dash across the diagonal. These women don’t just stand their ground; the swallow space asserting their power with tense determination. The closing section, “Prelude to Action,” ends on a high note as the company of 10 walk with a slight stagger forward, stare down the audience, a flexed palm pressing to us.
In a current political climate when women’s rights, women’s bodies and women’s spirits are being challenged, this was both a cri de coeur and a call to action. Graham never gave up. Her choreographic voice has made a lasting mark and changed the course of twentieth-century art. We should continue to heed her example. As she said, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that the others are behind the time.”
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.
Martha Graham Dance Company’s The EVE Project plays through March 7, 2020, in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.