at Ravinia

September 2-5

Martha Graham’s remarkable career spanned 70 years, during which she revolutionized dance in America and exerted a major influence on dance around the globe. Originally she created many of her dances–over 180 of them–for herself, but even when she could no longer dance she kept on making dances. She was choreographing an important new work when she died in 1991.

Graham wasn’t the first choreographer to reject classic ballet, to discard her toe shoes. Nor was she the only one intent on creating a new American dance. She was, however, the first to develop a vocabulary based on contraction and release that allowed her to explore the complex manifestations of the human psyche in movement. She commissioned outstanding composers and set designers (she designed the costumes), who contributed to the organic quality of her unique theatrical dances. Though her early, idiosyncratic works were derided for their stark stringency, she has long been honored for the richness of her dramatic choreographic canvases. Ironically Graham is now revered as an American classic: the two Ravinia programs offered by her company provided a partial retrospective, and gave some insight into her wide-ranging imagination.

Graham was fascinated by rituals. In Plain of Prayer (a 1968 work that opened the engagement) she turned to a Tibetan mating ritual. The maiden bride (Kim Stroud), accompanied by three angels who skim the floor in long white cloaks, meets her groom (Kenneth Topping) and his entourage of five bare-chested priests. It’s not major Graham, though its lyrical eroticism has a certain appeal and the men show off some brilliant virtuosic leaps. The most innovative touch belongs to the angels, who reappear–some ten feet tall–to shed their beneficence on the stage. Inevitably they reminded me of the exaggeratedly tall antebellum ladies in Pilobolus’s famous untitled work: coincidence or not, Graham was there first.

The Eyes of the Goddess, unfinished at Graham’s death, may offer a clue to her state of mind at the time. It seems undisguisedly autobiographical in its awareness that death is just around the corner–all cast members hold tarot cards. Death here pushes a surrealistic cart (designed by Marisol) laden with symbols: a lyre for the arts, a sword for war and destruction, a hoop to encase his victim, and a large fan, which cannot hide or protect his victim and her lover. And of course Death carries a long crook with which to reel her in. The dance features very interesting group movement for 15 dancers, an erotic pas de deux for the lovers, and a grimly beautiful march for the cast–all dead–that concludes the fragment Graham completed before Death carried her off.

Although Graham left complete notes for the remainder of the ballet, only her actual realization was presented at Ravinia. It’s unlikely that another choreographer, no matter how loyal, could have completed the piece as Graham would have. It seems to me that it should be left as is, for the final procession of the dead, like the march of the dead in Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, leaves a haunting, powerful impression.

Steps in the Street (a 1936 work reconstructed from an old film and introduced to Ravinia last season) is one of Graham’s oldest and strongest works–unlike any other in her vast repertory, it is a dance of social significance. As a rule Graham preferred to probe the human psyche, not the society some might see as responsible for damaged psyches. This utterly gripping short dance was created in support of the Spanish Republic, under siege by Franco’s fascist armies. Twelve black-clad women back onto the stage slowly–in desperation and hopelessness. Their fear for their men and children is palpable, as is their momentary spurt of courage, but they know, and we know from the shuffling steps that take them offstage, that their struggle is lost. The work is timeless and universal. The women could just as well be the hopeless and homeless of the Depression years or the despairing of today’s world.

A touch of irony: the original score, which must have been by Louis Horst, disappeared years ago, and the Wallingford Riegger music that now accompanies the piece was composed for Doris Humphrey’s New Dance, an optimistic humanist work; but the music suits this piece well.

Appalachian Spring (1944), which has been called “the greatest national hymn of American dance,” is a loving testament to the pioneers on the frontier. Isamu Noguchi’s evocative, spare set, Aaron Copland’s popular score, and Graham’s lyrical choreography wonderfully celebrate America. Christine Dakin, Donlin Foreman, Denise Vale, and Young-Ha Yoo were the principals on opening night; Joyce Herring, Floyd Flynn, and Maxine Sherman danced the rest.

The second night opened with Embattled Garden (1958), an amusing if cynical retelling of sexual complications in the Garden of Eden. Dakin danced Eve, Topping Adam, Sherman a sensuous Lilith, and Mario Camacho the dangerous Stranger. Primitive Mysteries, a work from 1931, when the company was all female, movingly depicts the puberty ritual of a young Spanish-American girl; it is beautifully danced by Herring, and Sherman as the woman who guides her.

Night Journey, choreographed in 1947, was the first ballet of Graham’s Greek period, when she explored the ancient myths through the prism of her own life and experience. She created the role of Jocasta for herself, and the role of Oedipus for Erick Hawkins, the first man to join the Graham group and her husband at the time. Noguchi designed the set, in which a cantilevered bed was the most important element, and the score is by William Schuman. Graham interprets the tragedy of Oedipus in a Freudian manner, which makes it all the more harrowing. Dakin was Jocasta, Foreman a virile young Oedipus, Pascal Rioult Tiresies, and Vale the chorus leader.

For those who think of Graham as the purveyor only of gloom, doom, and sad sex, Maple Leaf Rag offers a sunny surprise. Choreographed in 1990, when Graham was 95, it pokes fun at her own angst-ridden creations, who suffer as they wander across the stage. But she concentrates her wit and charm on a flirtatious young couple (Terese Capucilli and Flynn) who play games both on and off a flexible bar stretched across the stage. The rest of the cast eventually joins the joking on the bar, and the audience laughed at the technically tricky, lighthearted dance banter. Pianist Chris Landriau tossed off the Scott Joplin rags, and Calvin Klein designed the chic costumes.

The dancers are a pleasure to watch, and they’re obviously committed to Graham’s philosophy. But though many Graham works can and should be restored to the repertory, one can’t help but wonder whether a company can continue merely as a memorial, a museum. Will the powers that be at the Graham studio introduce new works by new choreographers? Should they? One must admit Martha would be a hard act to follow.