B-side is traditionally not where you find the chart-toppers but coming out of a pandemic (if indeed we are coming out of pandemic and not just kidding ourselves) a Program B sounds just as magical to dance-lovers as a Program A. So Martha Graham Dance Company’s Program B at the Joyce Theater opened to an ardent crowd, though it featured no hotly anticipated world premieres but a hodge-podge of ancient and recent works by household names, including the sainted Martha. Eighteen months after the planet stopped spinning, the dancers appeared to be in fine fettle, the Graham trademark washboard abs intact, pelvic contractions on fire, and cliff-edge balances rock-solid.

Natasha M Diamond-Walker and Lloyd Mayor in Pam Tanowitz’s Untitled (Souvenir)
© Melissa Sherwood

The evening opened with the electrifying reconstruction of Steps in the Street, a fragment from Graham’s 1936 Chronicle, her blistering response to the rise of fascism in Europe. Its spare, militaristic dynamic for a platoon of nine stony-faced women and one soloist to a strident but stirring symphonic score by Wallingford Riegger conveys haunting images of fury, desolation and determination. The ensemble enters from the wings, stepping backward in a hesitant stop/start motion, looking over one shoulder as if walking into enemy territory that has been booby-trapped with landmines. Their upstage arms are curved around their waists, as if to protect a pregnancy, while downstage arms are crooked, hand on shoulder, suggestive of broken wings. They explode in scissoring jumps, dash around hoisting invisible loads of munitions parts, and sink splendidly to the floor to do what could be interpreted as giving birth or assembling complicated machinery (not radically different tasks). The awe-inspiring soloist, Leslie Andrea Williams on opening night, was sometimes a catalyst for the ensemble’s movement, but more often a lonesome figure moving against the tide, her eloquent backbends seeming to leave a lingering trace.

Leslie Andrea Williams and Anne O’Donnell in Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels
© Melissa Sherwood

The pure cartwheeling joy of Diversion of Angels from 1948 offered an antidote to the evils that overshadow Steps. Opening night featured Williams in white as one of three archetypes of romantic love, dignified and mature. Laurel Dalley Smith in yellow was a mischievous, adolescent whirlwind of emotions. Anne O’Donnell in red was all drama and sensual passions. Williams mainly seemed preoccupied with cerebral matters, or matters of state (her partner stands helpfully behind her, the fingers of his outstretched hand simulating a crown atop her head.) O’Donnell raced on and offstage, with barely time to catch her breath between episodes in her love life. Smith blithely took a flying leap onto her partner’s shoulder, only to be spun into the wings, presumably for some backstage canoodling. At the close, the ensemble men did their merry best to distract Williams from an implacable balance on one leg but failed.

Jacob Larsen in Sir Robert Cohan’s Jacob
© Melissa Sherwood

Of the three choreographers who were not Martha on this program, two had been company stalwarts and their techniques fit these dancers snugly. Sir Robert Cohan, who died earlier this year at age 95, brought Graham technique to Britain and was eventually knighted for revolutionizing the modern dance scene there. He started Afternoon Conversations with Dancers just before pandemic and completed it over Zoom. Jacob, one of eight solos born out of that creative process, is a big-hearted meditation on the gifts of dancer Jacob Larsen. With joyous floor-skimming leaps he reclaims space lost in pandemic. To Nils Frahm's insistent pianos, he lands a big pillowy assemblé and rebounds into a wide stance, arms generously outstretched – conjuring Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man of ideal human body proportions. 

There is no sign of human activity in Elisa Monte’s Treading, just a pair of aquatic creatures – soft corals, perhaps – in an imaginative mating ritual that has not grown stale in the 40+ years since its invention. In dappled lighting suggestive of an undersea cave, Marzia Memoli and Lloyd Knight go at it with great concentration and control, her liquid spine and his rippling arms things of great joy to behold.

Lloyd Knight and Marzia Memoli in Elisa Monte’s Treading
© Melissa Sherwood

Pam Tanowitz’s Untitled (Souvenir) from 2019 is a different species altogether. Tanowitz plays fast and loose with iconic Graham gestures and poses, tossing in some fragments of ballroom, ballet and soft-shoe for a genial group of eight, clad in delightfully floaty avant-garde pleats. Graham’s steely cores, the sharply contracting pelvises, the dramatic backward falls to the ground, have largely been ditched in favor of soft jiggly movement, goofy high kicks, episodes of languid elegance punctuated by bursts of freneticism. The unsettled scrapings of strings by Caroline Shaw that flirt with a Bach chorale make a perfect companion to these whimsical proceedings. The whole thing is very downtown and very chic. Whether one can identify the shards of homage to Graham is essential to how one perceives the piece – it can be frustratingly inside-baseball. But there is still great pleasure to be had in the way the choreography teases out the tender, playful, supportive relationships between these dancers. 

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