When Paul Taylor passed away last summer, it was a sad day for dance lovers, but there was not much in the way of worry about the future of his company. Taylor had transitioned his repertoire-based ensemble into a general modern dance company, and had a clear plan for it after his passing. Martha Graham's Dance Company did not have this seamless transition after Graham's death in 1991. For many years, legal battles and financial troubles afflicted America's oldest dance company. It was not until 2005, when Janet Elber took control of the company, that it finally began its mythic rebirth.

Martha Graham Dance Company in <i>Secular Games</i> © Melissa Sherwood
Martha Graham Dance Company in Secular Games
© Melissa Sherwood

The company has begun a two week residence at the Joyce Theater and the uneven Program A reflects some of the triumphs and challenges that the company faces more than two decades after Graham's death. Its residency – under the title The Eve Project – highlights female choreographers. The good news: the works by Martha Graham herself still impress for their innovation. Secular Games (1962) is a lighthearted romp on a Socratic/Utopian mythic island. It begins with some buff men playing with a ball while strutting their gymnastic abilities. It transitions into a "utopian" place where two couples are blissfully luxuriating before a chorus of both men and women break the couples up and turn the place into an orgy. The work ends with the men again playing ball. It's a lighthearted, cheeky parody of Graham's sometimes overwrought explorations into Greek mythology. The dancers of the company were excellent.

PeiJu Chien-Pott in <i>Herodiade</i> © Melissa Sherwood
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Herodiade
© Melissa Sherwood

Herodiade was less successful. This 1944 duet between a woman and her "attendant" is, I think, meant to be power struggle between two implacable personalities. A Woman (Herodiade) wants freedom; the Attendant wants to control the woman. Paul Hindemith's score beautifully illustrates the tension between the two women. However the issue with this performance was that this is a Graham piece that really needs a Martha Graham. Critic Edwin Denby wrote at the premiere: "Miss Graham's motions are passionately and nobly contained, and marvelously natural as she makes them." PeiJu Chien Pratt (the Woman) is an excellent dancer who has the Graham technique, including the signature hip flexibility that allowed Graham to lift her leg to ridiculously heights while wearing floor-length dresses, and Natasha M. Diamond-Walker was suitably stiff and cold as The Attendant, but neither of them have the charisma to make this an epic battle of wills.

Martha Graham Dance Company in <i>Deo</i> © Brian Pollack
Martha Graham Dance Company in Deo
© Brian Pollack

The two newer pieces were interesting without being great. There was a world premiere entitled Deo with choreography by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jean Smith. Lesley Flanigan's loud, driving electronica score sometimes sounds like a tractor trailer and at other times an ambulance siren. The program notes say that they are inspired by the Greek myths of Demeter (goddess of fertility) and Persephone, who has to spend six months of the year with Hades in the underworld. There is a sisterhood of eight women.The dance's big motif is that every few minutes there will be a complete blackout and when the spotlight comes back on the women, they have made a new formation with new movements. These formations and movements suggest struggle, toil, suffering and, finally, childbirth. The women of the company were absolutely spellbinding in the uniformity of their movements and the expressiveness of their bodies. However, like many modern dance pieces, this one overshoots the grimness. The score is difficult on the ears, the women suffer, suffer, and suffer some more. One longs for, say, Balanchine's Serenade, where an equally mysterious sisterhood experiences both lightness and darkness at the same time.

Anne O'Donnell and Xin Ying in <i>I used to love you</i> © Brigid Pierce
Anne O'Donnell and Xin Ying in I used to love you
© Brigid Pierce

After an intermission their program ended with Annie-B Parson's I Used to Love You, a modern day reflection on Martha Graham's 1941 work Punch and the Judy. A trio of colorfully dressed women speak into the microphone as film projections of Graham's Punch and the Judy play in the background. This Greek chorus of women offer deliberately snarky, inane commentary as a family drama between a wife, a husband, their daughter, and the husband's lover (spoiler: the lover is not female) plays out onstage. The women often wonder things like "Can we all speak into the mike at the same time?" Xin Ying is the wife and speaks to the audience in Mandarin. So Young An is her daughter, whose emotions are dismissed by the trio of women as "family problems". When the wife discovers the husband (Lorenzo Pagano) in flagrante with another man, the wife goes crazy, doing a mad Elektra-like dance to the death that ends with her collapse onstage and the whole stage performing CPR on her. The Greek trio: "Her feelings were hurt". This piece attempts to mix humor and irony with high drama to limited effect. The film projections of Graham's original Punch and the Judy only underscores how in dance, sincere and direct emotion almost always wins out over this sort of deliberate mix-and-match. Were we supposed to care about the wife's suffering? Maybe, but the constant snark of the trio of women made it hard.

This program illustrates the difficulties of a dance company attempting to forge a path forward without the towering vision and talent of its founder. Despite half of it being devoted to newer works, the main reason to watch the Martha Graham Dance Company is still to see the works of Martha Graham. The only way this will change is if there is a talent of Graham's caliber to choreograph for it. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting.

***11