The dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company may have been doing the repertoire of Ms Graham since the company’s inception in 1926, but Wednesday night’s program – featuring the work of four other choreographers – was proof that these are remarkably versatile dancers, capable of interpreting myriad forms of modern dance assuredly.

Martha Graham Dance Company, Cave of the Heart. Pictured: Blakeley White-McGuire; Image © Costas
Martha Graham Dance Company, Cave of the Heart. Pictured: Blakeley White-McGuire; Image
© Costas

This program opened with Ms Graham’s deliciously dramatic Cave of the Heart (1946). There is something reassuring in the histrionics of a Graham piece, even if the movement simultaneously feels dated. It’s almost a necessary old-fashioned version of modern, to give us a standard of comparison for contemporary choreographers. That she will reduce her characters to caricatures is expected, yes, but the complete commitment and investment of her dancers in their individual roles assuage this nicely. There are the requisite deep lunges, enthusiastic skirt tossings, and counterbalanced lifts from the very capable Miki Orihara, Tadej Brdnik, Iris Florentiny and Katherine Crockett, as Medea, Jason, the Princess and the Chorus, respectively. But parts of the piece felt oddly laughable: as Ms Orihara climbed into the many-appendaged set design of Isamu Noguchi that transforms into her octopus dress, shaking it furiously, I found myself on the verge of giggles. It was the same with Mr Brdnik’s over-the-top bravado as Jason; to be continuously larger-than-life soon becomes ridiculous.

Ms Graham’s Diversion of Angels (1948) closed the program, and it was a treat to see many of the same dancers exuding so much joy as they sliced into seamless penchées, too truly in love to do anything but temps de flèche across the diagonal. Ms Graham does a remarkable job of carefully delineating and characterizing each of the couples – in white, red, and yellow – by their movement. It was easy, for the first time, to see where Paul Taylor (who often seems a quizzical Graham offshoot, at best) may have found a bit of influence – Diversion seemed a more careful Esplanade, at times.

But the meat of the program was actually in the guest choreographers’ pieces, ordered from least to most effective. Luca Veggetti’s From the Grammar of Dreams, which was created as a gift following the Graham company’s regrettable loss of costumes and sets due to Hurricane Sandy, began with an interesting idea – the non-linear nature of dreams, set to spoken half-ramblings and unintelligible whispers and melodies – but failed to follow through. Dancers raced on sock feet to blocks of light and lifted wonderfully supple limbs as ponytails swung. But only Blakely White-McGuire could truly command the stage with her quiet authority, even as she simply traversed the diagonal on a careful, slow walk.

The three Lamentation Variations fared better: Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s was nicely melancholic but overall predictable and verging on saccharine; Yvonne Rainer’s was alternately slyly humorous and seemingly deliberately confusing. Doug Varone’s was best of all: four of the Graham men manipulated a bench and each other with beautiful resilience and timing. His version felt all too short, in its honest portrait of a group of grief-stricken men. His inclusion of affection and mastery of climax-driven phrasing is impressive.

It is a smart trick of the Graham company to lure its audience in with both the beckon of tradition and the curiosity that inevitably accompanies toying with such. And it’s certainly working.