The Martha Graham Dance Company provided a fitting climax to this year’s excellent Holland Dance Festival. Currently celebrating its ninetieth year, the Company is accepted as the world’s leading exponent of modern dance and the influence and technique of its founder is all pervasive and unavoidable nearly thirty years after her death. She has been called the Picasso of dance and described as a game changer. Her legacy is inescapable but it was nevertheless a rare opportunity and privilege to see the direct descendants of the original troupe in action.
After a little film clip, which showed the Company’s Ninety Years in Ninety Seconds, the show opened with classic Graham – Chronicle from 1936 to the music of Wallingford Riegger. If there is one thing you can recognise from Martha Graham it is the use of voluminous lengths of cloth, capacious skirts or costumes that are twirled and twisted. The first segment of the all-female Chronicle was an exquisite solo by PeiJu Chien-Pott in a swirling black dress which she pushed and pulled creating ever-changing shapes. The eddying folds of its bright red lining on the bare stage were like spilled blood, symbolizing the horrors for the First World War and anticipating those of the second – Graham had turned downs Hitler’s invitation to perform at the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games. The movements were all very staccato with lots of angular arms shooting out and with many of the static positions reminiscent of the chrome figures you used to see on grand pre-war automobiles, all very Art Deco.
Chronicle was very much of its time, tapping into the zeitgeist when modernism was beginning to influence all aspects of life and the arts. It also corresponded to a time when the focus on art was beginning to turn away from Europe in general and Paris in particular and look towards the New World. Not really surprising as half the artists had fled Europe to New York, fleeing as the Nazi hordes occupied and suppressed country after country. But there was, nevertheless, a vast wealth home-grown American talent emerging in all forms of art, a dominance and influence that grew and which would continue well into the second half of the century, and none more than Martha Graham.
At the beginning of the show’s second half we saw and heard the great lady herself, first in a short film clip of her performing the seminal Lamentation and then in an interview in which she explained how an audience member had reacted to seeing the piece. The first of the three Lamentation Variations started by overlapping the story and was beautifully danced by a girl and three boys as the spoken word merged into Mahler
The evening’s grand finale was one of the company’s almost signature pieces, Maple Leaf Rag to Scott Joplin’s evocative piano music – albeit with a few tweaks. I loved this piece which very much put me in mind of Frederick Ashton’s Façade which pre-dates it by sixty years – not that I would presume to infer anything. Although dating from 1990, Maple Leaf Rag contains perhaps more classical ballet moves than your average contemporary piece but, unlike most dance, this was pure, unadulterated and unashamed fun – and there is nowhere that says that art should not be. Sadly, it also proved to be Martha Graham’s swan song as she died in April 1991, a mere six months after it’s New York premiere.
We have reviewed nine events in the year’s outstanding Holland Dance Festival and enjoyed them all. Each presented something very special and unique but it was wise programming by the Festival organizers to put The Martha Graham Dance Company on last, it would have been a very difficult act to follow. Michael Hasted 10th February 2018.