Monday, 20 April 2009

The Martha Graham Dance Company in Paris

In fact it has been a decade since, what is the oldest and probably without doubt most significant American contemporary dance company has appeared in Paris.

A regular visitor to these shores in the 1980s and 90s, the company was back last week for a special five-day programme at the Théâtre du Châtelet, featuring a selection of works from a choreographer whose impact upon the world of dance was arguably incomparable.

Indeed in the introduction to each performance, the current director of the company, Janet Eilber, herself a former dancer for the company, explained how Graham ranks alongside some of the last century's greatest innovators in terms of the influence she had in her particular field - that of modern dance.

The visit here - all too brief - received rave reviews throughout the national press and anyone lucky enough to have caught any of the performances was treated to just a taste of some of the highlights from a woman whose career - as a dancer and choreographer - spanned most of the last century.

Saturday's matinée selection was performed to a full house and offered up five different movements created from various periods of Graham's life.

That introduction from Eilber before the dancers took to the stage, was more than enlightening in terms of putting what was to follow into perspective.

The performance began with Errand into the Maze, taking as its inspiration the myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur and which was first performed back in 1947 in New York.

Dancers Elizabeth Auclair (Ariadne) and David Martinez (the Minotaur) were both powerful and moving: Auclair as mesmerising in the role as she has been in New York and Martinez (as required) made to dance most of the time with a rod all but immobilising his arms.

Diversion of Angels (from 1948) was altogether much lighter and more flowing "the feeling of dancing without gravity," is how Eilber put it beforehand and indeed it was much more balletic and in a sense more poetic.

Most of the company takes part in a piece which represents three women at different stages of their lives. Or is that one woman at three different stages of her life? Graham always left it to the audience to interpret as they wished.

Lamentation Variations was based on Graham's 1930 Lamentation, only reinterpreted by three other choreographers in 2007 in memory of the September 11 attack.

The opening video sequence (a trend in much modern dance nowadays) was more than a little perplexing as there was no music and the only sound that could be heard was the round of accompanying coughing from the audience.

But the second variation, featuring Katherine Crockett showed just how much strength and power is required in appearing to move very little and remaining virtually still for periods.

The third and final variation featuring the whole company was powerful in a different sense with the haunting music accompanied by dancing that evoked the fear, incomprehension and panic that must have been present on the day in question., and which most of us have only seen in television news broadcasts.

After the break it was back to more Greek tragedy this time in the shape of Cave of the Heart - essentially a woman (Medea) spurned by the man she loves (Jason) for a younger woman (the princess) with the inevitable "Greek tragedy" outcome.

Most remarkable in this performance perhaps was that of Tadej Brdnik, as Jason, who proverbially has muscles in places where most men probably don't have "places" and could possibly have put Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame in his heyday. Except of course Schwarzenegger didn't dance.

Finally to round things off and leave the audience humming a happier tune, there was Maple Leaf Rag - set to the music of Scott Joplin of course.

Some of the moves were breath-taking. You could hear it from the gasps in the audience. And it was performed at times at a fast and furious pace.

Apparently Graham used to ask her musical director, Louis Horst, to play the Maple Leaf Rag to "cheer her up" - and that's exactly the effect that came across to those in the audience.

And then the two hours were up.

The curtain calls were met with the inevitable rapturous applause before the dancers left (to prepare for their final performance in Paris in the evening) and the buzzing auditorium emptied.

There are no more European dates for the Martha Graham dance company scheduled at the moment

So those of you here who want to catch them performing will have to hotfoot it across the Atlantic to New York.

One plea from a confirmed fan though, would be please don't leave it another 10 years before you pop over the Pond.

Next up in July though - the Alvin Ailey dance company.

Ailey just happened to be a former pupil of Graham's.

Now that too promises to be something of a treat.

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