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Review: Exploring Nature and Nightlife at Martha Graham

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Isn’t it sad that a show’s oldest dance has the most to say about the present? And more disconcerting when this dance seems to be the most recent?

Without forgetting the dance itself: the “Chronicle” of Martha Graham, from 1936, is more spellbinding and prescient than ever. Created in response to the rise of fascism in Europe after Graham turned down an invitation to perform at the Berlin Olympics, it has become increasingly relevant in recent years. It’s really distressing.

But the premieres performed by the Martha Graham Dance Company on its season opening night at Downtown Dance Festival tell a different story. There was “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” a slow-paced series of vignettes by eight choreographers, directed by Sonya Tayeh, and “Cave,” a simple, raucous experiment in transforming the stage into a club by Hofesh Shechter.

When it comes to commissioning new work, the Graham Company typically goes in the opposite direction of its founding choreographer – in mystifying ways, as if the company, America’s oldest dance troupe, is vying for become the next random directory group. Moving forward isn’t just desirable, it’s necessary, but choosing new choreographers can be confusing beyond their brand names. These choreographers rarely show new sides of Graham’s dancers – technically assured, individual and, more than most, in tune with their inner emotions – so much as they imbue them with their style.

Even when the members of the company sell this choreography, what are they selling? The ability to be, like so many other dancers around the world, generically versatile? If the dynamic and powerful Leslie Andrea Williams stood out in “Cave”, it is because she had already conquered the stage in “Chronicle”. But by the end of the night, for several of the other dancers, it was hard to put faces to names.

This was evident in “Canticle for Innocent Comedians”, a new production inspired by Graham’s 1952 ode to nature, in which the dancers bring in the elements – sun, earth, water, etc. – to the dancing life. The work has been revived over the years, but it has never been recorded in its entirety. A single section, “Moon,” was filmed, for the documentary “A Dancer’s World.”

In the new “Canticle”, this segment retains Graham’s choreography, which alludes to what could have been. In a luminous and lyrical duet, So Young An and Jacob Larsen, bathed in cool moonlight, are continually drawn to each other. In a dramatic moment, she bends deep and he takes her from behind. Facing outward, she wraps her legs around his torso as he rocks her up and down, finally lowering her face first onto her shoulders. It’s a rush, just like “Wind,” danced by Laurel Dalley Smith and choreographed by Robert Cohan, was a poetic rendition of a fleet, lithe body caught in a breeze and pausing to show calm between gusts.

But redoing a dance with essentially just the structure intact is a tricky proposition, especially with something like “Canticle,” which by all accounts was jaw-dropping. As a Juilliard student, Paul Taylor watched it and was inspired to become a choreographer. As he wrote in “Private Domain,” his autobiography, “The whole dance was the most beautiful, awesome, magical thing I had ever seen.”

In the new version, many vignettes fade and lose their distinction, possibly due to the assortment of choreographers. It was hard to tell exactly what dancer Lorenzo Pagano was doing in “Sun,” which was created by Tayeh, who also presided over the opening and closing dances, as well as the interludes. Writhing from here to there with his chin lifted to a particular degree, he was a slippery sight, arching his back and rolling up and down the floor as if showing the effects of too much a lot sun: sticky, slow, lovingly gloomy.

Much of the choreography ignored the best part of this new production: its moving score commissioned by jazz composer and pianist Jason Moran, who performed live on Wednesday. By turns it was soft and tender, full of courage and power – the opposite of the sickening solos and duets that dominated “Canticle”. The music, as she kept waking up, been magical.

The other new work, “Cave”, also had a back story. the ballet dancer Daniil Simkin wondered something like: What if a rave was steeped in choreography? (This raises a question: why would you want it to be?)

Simkin, who returns to American Ballet Theater as a guest artist this spring, lived in Berlin and immersed himself in club culture. He also dances in the piece and is credited as its creative producer.

Shechter, a London-based Israeli choreographer, is adept at moving groups of dancers across a stage, a skill he uses in “Cave.” The dancers begin to spread out horizontally before converging into groups that hold their bodies low to the ground like boned strands of silk as their arms float above their heads. Simkin is a kind of aerial dancer; as much as he tried, he couldn’t match their earthly strength.

The brooding, heart-pounding ‘Cave’ is part bonding and part celebration, but as it follows its relentless beat, it’s clear it’s little more than a manufactured pleasure – reason for the crowd to cheer. music, credited to Soul and Shechter. Choreographically, “Cave” is little more than a series of flash mobs, in which the men have increasingly thrown themselves into the action – and the spotlight – to an almost embarrassing degree.

The most visceral section was the one featuring the women – bouncing, undulating and spinning, they transformed into a clan of spirits. Here they were Graham dancers again, though their movement was radically different. In addition to their abandon and speed, there was also something else at play: the contained fury and the feeling of “Chronicle”.

As a collective, eerily in tune with each other, they mirrored Graham’s first all-female transformative works in which a new way of moving, rooted in the pelvis, was born. They were distinct, primal; their dance had more than body and rhythm. It seemed unintentional, but “Cave”, in conversation with “Chronicle”, finally had something to say.

Martha Graham Dance Company

Through April 10 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org.