Emil Kang, Executive Director for the Arts at UNC Chapel Hill, was a bit wistful but quite proud as he stood on the stage of Memorial Hall reflecting on the final performance of Carolina Performing Arts' phenomenal 2012-13 season with "The Rite of Spring At One Hundred" as its centerpiece. The Martha Graham Dance Company was performing the second night of a program called "Myth & Transformation" – and this one was particularly special, mostly because of this one-time presentation of Appalachian Spring, Graham's signature creation and arguably the most significant and far reaching choreography of the twentieth century.
Martha Graham, born in 1894, is one of those artists that nearly everyone has heard of, even if not that familiar with her art form. As a choreographer and founder of her own dance studio in 1926, she is universally spoken of with the same reverence and respect as other masters like Picasso, Stravinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright. By 1942 Graham had already developed a huge repertoire of new works and gained great notoriety when she received a commission for a new ballet with Aaron Copland as the composer. Based in part on a poem by Hart Crane, Graham named it Appalachian Spring, but Copland referred to it as Ballet for Martha.
The movement, the set design, and of course the music almost immediately became the emblem of a conception of an "American" style that still evokes strong feelings to this day. The ballet has eight dancers and revolves around a newly married couple moving to the frontier and their interactions with a pioneer woman, a preacher and his followers. It was a simple, but quite effective set by Isamu Noguchi that consisted mostly of the bare outline of a frontier home, a porch with a shaker-type chair and a wooden railing. Mariya Dashkina Maddux as the bride and Lloyd Mayor as the husband, were exquisite in portraying their love for each other and their hopes for a better life through movement. This was the original choreography from the 1944 premiere and is a stylized approach that still resounds as "American."
For those who were familiar only with Copland's orchestral suite derived from the ballet, there were some surprise moments, especially leading up to the famous "Simple Gifts" section. This is a longer 13-instrument chamber version, and it would have been quite lovely to have had live musicians performing.
Next up was a lyrical, erotic duet with Lloyd Knight, and Wendy Whelan, guest principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. "Moon," original music by Cameron McCosh, is a section from the larger work Canticle for Innocent Comedians. Premiered in 1952, this is one of Graham's creations close to classic ballet. The two dancers were beautifully intertwined through much of it and their fluid movements were like an expressive legato passage. You could feel the heat and passion coming off the stage as the audience came to feel like voyeurs watching lovers.
In stark contrast to the preceding came the brief and somewhat violent Rust. This world premiere was a spectacular combination of the choreography and costumes by Nacho Duato and the other worldly music of Arvo Part. A dark futuristic world (or one that has already arrived) is depicted through acts of torture and struggles to express oneself freely. It was a disturbing but highly effective assault on our senses that was a perfect example of the creative forces behind this knowing when enough is enough – not any easy thing to do.
Five years of planning, millions of dollars in fund raising, hundreds of talented people working thousands of hours; that all ended here: the final "Rite of Spring" performance. As spring is considered the season of renewal and the reawakening of the earth, it is quite appropriate that it should be this version premiered by Martha Graham at the astonishing age of 89 in 1984. It is quite a different vision on the Stravinsky score from the 1913 Nijnsky creation and others since.
In Graham's "Rite" there is no allusion as in others to folklore, either in costume or movement. The male corps consists of almost lumbering Neanderthal-looking beings who follow the leader and whose brains are immune to independent thinking. The actual story, of course, is intact and part 2 leads to the sacrifice of the female "chosen one" (danced with great athleticism in the April 27th performance by Blakeley White-McGuire). The female dancers are clad in flesh-colored tops that appear to almost not be there. But not for the expected uproar from actual topless women, I suspect that the preference would be to go that way in keeping with the impeccable primitiveness of the creation.
Perhaps it is because of the crisp vista of a long life and career that Martha Graham's version of the "Rite" amounts to a distillation of the essence of the music and story. There are judicious and limited uses of set design, lighting and other external effects, which make it even more compelling and human. Our ancient descendants are dancing to pulsating beats and following "learned leaders" who promise prosperity and salvation. So, how are we different now?
For more on the company, click here.