Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ballet Diary

Grace Hightower De Niro, Cornelia Guest, Karen LeFrak, Somers Farkas, and Muffie Potter Aston rehearsing "Maple Leaf Rag," which they performed for The Martha Graham Dance Company's 85th Season Opening Night Performance.
by Sarah Macyshyn

The Martha Graham Dance Company
85th Season Opening Night Performance
March 15, 2011
Frederick P. Rose Hall, Lincoln Center

Once in a generation an artist may appear whose genius changes everything. Like Picasso, Le Corbusier, and even Elvis, Martha Graham revolutionized her art. She is recognized as the inventor of modern dance but more than that, her influence has been felt by virtually every choreographer, dancer and audience in the past century. Everyone who enjoys dance in any form, from Dancing with the Stars to classical ballet, owes it to themselves to experience a performance of Martha Graham’s work.
The Martha Graham Dance Company opened
their 85th season Tuesday evening at the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Lincoln Center. After years of attending performances at Lincoln Center I remain awestruck with the knowledge that here in New York, we are at the apex of human art and creativity and we have at our fingertips the very best the world has to offer. All of this was in evidence opening night. 
Grace Hightower De Niro, Cornelia Guest, Karen LeFrak, Somers Farkas, and Muffie Potter Aston rehearse "Maple Leaf Rag” with Janet Eilber, Artistic Director for the Martha Graham Dance Company.
At many gala events the star power of the audience can outshine that of the performers as the city’s movers, shakers and boldfaced names fill the seats. Tuesday Evening the high wattage was most definitely on stage as five of the most prominent women in New York philanthropy gave spirited cameo performances in Martha Graham’s masterpiece, “Maple Leaf Rag.”

It takes courage for an amateur to share a spotlight with great dancers but Muffie Potter Aston, Grace Hightower De Niro, Somers Farkas, Cornelia Guest, and Karen LeFrak performed with grace and aplomb as each had her own unique solo entrance, then together, they skillfully performed a brief vignette. Muffie Potter Aston stole the show as she exited the stage enthusiastically blowing kisses to her adoring audience. Who knew she was such a ham?
The program opened with Robert Wilson’s “Snow on the Mesa” which was a loving Tribute to Martha Graham and a portrait of her life.  
Martha Graham Dance Company rehearsing earlier in the day for their gala performance (all photos that follow are from rehearsal).
Experiencing “Snow on the Mesa” (and it was an experience) I felt I belonged in a dimly lit basement theater in Greenwich Village in the 50s chain-smoking cigarettes.  The twelve avant garde vignettes were as much performance art and existential theater as they were dance. They were at varying times, mesmerizing, disturbing and even chaotic. I think this piece would be most appreciated by the dedicated aficionado of Martha Graham’s life and work, or a sophisticated fan of experimental theater and perhaps not by the typical balletomane.
The first scene, “The Wolf Wyfe,” featured figures shrouded in black drapes, creeping diagonally across the stage in slow motion and posing in ghostly silhouette. The only accompaniment was the roaring wind punctuated by Native American flute and a howling wolf. Another vignette, “Navaho Rug,” showcased the very talented Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch in a frenzied solo, wrestling with a gold plastic snake (which wound up in her mouth) to the repetitive pounding of pulsing percussive music. The highlight of the work was the tour de force performance of Katherine Crockett in “A Room with Too Much in It” which recounts Graham’s struggle with alcoholism. It combined a moving soliloquy and a disturbing almost motionless pas de deux with a champagne flute accompanied by a gamelan and the sound of breaking glass.
The mood was transformed with the performance of “Maple Leaf Rag,” Martha Graham’s final competed work. It was created in 1990 when she was 95. It is exuberant, lighthearted and uplifting. It is also a work of genius.

Everyone is familiar with the iconic photos of Graham’s work, the angular poses, crunched bodies and outstretched arms with clenched fists. Those photos belie the beauty and lyricism of her work. In some modern choreography the steps look disjointed and seem to have no relation to each other. Graham’s movements flow fluidly from one to the next carrying the audience on a magnificent journey that moves too fast and is over too soon. 
I wanted to press “rewind” to experience it again and again. For me the magic of dance is in the movement. It is in the delight of experiencing music being visually brought to life. It is in the exquisite beauty of the human form. Good dance is entertaining. Great dance is transporting. At its best, dance approaches the sublime.  “Maple Leaf Rag” and the artists of the Martha Graham Company were that and more.  

People who think that Martha Graham and other great dance companies are elitist are mistaken. Martha Graham’s work is quintessentially American. Its beauty and artistry speak to every heart. Dancing with the stars has nothing on them. 

The Martha Graham Company will be performing at the Rose Theater of Lincoln Center through March 20th.
"Maple Leaf Rag" cameo dancers Somers Farkas, Karen LeFrak, Muffie Potter Aston, and Grace Hightower De Niro.
Cassandra Seidenfeld. Dancers Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch and Gala Chair Neila Radtke.
Muffie Potter Aston with Dr. Sherrell Aston, Tanya Potter, and Ashleigh and Bracie.
LaRue Allen and Janet Eilber (Executive Director & Artistic Director). Montgomery Frazier and Neila Radtke.
Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower De Niro with Somers and Jonathan Farkas.
Ann Hearst and Jay McInerney. Robert Wilson and Jay McInerney.
Suzanne Flanagan and Neila Radtke.
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