"Timeless feelings are common to all of us. A work is dated if it doesn't speak to us about those timeless feelings. It doesn't matter when the work was done, or when those feelings were experienced. The past can be as fresh as now." --Martha Graham, 1989
At her death in 1991, Martha Graham was 96. Today, she's ageless and reconstructions of long-forgotten works from the earliest decade of her career are speaking to larger audiences than when they were new.
On Thursday, her company raised the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A. to a new level of distinction with a daring summary of her creative achievement. Gone were the monumental dramatic masterworks that used to make up the touring repertory: "Appalachian Spring" (1944), "Cave of the Heart" (1946), "Night Journey" (1947), "Errand Into the Maze" (1947), "Seraphic Dialogue" (1955) and the rest.
In their place, artistic director Ron Protas offered historical milestones--everything from Ted Shawn's 1916 "Serenata Morisca" (the first solo Graham ever performed as a professional dancer) to Graham's 1990 "Maple Leaf Rag" (her last completed work for the company).
A year ago (the Graham centennial), this new way of organizing and perceiving her accomplishments was dubbed "Radical Graham," and the Luckman program justified the title with an emphasis on Graham fundamentals and extremes.
In the stark, formalist "Heretic" (1929), Graham utterly broke with Denishawn exoticism and plunged into modernist social commentary, setting an imploring individual dancer against an implacable group. Graham always had the ability to make essential statements, and here there was nothing else, nothing to soften or decorate a bold black-and-white ritual of oppression.
Seven years later, in the "Steps in the Street" section of "Chronicle," she explored a similar theme but with dramatically expanded movement resources: Her briiliance at spatial composition and body sculpture remained as potent as before, but her ability to generate overpowering kinetic force fields through group repetition marked her as a mature master of her art.
With Takako Asakawa in "Heretic" and Terese Capucilli in the two newly reconstructed sections of "Chronicle" that flanked "Steps in the Street," these legendary works had an edge, a grandeur and a mystery that reading about them has never conveyed.
But Protas had more revelations in store: the golden "Ritual of the Sun" section of "Acts of Light" (1981), for example, in which virtually the entire company presented unadorned Graham technique as a mantra or invocation. While they danced it, it was impossible to believe that she had died.
Also gaining new implications from the programming context: "El Penitente" (1940), that familiar, small-scale, Southwest-style Passion Play in which the most profound narratives in Judeo-Christian culture are sweetly and sometimes playfully depicted without diminishing their spiritual majesty. As skillfully danced by Asakawa, Mario Camacho and Peter London, the work seemed to resolve all the turmoil and experiment of the '30s Graham repertory and prefigure her more conventionally linear dance dramas just ahead.
For some of us, Graham's solo "Frontier" (1935) will always mean more than "Appalachian Spring" because it brings us close to a woman and artist with no limit yet to the horizons she can see and reach, no reason yet to make herself into any kind of American institution, no servitude yet to literary or dramatic structure in her work, no need yet for a man to stand beside her.
To us, that's the radical Graham, and the Thursday program showed another facet of her in Denise Vale's performance of the reconstructed solo "Satyric Festival Song" (1932). Far from the imposing high priestess of modernism that she became, this was a young American joyously in love with freedom, with movement, with the curve and volume of female physicality. Not Graham, but Martha. Not dramatic, but kinetic. Not monumental, but radical.