IMPRESSIONS: Graham 2’s Special Holiday Event Inspires Hope for 2022

IMPRESSIONS: Graham 2’s Special Holiday Event Inspires Hope for 2022
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Published on January 5, 2022
Jared Stern and Kate Reyes in "Appalachian Spring."

“Secular Games” (1962), “Appalachian Spring” (1944) and a Surprise Dance Demo

December 12, 2022
Choreography and text: Martha Graham
Music: Aaron Copland
Narrator: Anne Souder
Backdrop video: Charlotte Landreau
Master of ceremonies: Virginie Mécène
Performers: (“Secular Games”) Axel Gerard, Avery Glunt, Antonio Leone, Esteban Santamaria, Jared Stern and Gion Treichler; (Dance moves demo) Esteban Santamaria, Ghislaine van den Heuvel, Lauryn Rickman and Gion Treichler; (“Appalachian Spring”) Bride: Kate Reyes, Husbandman: Jared Stern, Pioneering Woman: Ane Arrieta, Preacher: Antonio Leone, Followers: Avery Glunt, Natasha Shmid, Yuchin Tseng and Gabrielle Willis

*Performance supported by NYSCA Rapid Restart.

(L-R) Virginie Mécène, Esteban Santamaria, Ghislaine van den Heuvel, Lauryn Rickman and Gion Treichler demonstrating dance moves from Appalachian Spring. Photo: Screen capture from live stream of Studio Series on December 12, 2021.

Had you been listening closely to the goings-on at house number nine, Challan Hall Mews in Silverdale, Lancashire (NW England) at the time of this writing, here’s what you would have heard: hollow thumping and stifled giggling coming from my basement bedroom. Its source? Not a bout of saucy activity, as one might imagine, but my attempts at the late, great Martha Graham’s choreography. 

To watch a live dance performance from home is one thing, but to participate in choreographic masterworks with professional dancers in one’s pajamas is something I didn’t realize needed checking off my bucket list until tonight.

Approximately 3,300 miles away and in a completely different time zone, the dancers of Graham 2: Gion Treichler, Lauryn Rickman, Ghislaine van den Heuvel and Esteban Santamaria, exhibit muffled claps, shoulder taps, and sweeping arm movements simple enough to be carried out from one’s seats in the Martha Graham Studio Theater—or one’s bed in the United Kingdom. 

The tried and true Studio Series format, suited to non-dancers such as myself, not only makes Graham’s greatest works digestible, but also makes them accessible across oceans—all thanks to embracing technology.

Shedding light on several signature dance moves found in Appalachian Spring successfully allows the audience (read: me) to feel a little bit wiser and more appreciative of the seminal work. “Dance movements don’t have to mean anything specific, although some of them can trigger ideas or feelings.” Virginie Mécène, Director of Graham 2, reminds us kindly, “So this is your job, to interpret the work.”

Axel Gerard, Avery Glunt, Antonio Leone, Esteban Santamaria, Jared Stern and Gion Treichler in Secular Games. Photo: Screen capture from live stream of Studio Series on December 12, 2021.

Secular Games, which opens the program feels like a good series of stretches before a sprint. Graham 2 dancers Axel Gerard, Avery Glunt, Antonio Leone, Santamaria, Jared Stern and Treichler look every bit the picture of health as they cavort and caper with a soccer ball on stage. Graham’s 1962 work was developed for an all-male cast, but today Glunt joins the boys’ club and no one thinks twice about it.

Sans ample knowledge of the ancient Secular Games, a Roman religious celebration harking as far back as 509BC, my immediate point of reference is the 2020 Olympics, although you’d be hard-pressed to match today’s game with any currently in existence. Traveling with the ball clearly isn’t off limits and neither is gripping said ball between one’s feet while holding a jack knife. Tracing striking shapes in the air and executing lunges that would make my private trainer proud, the junior troupe are as sprightly as fawns, and strong as centaurs. In this sport that exists nowhere except within the Martha Graham universe, the only requirement is beauty.

Ane Arrieta as the Pioneer Woman in Appalachian Spring. Photo: Courtesy of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Common wisdom for any dance enthusiasts worth their salt: Appalachian Spring was created at as WWII was coming to an end. If Aaron Copland’s Shaker-inspired score is the thread that holds the dance together, then Graham played the role of ‘grand seamstress,’ for it was she, as revealed in today’s Studio Series program, who delivered the specifics about what she wanted from each character as well the general atmosphere of the dance. Amy Souder, previous Graham 2 dancer and present Company member, brings Graham’s voice into the studio by sharing tidbits of the choreographer’s communication with Copland:

This has to do with living in a new town. Someplace where the first fence was first put up. It has a sense of countryside. Fields, dear relationships, and the usual—the life of the people. It should happen as memories flow from the heart.

One by one and sometimes altogether, we meet Kate Reyes as the Bride, Jared Stern as the Husbandman, Ane Arrieta as the Pioneer Woman, Antonio Leone as the Preacher, and Glunt, Natasha Shmid, Yuchin Tseng and Gabrielle Willis as the Followers. But an invisible player is missing, at least to this fan of architecture; the most glaring difference between today’s studio production and others of the past is the absence of Isamu Noguchi’s full set.  Perhaps this is just as well, especially if it affords the dancers an easier time; the sculptor’s original rocking chair and bench were reportedly so brittle that dancers have to exercise extra care around them. The company still finds a way to keep the setting special by way of a breath-taking backdrop created by dancer Charlotte Landreau. Talk about artists wearing many hats.

Kate Reyes as the Bride. Photo © Martha Graham Dance Company

Romantics will naturally find themselves rooting for the young frontier couple on their wedding day. It helps that Reyes and Stern are an absolute delight to watch. Reyes, especially, is living proof that being small of stature doesn’t necessarily detract from one’s stage presence. Her dress seems a permanent part of her body as she peacocks on stage, swishing her large ruffles and petticoats fiercely as a flamenco dancer might.

Wearing bonnets with frills that bear resemblance to a shellfish’s mantle and gills, the Followers remind me of the doomed oysters in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (if you don’t know the scene, click here). Powerless to resist the Preacher’s charms, they fawn over the Holy Man like a score of groupies in the presence of a rock star. On the other hand, the Pioneer Woman strikes me as a #SIW (strong independent woman) who leads, not heeds.

With the greatest respect to Graham’s original storyline, the parable about Americans conquering a new land feels completely alien to me, a Chinese-Malaysian whose grandparents fled Fujian, China during the Chinese Civil War. What does register, however, is the appeal of a fresh start. So as the Bride and Husbandman gaze into the distance and the stage darkens, I mutter in one breath, “May 2022, free of Covid stresses, mark better times for everyone.” Didn’t Mécène say to interpret the work for myself?

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