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IMPRESSIONS: Works & Process' Pop Up Performances at the Guggenheim Museum, Featuring the Companies of José Limón, Mark Morris, and Martha Graham

IMPRESSIONS: Works & Process' Pop Up Performances at the Guggenheim Museum, Featuring the Companies of José Limón, Mark Morris, and Martha Graham
Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram

By Deirdre Towers/Follow @deirdre.towers on Instagram
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Published on April 29, 2021
Xin Ying and Lloyd Knight; photo Diego Quintanar

April 15, 16, 18, 2021

Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum

Companies: José Limón, Mark Morris, Martha Graham

On a rainy day during the week, the Guggenheim Museum felt bleak, empty upon entering. However, Ali Cherri's The Digger (2015), projected on a giant hanging screen, transports one instantly to the Sharjah Desert of the United Arab Emirates. The current exhibit Off the Record also pokes you into a refreshingly new perspective. 

When the dancers stepped into the light on the rotunda of the Guggenheim's spiraling inner space, I was filled with spiritual potency. Most of the Works and Process performances take place in the Guggenheim's 273-seat Peter B. Lewis Theater. To breathe in the sweat of these magnificent dancers was a privilege.

Mark Willis touches the crumpled body of Savannah Spratt
Mark Willis and Savannah Spratt in José Limón's The Exiles; photo Titus Ogilvie-Laing

José Limón's The Exiles, performed on April 15, choreographed in 1950, is inspired by John Milton's poem "Paradise Lost," set to music by Arnold Schoenberg. Seeing this duet without the frame of a proscenium theatre freed one's imagination to join the dancers in Eden. Seen from above, Savannah Spratt and Mark Willis danced as equals, often in symmetrical poses using one hand to counter-balance themselves or performing phrases sequentially, with no signs of gender differentiation. From the first piqué out, Willis projects purity. Spratt dances with a feminine lightness of being; her hair falls in her face, causing her to delicately brush it aside. 

The Mexican-born Limón moved from California to New York City to study art, yet one night, a friend took him to see a dance performance, and he was so moved he decided to dedicate his life to dance. The painter in him is evident in this duet, or perhaps, even more, the sculptor. As the dancers exit in deep, second position pliés, facing each other, an arm stretched out to where they've been, you sense their apprehension and regret.

Two dancers lift their arms rapturously as two stand in profile; people watch from above
Mark Morris' Words; photo Titus Ogilvie-Laing

The next afternoon, we could see Mark Morris joking with sharp snaps of his head as he gave notes to his dancers (four men, two women) before their performance of Words. An excerpt from a work for 16 commissioned by New York City Center for their 2014 Fall for Dance Festival, Words was performed with live piano with music by Felix Mendelssohn. Sandwiched between my memories of Limón and later Martha Graham, Morris's dances resemble a divertissement, Baroque in its gestural formality of pattern and social exchange. As always Morris balanced profundity with irreverence: a walking step is accented with a head thrown back; hands clawed the air in front of the face one minute and jabbed the air the next. Infused with wit and rhythmic surprises (a sharp spiral to close a phrase, for example), Words was most memorable for the fun of watching Morris' own head and hands dance along.

Attired in skin-toned briefs, Lloyd Knight spirals his body as he crosses his feet; people watch from above
Works & Process Pop Up Performance in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda, April  18, 2021, with Martha Graham Dance Company. Featuring Lloyd Knight in Sir Robert  Cohan’s “Lloyd” from Afternoon Conversations with Dancers. Photo: Diego  Quintanar

My third experience with Works and Process, which has been offering performances in the Guggenheim for 35 years, involved Martha Graham Dance Company. Lloyd Knight, a handsome company member since 2005, came out first, wearing only briefs. Moving in silence initially, he slowly crossed his right foot over the left to spin around. Repeated three times, these turns were punctuated with a rise of his arms bursting into an arch of his back. Set to music by Nils Frahm, this hypnotic solo Lloyd alternates between a calm control and convulsions, as choreographed by Sir Robert Cohan from Afternoon Conversations with Dancers. 

A two-tiered circular pedestal was placed in the performance space for Graham's "Spectre–1914," an excerpt from Chronicle. In the voluminous black skirt with its red lining, Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, a company member since 2012, threw her energy to the top tier as accompanied by Wallingford Riegger's music. She was equally majestic and compelling in Graham's Ekstasis, reimagined by Virginie Mécène to music by Lehman Engel, reimagined by Ramon Humet. Ekstasis is an ode to the power of prayer and the will to manifest strength and connection flowing within and without.

Natasha Diamond-Walker makes an S with her arms as people watch from above
Works & Process Pop Up Performance in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda, April  18, 2021 with Martha Graham Dance Company. Featuring Natasha M Diamond Walker in Martha Graham’s Ekstasis. Photo: Diego Quintanar

Knight returned with Xin Ying, a company member since 2011, to perform Graham's "Saraband" from Dark Meadow set to music by Carlos Chávez. With the skittering on the knees; the thrust of the arms, elbows touching, one arm bent, Knight holding Ying at the ankles as she leans rod straight forward, Saraband snaps us into another age. Founded in 1926, Graham's company is America's oldest dance company, and each piece seems to proclaim its own grandeur, demanding our complete attention to not only her art but the wonder of being alive.

For dessert, I stayed to watch Shezad Dawood, Towards the Possible Film (2014), an amusing sci-fi film produced in Morocco, another completely satisfying departure from our urban jungle.

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