Martha Graham Dance Company exemplary in its Sarasota performances, especially in choreography created to confront the emotions

Expansive program presented by Sarasota Ballet

A dancer performs a scene in Errand Into the Maze. Photo from the Martha Graham Dance Company website

Sarasota Ballet under the direction of Iain Webb is committed to expanding the Sarasota dance scene. Still, Webb should be proud to have had the courage to invite the Martha Graham Dance Company to the city.

Graham’s company has remained in continuous existence since its founding in 1926. It might sound pretentious, but dance is more than a series of steps. The underlying heart of dance involves the communication of emotions, or of “our inner landscape,” to quote Martha Graham herself. The search to reveal emotion through movement was the underlying theme of her work during her long life.

Of course, audiences are usually comfortable with the entertainment aspect of a dance performance and uncomfortable when confronted with a more demanding reaction to the reality of Graham’s words in three of her ballets — Diversion of Angels, with its delving into the variety of feelings associated with love; Ekstasis, a solo from 1933 that has been re-imagined; and Errand Into The Maze, a powerful personification of the conquering of fear.

Aware that this could be a new experience for the audience, Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Graham Company, gave a brief, incisive explanation of the afternoon’s program before the curtain went up on Diversion of Angels, the first ballet. A plotless work, the piece features three couples. They represented youthful love — (the couple in Yellow: Laurel Dalley Smith and Jacob Larsen); erotic love — (the couple in Red: Anne O’Donnell and Lloyd Mayor); and the unifying nature of mature love — (the couple in White: Leslie Andrea Williams and Lorenzo Pagano).

Counterpoint to the couples were a chorus of men and women who bounded through the work in an explosion of beautiful off-center tilts and jumps; repeating leaps across the stage by the girl in red; and a simple joyous duet between the couple in yellow.

Grounded by the elegant solo by Williams (the Girl in White), Diversion of Angels built to an emotional intensity that mirrored the sweet and sorrowful melodic phrases of the Norman Dello Joio score.

A scene plays out in Diversion of Angels. Photo from the Martha Graham Dance Company website

However, the ballet comprises sweeping sections of joyous dance and, unfortunately, the small space of the Asolo Theatre’s stage forced the dancers to make constant adjustments, pulling in their movements.

Natasha M. Diamond-Walker was a mesmerizing figure in the Ekstasis solo. The program noted another Graham quote — “that the body is a sacred garment” — and Diamond-Walker, who only took a few steps at the end of the solo, brought to my mind a snake shedding its skin as she turned and twisted and shimmied in place to the reimagined score of natural and percussive sounds.

An old clip of Martha Graham performing Lamentation was projected on an overhead screen as a way to introduce the new Lamentation Variations in the weekend’s program, which was choreographed by three different people (Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Nicolas Paul and Larry Keigwin) to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. Graham is heard telling a story about the power of a performance. She sums it up by saying there is always one person in the audience who is affected; by implication, she is saying that is purpose enough for the performance.

Each of the short sections in the ballet effectively adds to the experience of grief.

It is not grief as such, but fear that underlies Errand Into The Maze, the most powerful work on the program. It is loosely based on the ancient Greek myth of Theseus, who journeys into the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur, a creature who is half man and half beast.

There were two dancers in the version I saw on Saturday. Xin Ying was the woman and Ben Schultz, the half-man half-Minotaur who represents the Creature of Fear in this ballet. The set design by Isamu Noguchi consisted of a V-shaped, bone-like frame with a long rope that curved its way across the stage, marking a winding path in its pattern. A pole at the other end of the stage created a cave-like space.

At first, Ying, with arms crossed and held tightly over her body, writhed in apparent anger and fear. She turned around and around, following the rope on the floor like a mad woman while breathing heavily and twisting her body into knots apparently produced by pain.

Another scene from Errand Into the Maze includes the Minotaur. Image from Photo from the Martha Graham Dance Company via YouTube

The Minotaur — strong legs outstretched with a menacing flexed foot showing the way — advanced in slow, threating steps. Ying hurled herself at the creature and he left; then, he came back. She repeated her move until she believed she had won. But, no, he came back again.

The intensity of the movements and the Gian Carl Menotti score were so effective that I found myself silently saying, “Win, win,” and finally she succeeded in overcoming the Minotaur. With her victory, she conquered the symbolic personification of fear.

Graham choreographed this hypnotic masterpiece during a time in her life when she was interested in both Greek mythology and the psychology of Carl Jung.

The afternoon’s program ended with Woodland, a pleasant ballet created in 2016 by the young Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg. It explores a theme of the outcast, but with a charm and lightness that makes it a contemporary addition to the traditional Graham repertoire. I am sure Lidberg’s career as a choreographer will be one to watch.

This Graham company is small — only 16; yet, each dances with heart and passion. I understood why they are invited to travel all over the world and why the school is popular with both international and American students. I also understand that dates on the premieres of each of the Graham ballets are of no importance; emotions are universal and timeless and are to be confronted, not hidden.

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