By ELAINE MOLINARO
For Montclair Local
The air was filled with anticipation in the Alexander Kasser Theater for the opening of the Martha Graham Company’s “Appalachian Spring,” Graham’s iconic dance honoring the spirit of life on the American frontier.
Montclair State University’s Peak Performance series celebrated the work’s 75th anniversary by putting the past in conversation with the present. On the same program the company debuted “The Auditions,” a dance conceived by choreographer Troy Schumacher and composer Augusta Read Thomas to resonate with Graham’s classic.
Graham started a revolution when she had her dancers remove their pointe shoes to dance barefoot and round their torsos into the movement she called the contraction, the basis of her dance technique, in a clear departure from the upright body of elite classical ballet.
The theater’s lobby buzzed with life as the audience viewed an engaging exhibit detailing the collaboration between Graham and composer Aaron Copland. In 1944, amidst the ravages of war, these artists referenced American folk dance and Shaker song to capture an idyllic springtime in the wilderness where a 19th-century bride and groom on their wedding day, a preacher and his followers, and a pioneer woman pursue the American Dream with optimistic hope. The display primed the audience to see a fresh choreographer/composer collaboration, performed by seven members of the Graham company, accompanied by the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni.
Martha Graham’s modern dance is a foundational American artistic form that has become part of the fabric of our nation and our cultural expression. In “Appalachian Spring,” Graham and Copland were “interested in representing the essential elements of America and of our democracy,” the company’s current Artistic Director Janet Eilber says in a release. In “Appalachian Spring,” the Groom and the Preacher slap their knees. The Preacher’s followers clap their hands in prayer and the Bride and the Pioneer Woman fold their arms as if cradling a baby. Instead of tutus and tights, the dancers wear 19th-century dress including long skirts and bonnets on the women, and string ties and brimmed hats on the men.
Appalachian Spring ends with the newlywed couple framed in the structure of their home. With her husband holding her shoulder behind her, the Bride sits on a Shaker-inspired rocking chair, one hand clasped over her husband’s and the other reaching out into the air. Graham’s final image leaves us in touch with a hope of our lives as both grounded but unknown and unsure but promising.
There were some opening night injuries: not a dancer, but a pedal on the Steinway grand piano.
An electric piano replacement had to be brought in during intermission with apologies from producer Jedediah Wheeler to Thomas, the composer, on her world premiere.
Thomas’ score for “The Auditions” focuses on musical and movement interrelationships, with a kaleidoscope of percussion. Sequences of quick taps on a vibraphone, marimba and temple block are in tune with the quick steps of the dancers’ feet.
The Auditions” takes place in two locales, the known and the unknown, demarcated by the rise and fall of the curtain. Dancers are transported from one world to the other by clasping a neon rod lowered from the sky. In the known world, dancers wear everyday modern dress: jeans, sweatpants, a business skirt, button-down collared shirts, tank and tube tops and sneakers. Staccato, searching movement and music punctuates the known world. The unknown transitions into legato sounds and suspended movements. In the known world, as in Graham’s piece, the performers are gendered. In the unknown world, the dancers become one as they move in unison, all wearing nude bodysuits surrounded by a halo of costume designer Karen Young’s gorgeous, diaphanous turquoise material, glowing in contrast to lighting designer Yi-Chung Chen’s softly aquamarine-lit cyclorama backdrop.
Schumacher’s unknown feels more nondescript than that of “Appalachian Spring”: there is an ethereal or aquatic, perhaps spiritual, realm. When people transform into figures evoking sea anemones, winged monarchs or floating spirits, the nonhuman world loses some of its human immediacy. It all suggests a nonspecific, general image for the future. However, to witness a modern choreographer in conversation with a predecessor’s pivotal work was exciting. Graham staged her male Preacher surrounded by four female Followers. In Schumacher’s unknown world, this same male dancer moves with four female dancers, but in ungendered choreography. Back in the known world, a man and a woman remain, again recalling the Bride and Groom of the former piece, and they too eventually join the other egalitarian world. In this way, Schumacher effectively communicates with the Graham legacy in a respectful yet forward-looking manner.