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Natural Wonder

Graham choreography digs deep into the human psyche

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There is no shortage of devotion to her work, her legacy.

Martha Graham has been christened the "Big Bang" of contemporary dance and one of the "primal artistic forces" of the 20th century, an artistic pioneer on par with Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. But lest her genius become buried beneath eternal praise and gratitude, let's consider for a moment what could well be the greatest gift of her vision.

Like an archeologist whose landscape was the human form, Martha Graham unearthed the raw beauty of effort -- the humanness of it and its arresting power.

Until Graham, dance was a vehicle for conquering the body, and dancers sought to obscure the effort the conquest required. Ballet's purpose was to defy gravity with grace, to move with seeming effortlessness in defiance of natural laws. Virtuoso technique was developed to amaze audiences, not enlighten them. Even Isadora Duncan and other early modern dancers, whose movement enlightened mainly because it rejected ballet's confines, sought lightness and whimsy in their works. Dancers were all smiles -- sweat, effort and pain were swept backstage.

But a visionary's curse is to speak the truth.

Using the principles of contraction and release as the foundation to her movement vocabulary, Graham set out to explore the cavernous depths of human emotions. Breathing served as a dancer's internal, syncopated metronome -- something to move with, not against. Exhale and you contract like you've just been punched in the stomach; inhale and you recover, as if releasing the pain. With contractions of all shapes and degrees, a dance becomes something of a birthing process, with new life created in the process.

Through years of exploration, Graham developed an entire language for the inexpressible, a language based on the manipulation of tension, punctuated by sharp, staccato movement. It's as complex as any spoken tongue, as universal as breathing.

Needless to say, I recommend you attend the Martha Graham Dance Company's Sunday evening performance at the Pikes Peak Center. Never mind that we are incredibly lucky that the Dance Theater has brought them to town; given Graham's gifts to us, we are obligated to return the favor and be active explorers of the human psyche.

The evening will begin with "Satyric Festival Song," a clownish solo which premiered in 1932. Gaining inspiration from mischievous spirits who Graham encountered in Native American pueblos, this piece brings to life a bright-eyed jester whose doll-like, angular floppiness is both impish and sad.

"Lamentation," Graham's famous portrait of a grieving woman, will follow. As Graham described it in her 1991 autobiography Blood Memory, published the same year she died, just shy of 97, "I wear a long tube of material to indicate the tragedy that obsesses the body, the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief, which is honorable and universal."

Next on the program will be "Diversion of Angels," which involves three couples, each representing aspects of love in the same woman. A couple in yellow represents adolescent love; a couple in red represents erotic love; a couple in white represents mature love. The piece was inspired by a visit to the Chicago Art Institute, where Graham came across a work by Wassily Kandinsky. A bold red streak in his work, startling at the time, revealed to her that others saw the world as brazenly as she did. The erotic, red woman in "Diversion" streaks across the stage in tribute to that connection.

Following the first intermission will be "Errand into the Maze." Though the title might suggest a theme of routine proportions, the piece is anything but lightweight. Dealing with the concept of conquering fear, "Errand" takes its inspiration from the Greek myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur. Prominently placed on the stage is a sculpture, reminiscent of a wishbone -- but in fact modeled after a woman's pelvic bone, at Graham's behest. For me, it brings to mind the work of Georgia O'Keefe, offering up the same sleek bone forms, though in a mythological and menacing context.

"Appalachian Spring," considered Graham's signature work, will conclude the evening. Set to Aaron Copland's famed score, "Appalachian Spring" was commissioned in 1944 by composer and arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose contributions, coincidentally, are being recognized this week in a three-day festival in the Springs and Denver. (See Seven Days.)

The architecture of "Appalachian Spring" unfolds like a play, with the choreography pulling the various storylines to the forefront. There's a new bride and her husband settling onto the land, a sturdy pioneering woman, and a revivalist and his four prim followers, who scurry like mice at his beck and call.

Graham's work can be intense, granted. When delving into such heavy territory, it would help to have a belly-laugh escape hatch. But, drenched in meaning as it is, Graham's choreography requires of its audience only as much effort as is natural and honest. Just remember to breathe.

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