The Martha Graham Dance Company gives a jam-packed triumphant performance presented by the Sarasota Ballet

Several years ago, the Sarasota Ballet began hosting a touring company early in the new year to give local audiences a greater breadth of experience with modern dance and to give the dancers a chance to relax in the audience for a change.

Local balletomanes have been treated to companies ranging from the well-known Paul Taylor Dance Company to, more recently, the less familiar Smuin Dance Company. This year, the Sarasota Ballet has hosted the grande dame of the dance world – the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Janet Eilber, Artistic Director, stepped onto the stage to present a riveting synopsis of the evening’s varied performances, like a lovely amuse bouche to whet the appetite for what was in store. A former dancer with the company and film actress, Eilber has described her mentor Graham this way: ““Martha was a visionary. A game changer, no the game changer.  She was always focused on the future, on change.”

“Diversion of Angels” was a lovely way to start the evening so close to Valentine’s Day. This tribute to the various forms of love – from flirtatious to romantic to mature each represented by a color choice as well as a style of dance – was like a constantly moving gorgeous painting come to life before our eyes. Leslie Andrea Williams as mature love was particularly graceful and transfixing – representing “relationship goals” for the permanence of true love.

Lloyd Major and Charlotte Landreau in “Diversion of Angels” (Photo by Brigid Pierce)

“Ekstasis” was the shortest and most exciting piece as performed by Natasha M. Diamond-Walker. Diamond-Walker’s economy of movement meant that she was speaking to the audience with the tiniest pulse or gesture. In some ways, it was as if she could make even her skin itself dance; and the quote from Graham accompanying the piece “the body is a sacred garment” made it clear that “Eckstasis” was meant as a celebration of life and breath.

So Young An and Ben Schultz in “Lamentation Variations”

We then watched a short film of Graham herself performing within a simply draping gown accompanied by her voice describing how the piece “Lamentation” helped a mother grieve – unleashing her emotions for the first time while watching Graham perform.

The dancers then performed “Lamentation Variations,” in which each of three choreographers responded to Graham’s original as a commemoration of the anniversary of 9/11, a date on which so many other mothers were forced to grieve.

While working in New York, I assisted with the death certificate for a mother who lost her young son; and after days of working with the families of other victims, that was that day that captured all of my emotions most powerfully as well. I can only imagine what it might have been like to see this piece during the early turmoil following that tragic day. Dance can unlock raw emotions that can transcend words. “Lamentation Variations” is a gift to the world; because as Graham herself said during her moving voice over, you never know who in the audience most needs to see your work during any given performance.

The last piece “Woodland” was a lovely romp, in which a young girl encounters the company of dancers wearing masks of various woodland creatures. The company is made up of dancers who are clearly at the pinnacle of their game, which was showcased beautifully in this piece. It is wonderful for us to see this internationally renowned company from the comfort of our own hometown.

Yet it was “Errand into the Maze,” that was perhaps the most impactful. Eilber said that Graham chose to cast a woman as the warrior doing battle with a creature that she encounters in a maze. She said it was quite possible that the dancer, Charlotte Landreau during the performance I watched, was actually tackling a fear within her own mind. This dreamlike piece was at once frightening and empowering as Landreau completely owned the stage to conquer the beast, portrayed by the fantastic Lloyd Mayor. It seemed from Eilber’s cheeky description of the piece that she found it quite suitable for this year, when only a month ago, the most women ever were sworn into Congress for the first time. Landreau was a stand-in for all women as we conquer our fears; and as she jumped up exuberantly to claim her win, she was the very embodiment of victory.

Martha Graham Dancers in Keigwin Variation of “Lamentation Variation” (Photo by Brigid Pierce)

The Sarasota Ballet has added an additional performance of the Martha Graham Company due to the popularity of the production. I hope the company catches the “Sarasota fever” that seems to bring some of the greats back year after year; because they are truly remarkable both because of the unique choreography and the artistry of the spectacular dancers.

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