Dallas — Modern dance is not even 100 years old, but to watch Martha Graham’s 1944 Appalachian Spring and then a brand new Firebird by Mexico City’s based Claudia Lavista and Victor Manuel Ruiz you would think they were centuries apart, if not eons.
Sandwiched in between the two was Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, offering a sense of timelessness.
The program, performed by the Meadows Dance Ensemble on March 31 at Bob Hope Theatre in the Owen Arts Center on the Southern Methodist University campus, carried out the Dance Division’s commitment to offer masterpieces as well as to gamble on commissioning new works.
And Appalachian Spring was indeed a masterpiece. To some eyes, it might have seemed positively dated. Yet it many respects it is still quite radical. In collaboration with the well-known American composer Aaron Copland and set designer Isamu Noguchi, Graham’s work captures the jubilance of newlyweds embarking on a new life. Set in rural Pennsylvania sometime toward the end of the 19th century, the action brings together the young couple with a restrained older pioneer woman, a fire-and-brimstone preacher and four giddy worshippers in identical white bonnets and flounced skirts. Life is contained and uncertain and best for everyone to capture every idyllic moment.
Noguchi’s striking, minimalist set suggests a Shaker rocking chair, a barn, a fence and a platform—everything pared down to its essence. Copland’s music is similarly spare, mostly American Shaker folk melodies and hymns.
It opens as one by one the dancers stride in: the pioneer women, the preacher, the young man and then the young bride, each with a distinctive gait. The preacher is all sharp edges and explosive leaps, the hem of his frock coat flapping like the wings of a crow. The pioneer woman is deliberate, with squared-off shoulders and level chin. The young man is free-wheeling at times, and brisk and nimble on his feet. His bride swirls and sways. The movement is stylized and sharply etched, from fists held firmly to sideways leaps to flat-footed jumps. You could freeze-frame each, and each would make a billboard.
The original cast included Graham as the bride, her husband Erick Hawkins as the groom and Merce Cunningham as the explosive preacher. Thursday night’s program featured Katharine Rygiel as the ebullient bride, Adrian Aguirre as the eager husband, Alex Druzbanski as the firebrand Revivalist, Emily Bernet as the brave Pioneer Woman, and Kat Barragan, Jacky Burak, Jennifer Nelson, and Olivia Schmid as the butterfly-like Followers.
The daunting nature of Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux only fazed Summer Myatt a bit, for she was a little hesitant on supported arabesques but not on speedy turns. Her partner Eric Emerson moved with an easy manner.
Given the many versions of the ballet Firebird (set to Stravinsky’s groundbreaking music) that exist, this new version by Ms. Lavista and Mr. Ruiz came as a jolt. No mythical Firebird in this version, no Russian forest, no Prince. Rather, the inspiration for this work was various migrations and the nightmarish images of Hieronymus Bosch. People are always on the go—suitcases in hand, garbage and litter strewn everywhere—as they endure obstacles, horrors, chaos and the occasional reprieve. You couldn’t help but think of the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.
Sometimes refugees are harassed with spotlights shining on their faces as they huddle in a mass. Other times they meander with no clear destination, one woman carrying a birdcage, a man with a flower pot on top of his head, another man with a watering can. One person puts on a coat as another puts his hand in the sleeve so that the two are wearing the same coat. Piles of clothes and other debris rise like a pyramid.
It gets stranger and stranger. Shafts of light bear down from above, fog rolls in, and in one arresting scene, the night sky flickers with starbursts. Migrants wave scarves and then toss them. A huge sheet of fabric forms a wave that covers all the bodies below; a melee erupts; shoes are tossed into the air. At the end, the group congregates as they follow a grotesque figure with a tiny blank face and huge wings. The wings reach higher and higher and calm finally reigns.
This is an unsettling Firebird, bizarre, fragmented and as unpredictable as the times we live in.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.