NEW YORK -- Martha Graham Dance Company saved the best for last, as the company kicked off its 2004 New York season at City Center with an array of the great modern pioneer's works.
The evening featured revivals of 1946's "Cave of the Heart" and 1978's "The Owl and the Pussycat," but the highlight Wednesday night came last, with the rousing final section of the reconstructed "Sketches From Chronicle."
The all-female dance, choreographed in 1936 to Wallingford Riegger's martial score, stands as Graham's stirring, non-didactic response to fascism. Its superb "Prelude to Action" unfurls across the stage in sweeping, aggressive group patterns.
Dressed in a simple white gown with a black bar slicing down the front, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch stood atop a central pedestal, as an army of black-clad women, arms held rigidly in fists, curled their bodies around the stage with great leaping thrusts or strides - Graham at her angular, powerful best.
Throughout the program, the group work outshone the solos, which sometimes felt dated and self-involved in works such as "Cave of the Heart," a dark tale of jealous love inspired by the Greek tragedy Medea and danced to Samuel Barber. The program notes tell us that the work exposes the "full range of what it is to be human," but the four characters on stage were grand, highly stylized images of human emotion that slipped into caricature more than once.
Still, there were breathtaking moments, as when Terese Capucilli's riveting Medea (originally danced by Graham) donned an Isamu Noguchi set piece after murdering her rival. Resembling a shiny, skeletal tree, the metallic sculpture's sharp wires radiated outward, preventing Medea from physical contact; her emotional hunger had become deadly to others, and a prison for herself.
Vogue's editor at large, Andre Leon Talley, made his stage debut as the Storyteller in "The Owl and the Pussycat." An impressive figure in Ralph Lauren's full gray suit, hat and cape, Talley recited Edward Lear's delightful poem, the fanciful lines in sharp contrast to Carlos Surinach's severe score - performed live, as with all the music, under conductor Aaron Sherber's sure hand.
Ming Cho Lee's set formed a fantasy landscape. Martin Lofsnes' timid Owl frequently escaped up his red stepladder while Miki Orihara's Pussycat, an intimidating sex kitten, stretched across her orange divan. Best of all was the pea-green boat, a spare structure with plenty of room for climbing.
Again, the best moments came when the stage was full.
As the Owl and the Pussycat sailed away under the stars, a bevy of blue leotard-clad dancers became a dazzling escort of dolphins for the new lovers. The company was joined by a trio of mermaids and Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance students, as young dolphins. Their small forms were a touching addition, particularly when one of the littlest ones tired and climbed onto an older dancer's back.
If the dance was a bit of whimsy, it was whimsy Martha Graham-style - presented on a grand and serious scale.
Martha Graham Dance Company performs at City Center through April 25.
On the Net:
Martha Graham Dance Company: www.marthagrahamdance.org
City Center: www.citycenter.org