Martha Graham was never especially interested in revivals of her earlier work. Yet an indication of the loyalty and dedication that exists within the Graham company are the tireless efforts undertaken to reconstruct these "lost" works. With archeological meticulousness, steps are pieced together from original contact sheets, the memories of longtime dancers, photographs, and film footage. Friday's program "C" included the company's most recent excavation, the 1943 work "Deaths and Entrances" - a welcome return to the repertory.
This is Graham at her most plotlessly psychodramatic. Brooding music by Hunter Johnson introduces us to three sisters, played by Miki Orihara, Virginie Mecene, and Katherine Crockett. They huddle around a game of chess, a symbol of intrigue and strategy, which becomes the work's organizing force. A sparse set design by Arch Lauterer creatively places three architectural quotations at opposite corners of an empty stage: a balcony parapet, a fireside banister, and a columnar foyer. The spacious room in between hints at a grandiose Victorian estate, oppressively ho-hum, as well as the intimate crevices in the secret lives of the sisters who live there.
The dance equivalent to the Gothic novel, "Deaths and Entrances" includes a series of flashbacks and time shifts triggered by objects lying around the house. The sisters are confronted with the men they have known, good and bad. The principal sister, extravagantly embodied by Ms. Orihara, circles restlessly, holding an elbow out for support. She is visited by her Heathcliff, in the form of the Dark Beloved, played by Christophe Jeannot.
Although "Deaths and Entrances" is less unified than Graham's other works, it has beautiful dancing roles for Tadej Brdnik as the Poetic Beloved, and the two Cavaliers, played by Maurizio Nardi and Gelan Lambert Jr. During jazzy interludes, the sisters see their younger selves, capering through the halls in plaid skirts. Disappointment in love is evoked in the poignant image of each sister trailing a white mesh drapery across the stage, reminiscent of a bride's headdress. At the height of turmoil, Ms. Orihara struggles to maintain proper etiquette, curtsying with much reluctance. She finally upsets the chess set and removes the pawns.
For the New York season, organizers have sought to make each work accessible to a new generation. They have printed up color brochures, and included in the Playbill lengthy pro gram notes, reception histories, even inserts of dramatic exposition for the revival pieces ("Imagine a dark stormy evening"). These appendices provide a useful introduction for the newcomer, and often interesting anecdotes for the longtime admirer.
Whether one reads them or not, they are sure signs that Graham's works will endure.
Thursday's program "B" drew upon Graham's fascination with Greek myth ("Cave of the Heart"), religious observances ("Primitive Mysteries"), and the American legacy of the pioneer spirit ("Appalachian Spring").
"Primitive Mysteries," an early triptych of three processional tableaus, provided a visual centerpiece to the evening. The performance marked the New York debut of this revival, newly enhanced by the rediscovery of Louis Horst's orchestral score. (Until recently, only a piano transcription with foolscap notation for flute and oboe was available.)
Decorated in cornflower blue dresses with a Spanish flounce at the bottom edge, an all-female ensemble proceeds in orderly columns around a Madonna figure in white. Graham herself usually occupied the solo role, but here coartistic director Christine Dakin interpreted it with a luminous aura.
The choreography borrows significantly from Graham's 1930 visit to the American Southwest. She was astonished particularly by the religious imagery she found there, an amalgam of Spanish Catholicism and the indigenous religions of the Native American pueblo. The stylized portraits on mural walls and whitewashed missions answered her own iconic statements in dance. Each section captures the generalized progression of religious observance within a community, beginning with the interpretive poses of adoration ("Hymn to the Virgin"), the funerary spectacle of mourning ("Crucifixus"), and ultimately resurrection ("Hosanna").
The celebrants share a quiet intensity, stepping out in silence at the beginning of each section with their elbows protracted. They strike hieratic gestures, join in a chorus circle, or kneel suppliantly. Their movements carry the brittleness of sun-baked adobe figurines. In the ensemble patterns, Graham realizes the windswept geometries of desert mesas.
When first performed at the Craig Theater, "Primitive Mysteries" earned Graham breakthrough acclaim. It remains one of her most impressive works, reducing phrases to their bare essentials. A high-stepping walk in "Crucifixus" describes every bone in the dancer's foot as she leans back, flexes, and points, before tumbling forward in a seesawing motion that suggests the opening and closing of flamenco fans.
Horst's score, stark and percussive, swells with chord progressions that resound along the major scale with the devotional hymns of the psalmist. It was performed live by the Martha Graham Orchestra, under the baton of musical director and conductor Aaron Sherber, who is also responsible for digging up the work in the stacks of the Library of Congress. I only hope a recording will be made available soon to the public.
In "Cave of the Heart," Fang-Yeu Sheu made a blood-curdling debut as the sorceress Medea, a role perfected in recent years by Terese Capucilli. The story of her betrayal at the hands of the adventurer Jason, who spurns her for the Princess of Corinth, is captured in a tense walk across the stage: She locks arms with Jason, pacing backwards, while the Princess hangs between them, as from parallel bars.
Martin Lofsnes, new to the role of Jason, mustered all the brawny pride he could, plodding flat-footed in his solo around Noguchi's set, which resembles the Greek islands. He commands the water with broad strokes of his arms, crouching mightily inside an invisible hull, completely unaware of what's coming. Ms. Sheu's lust for vengeance is brought off chillingly. She shakes violently, coughing up a red ribbon that presages the doom of her own blood relatives.
On quite another note, "Appalachian Spring" delighted the audience with seasoned performances by Tadej Brdnik (the Husbandman), Katherine Crockett (Pioneering Woman), and Christophe Jeannot (the Revivalist). Aaron Copland's score, aka "Ballet for Martha," murmured fatefully the Shaker melody "Simple Gifts." In this fable of American homesteading, Miki Orihara compellingly plays the Bride.
In a violet dress, she skips through her solo, cheerfully managing the household and giving orders. Later, enduring loneliness on the prairie, she seeks consolation from the puritanical preacher. Despairing, she rolls up and down the porch steps, before settling upright and resigned, nursing another baby.
Program "C" will be performed again April 14 at 7:30 p.m.; Program "B" will be performed again April 13 at 7:30 p.m., April 15 at 8 p.m., and April 17 at 2 p.m. (130 W. 56th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, 212-581-1212).