`Lost' Graham dance gem shines again. `Celebration' given electrifying revival

MIDWAY through their three-week season, the Martha Graham Company coaxed a galvanic, 50-year-old dance out of oblivion. ``Celebration,'' created in 1934 when Miss Graham was still working with her first group, represents the corporate effort of 11 of its original dancers, who ransacked their memories for the steps and reconstructed the choreography for the present Graham company. The piece had an electrifying effect on the City Center audience. Amid the sensuous and melodramatic extravagances of the current Graham repertory, it was as invigorating as a cold shower.

The 12-minute dance is indeed a celebration, a hurrah of energy constantly being activated and flung into the air and recharged at the same time. Like many other early modern dances, ``Celebration'' shows a fascination with the machine age. It is a machine, yet the 12 female dancers don't look at all mechanical. One of the most exciting things about seeing it today is how physical the women are, without sexuality being an issue.

They spring into the air on every beat of Louis Horst's Spartan music for a clarinet, trumpet, and snare drum. As soon as the percussive pulse is established, angular arm gestures poke up, legs snap open in the air, and the formation of the group changes.

I can't remember a Graham dance that has so much invention for a group packed into so short a time. The visual patterns often suggest a wheel or some circular process with a tightly wound center. With two or three at the center, the women face each other in a big circle, then seem to be pulled into a vortex, and the circle closes in dizzily as they skid backward on flying heels. Fragments fly off the rim - in threes and fours, women sprint around the outside, spiral to the floor and up again. In lines and clusters they sidestep across the back of the space, mark the edges with sentinel heel-beats.

At some point, the bits adhere again, and the group faces upstage for a second, then turns together, swaying left and right in three opposing lines. In a slower middle section, they lever against each other and lean outward. They sit with one leg under them and one extended, arms to the sides. No-handed, they tilt backward so that the arms and extended leg are raised like exclamation points. Without preparation, the pattern clicks into the backward-facing cluster, and the jumping starts again.

The last few moments of the dance are even more astonishing than the rest. Formations start to reappear, but they segue into different progressions. For a second we see the opening pose of the dance - which hasn't recurred till now - and we see it go into what might be another new sequence, except that at just that moment the curtain is coming down.

Both times I saw the dance, I sat stunned for a minute. It was as if I'd been watching a film, with the pieces cut up and spliced together different ways, and the ways hadn't half been exhausted.

This season also saw the revival of ``Canticle for Innocent Comedians'' after 20 years. One of Graham's most lyrical works, it's a series of solos and duets for characters named Fire, Stars, Wind, and so forth, with a vibrant women's chorus, the evolved remnant of the early explorations seen in ``Celebration.'' By 1952, when ``Canticle'' was made, Graham's movement vocabulary was fairly conventionalized into the material she draws on today. Takako Asakawa, a beautiful Moon, achieved a quiet, confident softness that marked the Graham middle-period style.

What I had forgotten about the dance was how ingeniously the choreographer used the sets she commissioned from the noted Constructivist designer Frederick Kiesler. The large, curved panels of plywood, natural on the convex side, painted blue on the inside, are moved on and offstage in different positions by the dancers. They're such flexible and sensuous shapes that surprising appearances and disappearances can be engineered around them.

Graham's new work, ``Persephone,'' was changing over successive performances, so perhaps it's still in progress. The myth of springtime and harvest doesn't hold together in Graham's treatment so far.

To me it looked like an ill-advised conglomeration of movement, sets, and dress design.

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