In her long and brilliant career, Martha Graham has not only laid some of the most important foundations of modern dance, she has also built a structure to encourage its growth and expansion.
This structure, as any modern dancer will tell you, is the Martha Graham technique. ''It provides a classical basis (for the modern dancer), the same way ballet does in its sphere,'' states Christine Dakin, a teacher and principal at the Graham company for the last eight years. ''It's not a style,'' she continues , ''but a codified set of moves and postitions that have been created by her. So many people have taken pieces of it (modern greats Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, for instance) that she has clearly influenced all of modern dance.''
This point taken, it is fitting that, as part of Graham's 90th birthday tribute year, she and her company should join forces with another fundamental structure in contemporary dance, Jacob's Pillow. Built here in western Massachusetts by famed early modern dancer Ted Shawn, the Pillow's annual dance festival and training school have, over their 52-year history, become a summer home for many of dance's greatest stars and a breeding ground for some of its finest works.
Because of hard feelings left over from the time that Graham broke away from Shawn's company in 1930, she and her company had never appeared here until last week. That has been unfortunate, for a Graham performance in the 618-seat Ted Shawn Theatre - a rustic, wood-paneled house that exudes a familylike, up-close feeling - is an experience that won't soon be forgotten.
Above all, it must be remembered that Martha Graham is a master of the emotions. This is the wellspring of her technique, and of her classic works, many of which were presented during last week's performances. One of her all-time favorites, and an excellent example of this great emotional power, is ''Errand into the Maze (1947).'' This is a dance about a woman who comes face to face with her worst fears - and overcomes them. The theme is basic to the human struggle, and in the hands of two finely tuned Graham dancers, its message of struggle and triumph is undeniably powerful.
In a performance last Friday evening, Terese Capucilli as The Woman put on what some festival observers called one of her finest performances ever. From the moment she appeared, her whole body shuddering as if electrified, Capucilli held the audience in a grip of apprehension, fear, anguish, and finally - victory. As she stepped fretfully along a rope snaking across the floor, one knew the feeling of walking the edge of a precipice. When Larry White, playing the Creature of Fear, came bounding and leaping on stage to menace her, one knew the anxious moment of entrapment. And when she finally burst free of his grip, arms reaching for the sky as he lay limp on the floor, we knew the freedom of triumph.
The drama just never lets up in Graham dances. Why? Because when Graham dancers move, they are using the Graham technique, which does not allow a single wasted motion or careless expression. Everything is wound as tight as a coiled spring, even the stark Noguchi sets. And when the energy is released, despite its exhaustive bursts, there is not a moment when the dancer has lost control, if the movement is executed correctly. Says company dancer Dakin of Graham's choreography: ''There is nothing improvisational, nothing unplanned, or uncalculated.''
Dakin beautifully demonstrated this in ''Diversion of Angels,'' the last work on Friday's program. On several occasions upon entering the stage, she immediately thrust up into a Graham second position - one leg straight to the floor and the other nearly straight to the ceiling as she faced the audience. Once there, she froze the high leg for several moments - froze it in a statuelike pose that astounded not only most viewers but many of the dancers on hand.
Meanwhile, the company was criss-crossing the stage around her, in pairs and quartets, weaving the dance's theme - the joys and sorrows of first love. Jacqulyn Buglisi and David Hochoy rivetted attention with their soaring flights of freedom, and the portrayal of youth in love by Judith Garay and George White was sensitive, exquisite. At one point, as White lay stomach to the floor and head up, Garay balanced on his back and sat gently down onto his upraised feet. It was a typical Graham twist - an unusual move capturing the universal feeling of playfulness.
There is a danger, though, in Graham's abilities: The feelings and emotions she so skillfully projects and plays with can become turned in upon themselves, and if not properly focused or resolved, they can leave the viewer less than satisfied. The first work on the Friday program, ''Embattled Garden (1958),'' presents just these problems. This is not to say the piece isn't a vehicle for some brilliant dancing. In last Friday's performance, George White's atmospheric leaps and barrel turns were simply awe-inspiring and Takako Asakawa was, as always, stunning with her precision and intensity. But the story - a complex tale of Adam and Eve confronting Adam's supposed first wife, Lilith, and a haunting figure called The Stranger - was one of tangled emotions that, in the end, failed to move, provoke, or inspire.
That said, Martha Graham's contributions to the world of dance are unsurpassed by anyone living today. So when the curtains peeled back for the second time after the show's close, revealing the Ms. Graham standing in the center of her dancers, the audience literally rocketed to its feet in cheering and wild applause. They were honoring a modern master and the scintillating effulgence of her work.