A DANCE company founded by a genius who is no longer present will eventually have to face the fact that, to remain creatively vital, it must turn to other choreographers to supplement its repertoire. The Martha Graham Dance Company, founded by one of the legendary choreographers of the 20th century, has now, for the first time in decades, presented a dance created by another choreographer: Twyla Tharp.
The dance, ``Demeter and Persephone,'' inspired by the Greek myth, recently premiered during the company's two-week season at New York's City Center. Tharp studied briefly with Graham and counts her as among her strongest influences. It would be hard to detect that, however, from this piece. In style and content, it sticks out from the Graham masterpieces like a sore thumb.
Which is not to say that the work is without its pleasures, merely that it seems to belong more with Tharp's company than with Graham's.
The piece is ostensibly related to the myth in which Demeter's daughter Persephone is kidnapped by Hades and delivered to the underworld, and later returned to earth, for at least some of the time (hence the seasons), by Zeus. But the story can hardly be discerned in the dance itself, and the principals, Christine Dakin, Rika Okamoto, and Terese Capucilli, are not given much to do in the way of characterization. The piece relies on Tharp's trademark swirling, eccentric movements, and it is vibrantly physical and fun to watch.
But it is more an amusing trifle than anything else, and its lighthearted nature is accentuated by the bizarre choice of using Jewish klezmer music (performed by three groups, the Klezmatics, the West End Klezmorim, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band).
Although the Graham company adapted beautifully, only time will tell if it will successfully integrate styles other than Graham's into its work.
The rest of the evening included both early and late Graham works. Two powerful solo turns were delivered by Denise Vale and Christine Dakin in, respectively, ``Frontier'' (1935), and ``Deep Song'' (1937).
``Frontier,'' suggestive of the open spaces of the West and inspired by the pioneering spirit that conquered them, featured a set designed by Isamu Noguchi that utilizes ropes to convey endless railroad tracks. Vale embodied indomitable courage.
``Deep Song,'' set to a powerful and percussive score by Henry Cowell, dealt with the suffering produced by the Spanish Civil War. Dakin, clad in black and white, danced with a rigorousness that recalled the purity, emotional power, and discipline of Graham herself. Utilizing a long, white bench that served as a malleable and versatile prop, the piece perfectly reflected the anguish and strength of the people who inspired Graham to create it.
Also on the bill were excerpts from ``Panorama'' (1935), in which the company was augmented by students from the Martha Graham School. There were dozens of female dancers onstage, performing complex patterns of movement to the pounding martial-like music of Norman Lloyd.
Loosely structured around themes of social consciousness, it began as a dazzling demonstration of organic energy; in the more delicate later section, five dancers performed a subtle series of variations that seemed to echo the large mobiles inspired by those of Alexander Calder, which hung gracefully over the stage.
The final selection, ``The Rite of Spring'' (1984), demonstrated that Graham's sure touch when it came to choreographic storytelling rarely wavered. The contrast between this tightly structured piece and the indifferent chaos of Tharp's ``Demeter and Persephone'' couldn't have been more striking.