BECKET -- An aura seems to accompany the Martha Graham Dance Company in its travels -- call it the "Martha Mystique" -- and it appeared to hover over the Ted Shawn Theatre Wednesday evening as the troupe, marking its own 88th season this year, began the final week of performances of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s 81st season.
The mystique comes through the signal Graham works themselves that helped establish the definition and vocabulary of modern dance; through the choreographers who came of age by way of the Graham company -- Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Anna Sokolow, among them -- and finally through the continuing quality of company dancers who, from evidence on stage this week, appear able to shoulder not only the troupe’s legacy, but to help spirit it well into a new century of dance and its makers.
The program this week at the Pillow epitomizes the scope of that company and dancers -- a vintage Graham masterpiece, "Diversion of Angels"; expressions by three contemporary choreographers on another iconic Graham work, "Lamentation Variations"; Nacho Duato’s new dance exploring torture, "Rust"; and Graham’s celebrated version of Stravinsky’s milestone score, "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), in its centennial year.
In recent times, prior to the centennial rush, Stravinsky’s "Rite" has been confined largely to concert halls and repeated iterations have seasoned our ears to its rough edges, causing many to wonder about all the fuss it was said to provoke at its 1913 Paris premiere.
But joined again by Graham’s powerful choreography, that score once more becomes the fierce pagan ritual to the advent of spring that it was intended to be.
Graham did not choreograph with metronomic lockstep to every measure, but appeared rather to treat Stravinsky’s score as a companionable great work of art for her dance.
From the early thumping E-flat chord churned up by the horns and strings in the accompanying recording, Graham presents, first among the eight men in tight black shorts, and then the eight women in form-fitting tops and leotards, a robotically ordered community of Russian peasants sensing in their loins the first signs of spring and the forthcoming sacrifice of a maiden.
As the peasants parade and cavort in frenzied short steps within grasp of the Shaman, impersonated forcefully by Ben Schultz, he quickly snatches the maiden, The Chosen One, danced by Xiaochuan Xie, in the role filled by Graham in 1930 at the American premiere.
Xie is carried about triumphantly by the Shaman and then the men, gradually accepting her fate, and her frenzied writhing, raging and stomping dance to her death is persuasive in its realism, fulfilling the sacrifice, which brings the piece to an abrupt crashing climax.
The prolific composer Norman Dello Joio provided a rather Hollywood-esque score in response to Graham’s commission for "Diversion of Angels," her 1948 examination of three aspects of love.
The Couple in White, representing amorous maturity, is danced almost primly by Natasha Diamond-Walker in a long white gown, with her partner Abdiel Jacobsen, away much of the time assured of his mating choice.
Blakeley White-McGuire, the woman in crimson raiment and symbolizing erotic love, is still looking, and despite half-hearted ministrations of her partner, Maurizio Nardi, continues to flit around, seeking new sources of passion, while Iris Florentiny, in youthful yellow, expressing love’s incipient adolescent bloom, moves about, looking uncertain, but ends up with her guy (Lloyd Mayor) as the curtain is slowly drawn.
Conceived by Janet Eilber, the company’s artistic director and first unveiled in 2007 to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, "Lamentation Variations" is based on Graham’s celebrated dance of mourning, and a film of part of that iconic piece, followed by some of Graham’s thoughts on the work preceded the three short variations.
Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s variation (2009) has three men, Tadej Brdnik, Nardi and Schultz, offering what seems to be tough love support for a mourning Mariya Dashkina Maddux, paired with a recording of one of Mahler’s plaintive "Songs of a Wayfarer."
Katherine Crockett is the soloist in Richard Move’s brief dance (2007), a somber, slow-in-motion exercise that manages the trademark Graham arabesque penchée more than once, and is performed to D.J. Savage’s electronically stretched measure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But perhaps the most moving of these "Lamentations" was Larry Keigwin’s (2007), engaging the company in a crowd scene as witnesses watched in pain and reacted to the terror of the 9/11 catastrophe, with a Chopin Nocturne tolling ominously.
Duato’s "Rust," backed by an insistently abrasive score by Arvo Pärt and additional music by Pedro Alcalde, offers a chillingly real depiction of human cruelty to fellow human beings. Duato’s manipulation of torture scenes is credible yet strangely filled with estimable beauty of group movement as the violence unfolds.
In addition to Nardi and Schultz, the fine dancers in this tense 10-minute piece, rotating as victims and aggressors, were Tadej Brdnik, Abdiel Jacobsen and Lloyd Knight.
With the Graham company, Jacob’s Pillow has managed again, as with the Joffrey Ballet in 2012, to conclude the summer season on a high.