SAN DIEGO — To celebrate her 60th anniversary season, Martha Graham created a dance suite that brackets her roots in Denishawn--the company and school founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in 1916--and her own early masterworks.
But her reconstructions of works by St. Denis and Shawn, seen Thursday in the first of two programs by the Martha Graham Dance Company at San Diego Civic Theatre, left unanswered the question of whether such early pieces merit more than historical interest.
Graham and others have testified to the spiritual impact that St. Denis made as a dancer. Lacking that radiance, it would seem that St. Denis' choreography can only turn precious. At least, it did when Maxine Sherman danced "The Incense" (1906). Despite fluid, boneless arm movements evoking smoke wafting to the heavens, Sherman, a purple and gold sari-clad hierophant, conveyed no spiritual essence or sense of communion. It was all empty gesture.
Shawn's "Serenata Morisca" (in which Graham debuted with the Denishawn company in 1921) never aspired so high; it was content merely to present a skirt-swirling, high-kicking, rose-in-the-hair approximation of a Spanish dancer. Teresa Capucilli performed with intensity, but the work quickly ran out of ideas, and one doubted that anyone could hide the fact.
More interesting was Graham's "Tanagra" (created in 1926), danced by a subtle, graceful Judith Garay; here, even in the Denishawn-like manipulations of fan or floating veil, one could see intimations of where the choreographer was headed--toward abstraction and purposeful, austere design.
With "Lamentation" (1930, music by Kodaly), Graham had arrived. One probably should gasp at the artistic chasm between it and "Tanagra," but Joyce Herring did not create enough sense of crushing grief. Thea Nerissa Barnes, however, brought indomitable presence to "Frontier" (1935, to music by Louis Horst), which closed the suite.
The remainder of the program consisted of familiar works.
In the eternally vernal "Appalachian Spring" (1944, set to Copland's wondrous score), Teresa Capucilli drew a complex, affecting portrait of the young bride. Denise Vale made a radiant pioneer woman. Steve Rooks danced a vividly detailed hellfire sermon. But Julian Littleford as the husband proved a dramatic cipher.
In "Cave of the Heart" (1946, music by Samuel Barber), Donlin Foreman made a powerful, cold and arrogant Jason. Christine Dakin was a petulant, unharrowing Medea. (Kim Stroud danced the empty-headed charades of the Victim sweetly. Sherman was an intense chorus figure.)
"Diversion of Angels" (1948, music by Norman Dello Joio), with strong performances by Peggy Lyman and Foreman (the Couple in White), and Takako Asakawa (Woman in Red), opened the program.