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Flash Review 1, 10-6: 'Mergency!
Major Schools to the Rescue of Graham Students

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2000 Darrah Carr

The air at the Cunningham Studio was heavy with history last night as we gathered to support the temporarily displaced students of the Martha Graham School, which closed last spring when the company's board suspended operations. (See Flash Report, 5-27: Graham in Turmoil.) An organization called "The Emergency Fund for Student Dancers" presented the benefit concert, "Continue the Legacy," which turned out to be a collection of well-crafted choreography that was also beautifully executed. For the past ten years, EFSD has done the important work of providing financial support to dance students in need, raising over $25,000 toward that cause. This weekend's proceeds will enable former Graham students to continue their training until their home base is re-opened.

What was particularly heartwarming about last night's concert, however, was that it was not just Graham aficionados supporting Graham students. EFSD is a consortium of multiple major dance institutions including: The Ailey School, Merce Cunningham Studio, the School of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Limon Institute, and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance (founding members also included the Erick Hawkins School, Laban-Bartenieff Institute, and the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab). For a dance world that is so often divided among separate schools of thought, aesthetic values, and training techniques, EFSD provides a wonderful sense of unity. The concert featured either faculty, students, or company members from each of these institutions. Needless to say, it was quite a diverse and enjoyable evening. How often does one have the chance to see Cunningham's rep right next to Ailey's work?

The evening opened with a duet choreographed and performed by Adam Houghland and Amber Merkens, both dancers with the Jose Limon Company. It was a well-rehearsed piece, as evidenced by moments of perfect unison movement, as they cut through space with clean, sharp lines. Their partnering seemed playful, though Bartok's score was driving and somewhat angst-ridden. At times Houghland would lift Merkens, then lay her down gently. She'd remain frozen in a sort of space hold, and he'd return a while later to reclaim her.

Arthur Aviles choreographed "Pichon: (a ritual dance of fire)," a compelling piece that was well performed by Eng Kian Ooi, a scholarship student at the Merce Cunningham Studio. Lying on his back, in the middle of a bright red circle of fabric, Ooi deftly rippled and interlaced his outstretched arms into a vision of flame. As the score repeated "The world turns round and round," he spun too, cutting through the circle on opposing diagonals, and stopping at one point to flawlessly execute a slow arabesque promenade in the center.

"Excerpts from Premonitions" was choreographed by Marianne Bachmann, former faculty member and director of the Martha Graham School, and performed by Kenneth Topping and Rika Okamoto, courtesy of the Martha Graham Dance Company and School. I mention these titles only because the concert was aptly named "Continue the Legacy," and this trio seemed to be the manifestation of that -- faculty member, longtime company member, and younger dancer working together despite the unfortunate situation currently facing the Graham institution. The choreography was infused with Graham's legacy as well. I recognized several trademarks of the Graham technique: cupped hands, hinges to the floor, jumps in place. It was like meeting a daughter and noticing that she has her mother's smile. At the same time, Bachmann definitely revealed her own choreographic style. Her dancers moved with a feline grace. There was a softness to their turns and an alert anticipation as they circled each other. The ending image was both tender and striking. Topping held Okamoto suspended in a flying angel, until she gently somersaulted over him, and ended up lying on the floor -- her head touching his, their backs to us.

Next on the program came "Interludes," a piece performed by Tiffany Glenn, William Smith, Ebony Haswell, and Akua Parker of the School of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Choreographed by Glenn, the quartet was set to Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No.1." I always admire a choreographer who tackles a score as complex as Bach's, and Glenn did an excellent job, creating charming variations in cannon and unison, with well crafted solo moments for each performer. The dancers themselves were very engaging, displaying impressive technique in an effortless manner.

Topping choreographed "Dark Night," a highly dramatic, somewhat disturbing, narrative piece, concerning a man who is followed by and then attacked by two other men. Topping created an intriguing blend of pedestrian movement, emotional content, and highly physicalized dance. The ending image was particularly haunting -- the victim was carried upstage, with an attacker holding each of his arms, his head thrown back, and his bare chest heaving and glistening in the light.

The last two pieces on the program were choreographed by Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey respectively. Certainly much has already been written about these two choreographers. I will merely add that the pieces were, of course, extremely well crafted. I would also, however, like to congratulate the students who performed them. Shih-Linh Hsu gave a flawless performance of solos from "Un Jour ou Deux," demonstrating her command of Cunningham's rapidly flying feet and quickly tilting torso shifts. Cheryl Madson, John Avant III, and Holly Hyman gave an impassioned delivery of Ailey's classic "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" from Revelations." These three students from the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University BFA program charged through Ailey's rhythmic choreography and left me wanting to see more.

Indeed, all of the students and professionals presented on tonight's concert are following in and dancing with the footsteps of the modern dance giants with grace, skill, and ease. The air was heavy with history, but it was also bursting with promise.

"Continue the Legacy" repeats tonight at 9 p.m. and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at the Cunningham Studio. For info and reservations, please call 212-924-0077.

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