BECKET — Flanking the proscenium in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow are two portraits, one of Shawn and one of his former wife, Ruth St. Denis, who together created the fabled Denishawn School. Among their most famous pupils was Martha Graham, whose own star grew to eclipse even those of her legendary teachers. In her eponymous company’s program at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, a brief film of Graham performing her solo “Lamentation” is projected onto the backdrop, her ghostly image noticeably larger than those portraits.
Likewise, the Martha Graham Dance Company enjoys an exalted status in the dance world, although it has struggled with the usual issues of legacy that arise when founders pass away. The wisest path may be one that honors the past by keeping the Graham repertory alive and fresh without trapping the dancers — or audiences — into a museum-like existence, while moving forward by inviting other choreographers in to create or stage their works on the company.
And so, in addition to Graham’s 1948 “Diversion of Angels” and 1984 “Rite of Spring,” the program also includes “Lamentation Variations” — a trio of short pieces by the contemporary choreographers Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Richard Move, and Larry Keigwin — and the 2013 “Rust,” by Nacho Duato.
Now under the direction of longtime Graham star Janet Eilber, this company demonstrates that the best way to perform Graham ballets — rife with stark imagery, often inspired by operatic mythology — is to let the action speak through the movement, rather than with excessive facial expressions. This discipline serves the four guest choreographers, whose pieces on this program deal with either grief (the three “Lamentation Variations”) or terror (“Rust”). In Pagarlava’s “Variation,” three men follow one woman around the stage, always ready to catch her, tenderly, as she swoons to the side, or falls backward. Move’s “Variation,” a solo for the fierce Katherine Crockett, is bracing, even suspenseful, as she makes her way across the stage in a sober line of light, her body pushing as if against an invisible force. In Keigwin’s Bauschian “Variation,” the entire company is onstage but in their own worlds. Their hands trace over their own faces, as if remembering a caress; sometimes they join their hands together, fingers sweetly but anxiously fluttering.
While the “Variations” are subtle sketches, Duato’s “Rust,” a work depicting five men fighting for their lives in a prison-like milieu, is daringly overt. Duato is not afraid of excess — usually his riskiness results in beautiful effects, though occasionally his work spills into histrionics — but the dancers are sincere, their fear believable and deeply moving.
Though unmistakably a Graham piece — note the clean staging, the angled, noble shaping of the limbs, the spring-wired leaps, and, of course, the contractions central to the Graham technique — “Diversion” is unabashedly romantic. While some weren’t always fully on their legs on opening night, and some of the partnering fizzled or even failed a few times, these dancers have the professionalism to breathe, rather than quake, through any wobbles. Happily, an abundance of strong, juicy dancing held the piece up. In particular, the stately Natasha Diamond-Walker, in white, was calmly rooted in her long balances; Iris Florentiny, in yellow, ebullient and sunny; and Blakeley White-McGuire brash yet winking in red.
“Rite of Spring” lands us back in more familiar Graham territory: an innocent Chosen One (danced on Wednesday with a mixture of fluid articulation and halting struggle by the petite Xiaochuan Xie) snatched from her idyllic life and plunged into the terrifying yet exalted role as sacrificial figure. Never having seen Graham’s “Rite” live, I wondered if its largesse, both in movement and in the theatrical elements, would overwhelm the intimate Shawn Theatre. Certainly, there are some cumbersome aspects to this “Rite,” mostly involving the props; as The Shaman, Ben Schultz managed to make it stoically through his tilt-turns and jumps draped much of the time in a rather silly, trifle-too-long robe. While there are some dull moments in this “Rite” (I cannot think of a “Rite” that doesn’t occasionally doze, choreographically) there is much that is thrilling and wild, the chorus of men charging and dynamic, the women crisp, delicate yet sharp. Graham didn’t get hung up trying to ape, note for note, Igor Stravinsky’s famously complex, ever-changing rhythmic scheme, but she did match him in intensity, leaving us with yet another authoritative work of art.