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Channeling the spirit of Martha Graham at the Prince

The Martha Graham Dance Company performs "Appalachian Spring" and other works at the Prince Theater through Nov. 6.
The Martha Graham Dance Company performs "Appalachian Spring" and other works at the Prince Theater through Nov. 6.Read more

By the late 1920s, Martha Graham's friend and mentor Louis Horst   had introduced her to the work of the German expressionist Mary Wigman. Her severe style impressed and influenced Graham. Once she developed her own contraction-and-release methods, Graham became our American expressionist. No doubt many in the almost-filled theater at Thursday evening's opening came to see the Martha Graham Company in that most American piece, Appalachian Spring. The second offering in this season's NextMove Dance series at the Prince Theater runs through Sunday evening.

The last piece of the concert rewarded us with a fine rendition of the 1944 collaboration of  Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and set designer Isamu Noguchi, whose spare Japanese-inspired set vaguely invoked the American Shaker style. A rather 19th-century American fundamentalist Christianity formed the narrative. Charlotte Landreau danced The Bride, imploring Lloyd Mayor as The Husbandman to make her with child. She cradled an invisible infant in her arms and danced girlishly frilly choreography to attract his attention. Lorenzo Pagano as The Preacher danced Graham's more familiar choreography, harsh, haughty, forbidding. Yet the lovers end up on Noguchi's unrocking chair.

The timeless work still packs a powerful punch, but I much preferred the first work on the program, Dark Meadow Suite. For this postwar piece (1946), Graham created midriff-exposing costumes with geometric color-blocking suggesting Bauhaus architecture, as did the choreography of straight vertical lines. Five circled women rise and fall rhythmically toe to heel while Anne O'Donnell dances off to the side, joined by Pagano, in briefs and a shoulder strap suggesting a quiver belt. The other women paired off with company men; their formal unity, bent elbows with forearms going up or down mechanically, seemed a bow to Nijinsky's Rite of Spring. If so, Graham's borrowings look originally hers, and one can only see these glimpses into the history of dance that preceded her in retrospect.

Konstantina Xintara stunned in her controlled performance of the (Richard) "Move Variation" of Graham's famous Lamentation Variations.

Errand into the Maze, a duet with Laurel Dalley Smith and Ari Mayzick, pits fear and courage in a black-and-white battle against each other. Mayzick, with stocking-covered face and spear that seemed plunged into  his shoulders, shocked us with powerful evil. The choreography looks futuristic and mythical at once. Smith conquers him in a white satin evening gown that, though  virginal, strongly recalled Pina Bausch's later, louche ball gowns. This created a Moebius strip in my mind among Wigman, Graham, and Bausch, the viragos of 20th-century modern dance.

Martha Graham Dance Company. Through Sunday at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: 215-422-4580,