Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lloyd Mayor and Mariya Dashkina Maddux in “Appalachian Spring.” (Hibbard Nash Photography)

Martha Graham was one of the 20th century’s great storytellers, whether she was compressing Greek tragedy into a few terse postures or distilling American optimism and courage into her most famous dance, “Appalachian Spring.”

But like any great artist, Graham told stories on her terms, slashing away what didn’t suit her purpose, reinterpreting at will. She renewed the old legends with flashbacks and a strong point of view.

How fitting it is that the Martha Graham Dance Company, in its 89th season, is employing Graham’s methods in telling its own story. This was clear in its one-night engagement at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Friday. Janet Eilber, the former leading dancer who is the troupe’s artistic director, is clearly open to new ways of showcasing Graham’s genius. This program played around with the Graham legacy, setting new choreography beside it and repackaging some classics. That creative sparkle — in addition to the glory of the dancing itself — was wonderful to see.

Only one Graham work was danced in its entirety, and it was a jewel: “Cave of the Heart,” an acidic 1946 examination of the myth of Medea. Not a moment is wasted in this tautly sculpted and urgently delivered work, with a shimmering commissioned score by Samuel Barber. Less is more here. An elegantly simple set by Isamu Noguchi suggests barren earth and metal blades. There are only four characters, but they felt like a world: PeiJu Chien-Pott as a viperous Medea; Ben Schultz as Jason, with a set of Herculean thighs; waiflike Xiaochuan Xie as the Princess for whom Jason ditches Medea, which is where Graham takes up the story of jealousy’s bloody justice; and towering Natasha Diamond-Walker as the one-woman Chorus. This rush of vengeance set to music had such living intensity and bite that I wished I could see it again and again.

“Cave of the Heart” feels utterly contemporary. Graham’s crisp, tightly controlled movements, flawlessly executed by these dancers, looks like a highly polished cousin of the aggressively fit, gym-junkie ideal you see throughout pop culture, from music videos to TV ads. With her costume designs, Graham even seems to have anticipated the current color-blocking trend. Her flowy, wide-paneled caftan for the Chorus wouldn’t be out of place on, say, Tommy Hilfiger’s runway.

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lloyd Mayor and Mariya Dashkina Maddux in “Appalachian Spring.” (Hibbard Nash Photography)

The freshness of Graham’s style was also brilliantly clear in “Suite From ‘Appalachian Spring,’ ” a reframing of the famed ballet. Excerpts of the work alternated with Eilber reading from letters between Graham and her collaborator, composer Aaron Copland. Dancing on a bare stage, Lloyd Mayor as the Husbandman and Mariya Dashkina Maddux as the Bride gave as full-throttle performances as I’ve seen, though they mostly made me long for the full-length piece.

With Graham’s 21st-century immediacy thus established, we were treated, Graham-style, to a flashback. A piece called “Lamentation Variations” began with a film from the early 1940s of Graham performing her solo of grief, “Lamentation,” in which she is encased in a tube of stretchy fabric that serves as a hood, a shroud and a symbol of her emotional enclosure. The film was followed by brief works inspired by the solo, created by three contemporary choreographers: Larry Keigwin, Richard Move and Taiwan’s Bulareyaung Pagarlava.

But the new works felt out of place. As with the evening’s closer, a piece called “Echo,” from Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, they paled in comparison with Graham’s. What the company needs is better choreography, and it should turn to top-name choreographers to make it.

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Mariya Dashkina Maddux in “Appalachian Spring.” (Hibbard Nash Photography/Hibbard Nash Photography)

This would likely carry a hefty price tag, but that should not be a limiting factor in keeping this historic institution alive. Here’s where an endowment — even dedicated government funding — is crucial. Graham’s legacy is too important to leave up to private donors and various funding sources for which other companies are also competing. The Graham company deserves special status, and the means by which the best choreographers — Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Twyla Tharp, to name just a few — can create for it, perhaps with subsidies or other incentives. These superb dancers, their audience and Graham’s legacy deserve nothing less.