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Flash Review 1, 6-1: Past Forward
Graham School Celebrates 75th, and a Dance Company is Re-born
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
Who'd a thunk it? This year's comeback
kid is none other than the oldest dance company in America, whose re-birth was
signified last night at Marymount Manhattan College with a gala performance celebrating
the 75th anniversary of the Martha Graham School. Notwithstanding the continuing
and sickening boycott of Graham performances by the New York Times, which was
conspicuously AWOL last night, this was a night of both history recalled and history
in the making, full of love and bonhomie from the students to the veterans to
the staff to the board and other supporters. If there's another company surrounded
by more goodwill and good feeling today, I don't know it.
It started, MC, legendary partner
to Martha Graham, and current Head of School Stuart Hodes told us, in April 1926
in a small studio at Carnegie Hall, where Martha Graham initially taught three
students by day and slept at night. Its, and Martha's, legacy paraded across the
stage last night, in work by Graham alumni of the last just about 75 years, performed
by Graham alumni of the last 30 or so years. It was a performance that proved
better than any of the testimony in the recent trial over who "owns" "Martha Graham"
and "Martha Graham technique" that Graham's technique lives not just in the bodies
of Graham performers, but in the choreographic creations of her progeny. More
than just repetiteurs of Graham, these artists, by the very lengths to which they
have stretched the technique and employed it as a tool, showed that not only is
this technique not owned by any one person, but it's much more than "just" a technique
-- like ballet, it's a whole form. And like ballet, where a system started by
Noverre and codified by Blasis has been re-invented time and again, from Taglioni
to Petipa to Fokine to Balanchine to Forsythe, the technique invented by Graham
is not just a technique, but a form of expression -- and it was employed to eloquent
means last night.
True confession: Having only started
watching dance regularly in 1993, and moved to NYC in 1995, I haven't seen enough
of Martha Graham's work where I feel I can even pose as an authority. However,
for the last six years, I have closely watched the progression of Buglisi-Foreman,
a company founded by four Graham alumni and current dancers: Jacqulyn Buglisi,
Donlin Foreman, Terese Capucilli, and Christine Dakin. At first, what I saw (choreographically)
was, well, not exactly akin to the baby bird just ejected from the nest; more
like a teenager excited at its freedom, at flying on its own, and trying to fly
every which way but loose. They knew where they had been, but did they know where
they were going? They were speaking the language, with great authenticity -- they'd
earned the right to -- but I wasn't sure what they were trying to say.
Last night, particularly in Foreman's
self-performed solo "The Place in Question," I saw an artist using Graham only
in so far as you or I might use English. It was the language he spoke, but what
he said with his movement was his own. To 40-year-old-oops-another-tooth-just-fell-out
me, anyway, this dance was about an older man -- still in his prime, but older
-- coming to terms with where he was now in his life, as felt and expressed in
his body. Its desire still at the same high pitch. Its capacity to feel joy still
at the same high pitch, its appreciation of sorrow a little deeper than that of
a younger man. He struggled on the floor. Got up. Sunk down. Roamed the space
restlessly -- wanting...what? Then after one more collapse, a penultimate reaching
of arm to the sky, still wanting to go for it all, without fear, despite the risks
and deaths and sorrow he now knows are also out there. But a trembling of fingers
when those arms are up there. And then a calmer, pensive moment, a tentative step
forward, a look out our way to the unknown future. An eagerness to go forward,
restrained by just a modicum of trepidation. It's a modern dancer's answer to
Jerome Robbins's "Suite of Dances."
Of course, Foreman and Buglisi weren't
the first Graham dancers to make their own choreographic way. That tradition started
long ago, with the likes of Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow, and Jane Dudley. This
would be a good time to mention that, due to the Graham company's ongoing legal
struggle with former artistic director Ron Protas, no actual work by Martha Graham
was performed at last night's celebration. With the revelations (to me) of Maslow's
"I Ain't Got no Home" excerpt from her 1941 "Dustbowl Ballad," and Dudley's 1938
"Harmonica Breakdown," however, I realized that the organizers of last night's
concert had made a silk purse out of a sow's ear: Partly because we could not
see any rep by Graham herself, what we got instead was in a way a program much
more apropos for a celebration of the school: a demonstration, in their work,
of Graham's choreographic legacy to those who have studied and danced with her.
"I Ain't Got No Home," set to a Woody
Guthrie paean about a sharecropper locked out of his home by his landlord, then
widowed, then foreclosed on by the banks, physicalized the condition in which
this leaves the farmer -- destitute but not down. As humbly enacted by Kevin Predmore,
clad in blue jeans and red plaid shirt, he shrinks from anticipated blows, he
does a valiant two-step; he doesn't look up. In Predmore's body, with Maslow's
choreography, we see encapsulated that contradictory spirit with which out-of-luck
Americans must have confronted the Depression: shoulders hunched from the blows,
but still buoyant withal. You could almost see the wheat fields behind him, and
ahead of him as he straightened his hat, jammed his hands resolutely into his
pockets, and moseyed away.
The singular Dudley phrase powerfully
articulated by Jennifer Conley -- a Star is Born, and you read it here first,
Dance Insider! -- was a sort of angled lurching; not just the shoulders, but Conley's
whole body precipitated forward, her feet deliberately dragging to the sorrowful
strains of the harmonica.
Speaking of a star is born, Yuko
Suzuki positively glistened opposite Francisco Tonatiuh Perez in Erica Dankmeyer's
"Ocean." "She reminds me of Yuriko in her salad days," Hodes said later. The gymnastic
choreography certainly showed off Suzuki's strong and lithe body, but I'm not
sure what else it showed. The music, by Dead Can Dance, seemed haphazardly exotic.
Okay, it's cool -- but what does it really have to do with the choreography? Plus
the two very differently paced selections could have used a bridge.
David Wood's choreography for "American
Decades," however, did beautifully ride the crest of Led Zeppelin's music, a journey
between love ballad and stadium anthem. I loved the way Rika Okamoto flew when
the power chords kicked in; you could almost see the guitar. Kudos to Okamato,
the performer, and Ellis Wood, who rehearsed the piece.
Like the pieces by her fellow early
alumni Maslow and Dudley, Anna Sokolow's "Rooms," shown in the excerpts "Daydream"
and "The End," displayed yet a third stylized vocabulary that sprouted from Graham
roots. Similar in its theatricality, but more worked out in spreading that expression
throughout the body and a slowed-down pacing. I loved a final moment in "The End"
when Lauren Naslund dipped her torso, then nervously peeked first at one set of
spidery twittering fingers and then the other. The sober somber playing of these
excerpts by Naslund, Eleanor Bunker, and Samantha Geracht perfectly conjured the
stark spirit of the piece.
"The Embrace" solo from Buglisi's
1996 "Speak Memory" is hard to see separated out from the larger work, because
it starts at a high pitch, and you can't quite see the build that leads up to
Terese Capucilli's absorbing and absorbed rhapsodic reverie, nor Foreman's turn
as her swoon-making swain. But these two Graham veterans, and the Buglisi work,
did show how Graham's successors have improved upon her in one respect, drawing
more balanced, multi-dimensional relationships between men and women. Neither
one is villain nor victim -- they are just two people powerfully moved by their
emotions and mutual electricity.
After this accelerated ardour, Kenneth
Topping's locking and popping 1991 "Automatic," in which he reacts to rapidly
shifting radio stations and sounds -- sports talk, news, salsa, fervent religious
broadcasting, conspiracy talk shows -- was a well-timed light touch to the evening,
given with perfect timing by Topping.
Peggy Lyman's "Thank you, Martha"
was certainly sincere, but in its language didn't really go beyond mirroring or
echoing Graham's movement; I saw neither an extension of that language, nor a
Led by the luminous Sandra Kaufmann,
an excerpt from Pearl Lang's 1983 "Tehillim" found maximum joy and beauty in Steve
Reich's minimalist score. Former Graham company dancer Kaufmann was joined by
exuberant Graham School students Jennifer Conley, Jessica Delia, Tomoko Muneto,
Marietta Vrettou, Stacey Kaplan, and Emma Stein. All danced with unrestrained
The evening captured the Graham school
and company's glorious past, made a statement that it's still very much here in
the present, and sent a promising Letter to the World about its future. Virginie
Mecene, one of the Graham Company 2000 dancers to whom the evening was dedicated,
said afterwards, "When you see that, how can it die?"
And indeed, on both a spiritual and
practical plane, the Graham entities are very much alive. "We're coming along
splendidly in re-animating the entire Martha Graham enterprise," board chair Francis
Mason told the gala benefit attendees after the performance. The Graham and Protas
sides are currently in negotiations to settle their dispute over the use of Graham's
name and, sources say, her ballets. "We're (hopeful) the company will be dancing
soon," said Mason. "We are cautiously optimistic We may be able to settle this
matter and resolve it to everybody's satisfaction. We hope to settle, and the
other side has joined us in discussions we hope will be fruitful."
Last night's program repeats, with
minor variations, tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the
Theresa Lang Theatre of Marymount Manhattan College.
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