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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 winning replication.

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 gusto.

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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