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This Spring's Dance Insider coverage of Martha Graham is also sponsored by Nancy Reynolds, Doug Frank, Nora Ambrosio and Slippery Rock University, Karen Bradley, Barry Fischer and Frostburg State University, the Arts Paper, Scott Killian, Sharon Montella and Pine Manor College, Toba Singer, Esaias Johnson, Alice Helpern, and several anonymous donors. And by Karen Potter, Kelly Holt, and by the MFA students, faculty and Friends of Dance at Case Western Reserve University, where dancers receive professional level training in a conservatory setting, and who are are proud to support the Dance Insider's coverage of the Martha Graham Dance Company. To find out about becoming a DI sponsor, e-mail paul@danceinsider.com.

Flash Review 1, 5-10: Indisputably Martha
Graham Company Rises From the Embattled Garden

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2002 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- Wow, what an event this was!

My first dance teacher in college, trying to impart some sense in me regarding the studio-to-stage transition, told me to dance a piece as if it were the first time, with all that life of a spontaneous act, and as if it were the last time, to be savored and honored. In a long-overdue return to the stage, the Martha Graham Dance Company lived on that razor's edge last night at City Center, for a fantastically rich two-and-a-half hours that was over all too soon.

I mean, it's not as if there were empty seats at prior Graham seasons I'd attended, but for last night's "Indisputably Martha Graham" program there was not only a full-to-the-doors audience, but a very eager, very committed, very invested family. Big-time patrons, board members, students, and press were there, and so were other prominent choreographers and many many stellar and involved alumni of the Clan Graham. Graham; its investments past and current are truly incalculable, in light of the past year's, um, trials. Last night's performance was a triumph: a host of resilient and resourceful people providing a chance for Martha and our hearts to have their own little sidebar, to celebrate those vital and irreplaceable acts of light.

As the lights went down before "Seraphic Dialogue," you could taste the excitement, feel the tone that this rising curtain was extra special. The ovations started high in the mezzanine and balcony, showered down on the stage like sunshine, and shone for a long minute while the cast was arrested in its opening tableau; how they must've been aching to start!

Choreographed in 1955, "Seraphic Dialogue" tells the story of Joan of Arc. Graham set it as a fast-forward glimpse of earthly life before Joan's merging with God. Terese Capucilli played Joan last night, adding layers of dramatic observation to miles of articulation. In a series of solo reflections and reactions to her life's stages, Capucilli is amazing, all deft musicality and in the grip of real passion. The wonderful thing is that Martha Graham could seize upon the big things, the big people in our history and our legends and lend an empathic swerve to their stories -- a sympathy for the singular and formidable -- and shape dances and roles from them that are enduring and living works of art.

Within Isamu Noguchi's quivering brass cathedral, Kenneth Topping as a solid and iconic Saint Michael is flanked in his triptych by Saints Catherine and Margaret (Catherine Lutton and Heidi Stoeckley), who reveal the eras de Joan by removing in turn the robes -- Graham was surely keen on the relationship of ritual or ceremony and dance -- of Joan as Maid (Virginie Mecene,) as Warrior (Alessandra Prosperi,) and as Martyr: Elizabeth Auclair. Ms. Mecene's solo was sunny, reaching with lovely jetes. Ms. Prosperi as an explosive Warrior Joan was joined by Mr. Topping, the Saint moving her to rise up and fight with a huge sword (er now it's a cross) that ingeniously disengages from the set. Martyr Joan, Ms. Auclair, was all bravery, faith, and pain as she etched her cross-shaped Noguchi into her chest. Topping's Saint Michael, confined as he was in his Halston costume -- necessarily so being a saint and not a corporeal man -- was still very articulate and strong.

In the end the apparitions vanish and Joan returns, now shimmering in soft gold, to take her place with the saints, her long journey ended and her legend begun.

Following intermission brief front-of-curtain remarks were delivered by Francis Mason, chairman of the Graham board and a champion of the cause. He was gracious, and grateful too that this night had come about, and as hopeful as we were that there would be many more like it.

'Conversation of Lovers' is a duet for man and woman, part of the larger work "Acts of Light" (Graham circa 1981), and is indicative of a more three-dimensional and compositionally varied mode than "Seraphic Dialogue." Katherine Crockett and Martin Lofsnes portrayed the beautiful long-limbed lovers, responding to irresistible magnetism despite its many complex shadings. They are ecstatic, uneasy, and transfixed in turn, in passages of beautiful lyricism. They are clad in red fall-away costumes (Halston after Graham) that manage simultaneously to be Apollonian and Dionysean, in keeping with the multi-level take on the intricacies of love. There is enough shadow to this duet to avoid any hint of stereotype, and make it instead more of a glimpse of something real.

Taking this from the micro- to the macro- was 1958's "Embattled Garden," which compounds the complications, putting the couple-scenario into the company of others, and thus there is immediate drama. Adam and Eve (Tadej Brdnik and Miki Orihara) are anything but alone in this Eden, which is charged with original erotic impulses and the interpersonal tensions arising from wayward thoughts and acts. The Stranger (the terrific Christophe Jeannot) and Lilith (Ms. Auclair again here, as Adam's first wife) confront that darned free-will issue, through very persuasive seduction, and Adam and Eve's world is forever shaken. The issues of trust and lust are here, jumping out of Genesis into the modern day, another example of that synthesis Martha Graham performed with our legends and our lives. The atmosphere of the piece has a tinge of the Mediterranean about it, in the bright colors of the set - Noguchi's quivering metal garden and the climbable tree -- and I swear I heard a little quote from Ravel's "Bolero" in the Surinach score. Here again, Graham has chosen music (this specially commissioned for her) that is orchestral in scope, with all tonal ranges used. No complaint here, but I noticed that all of the works tonight were similarly large-scale musically -- a metaphor maybe, or a parallel to the large range of dance skills necessary to interpret her work.

And speaking of epic: "Night Journey," the 1947 powerful and typically complex examination of the Oedipus legend, is told from Jocasta's point of view. No small feat to re-read those myths, but Graham seemed to tackle them hungrily, determined to show historical women as more complex than we'd read, peeling away layer upon layer of psychology and exposing their many motives. The blind seer Tiresias (great work here by Gary Galbraith) begins, telling the truth that is unwelcome and inevitable, and immediately an atmosphere of uncertainty and danger prevails; Noguchi's set looks purposely drab and full of incongruous pieces, unharmonious. Luminous Graham veteran Christine Dakin as Jocasta and Mr. Topping as her Oedipus were magnificent, navigating this myth to its very bitter end with great mastery. The power of these dances and these artists blew me away as they collided on their destinies. Awash in the threats that their deeds would break through to crush them, these three central characters were buttressed by Ms. Prosperi as Leader of the Chorus, and the Daughters of the Night, a female sextet used to great effect. (Ms. Auclair, Erica Dankmeyer, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ms. Mecene, Ms. Orihara, and Yuko Suzuki.)

Closing this landmark program was the perfectly appropriate 'Steps in the Street.' Originally seen in 1936 as part of "Chronicle" and once thought lost forever, this work has been through an archaeological-grade reconstruction and emerges now still so powerful, depicting the disarray, the unfairness, and the struggles in the aftermath of some catastrophe. Beginning in uncertain silence, the cast of women in black backs around the stage, almost wanderers. Tautly held, they are on their guard; weary from some force, they seem brimming with pent-up feeling. Wallingford Riegger's score does in time come crashing down: declamatory orchestra chords and pounding rhythms on the piano tell us that the hunger is awake again, and it drives the group into tense and tight unison passages. Ms. Orihara (who also oversaw rehearsals) danced bravely as the central figure, as music and Martha drove the ensemble into aggressive subgroups. Their controlled boiling was intense to witness, and naturally they were throwing down some fierce floorwork and flawless unison passages. 'Steps' ends with the group dancers streaming off stage left, and their passing repeatedly buffets Ms. Orihara, who -- like Martha, and like Martha's company -- bends but does not fall, a lone figure facing the 'other' way, who refuses to give up or give in. Appearing with Ms. Orihara were students of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and members of the Martha Graham Dance Ensemble: Kim Jones, Blakely White-McGuire, Laureve Blackstone, Nya Bowman, Jennifer Conley, Jessica Delia, Ms. Ellmore-Tallitsch, Jennifer Emerson, Catherine Lutton, Brenda Nieto, Ms. Stoeckley, and Ms. Suzuki. Kudos to you all!

A thrilling night indeed at City Center, as Martha Graham's company declares that it's back, and that Graham's "imperishable" (in Mr. Mason's words) works of art are alive, well, and being carefully and lovingly tended in this recently embattled garden. The dancing was glorious and filled with heart and the eagerness of life.

Now then: Let's hope that the Graham ticket stub I have that says "One Night Only" will forevermore be out of print.

(Editor's Note: To read how Graham dancers past and present, board members, lawyers, and others felt about last night's event, please click here.)

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