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Flash Review, 5-31: Passing the Torch
Graham, the Next Generation

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2002 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- I heard a great thing last night, as I sat midway up the sheer rake of the Marymount College / Theresa Lang Theater (perfect sight-lines for all, though short on foot room). I heard that snapping of the stage managers fingers -- Dan Perina in this case, I assume -- that immediately precedes the pull on the curtain-chords. It's "Go" time. Where I work now this is not the practice, but I remember that moment from every dance's commencement while I was with Paul Taylor's company. What an association -- I know how that sound can signal the rocket's take-off, or the opening of the gates at a race, or the door of a church opening. I'm still juiced from the May 9 event, where the Martha Graham Dance Company thundered back from painful absence, and where there was a positive aching to have the curtain come up again [and again] and a very emotional moment indeed when it did. I was at a different theater last night to witness other pieces of the Graham equation: the Graham dancers of tomorrow, a.k.a. The Martha Graham Dance Ensemble, under the guidance and devoted tutelage of the dancers who are pillars of Martha Graham's temple.

The Martha Graham Dance Ensemble, in its Spring New York season, was clearly buoyed by the Company's momentum -- indeed, some of those young ladies in this troupe were among the powerful cast of the "Steps In The Street" performed at City Center in "Indisputably Martha Graham" -- and also of course celebrating in its own right. These performances are a continuation of last year's 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Graham school -- a source of so many wonderful dancers now scattered across the earth. In keeping with last year's inspiration, the 2002 concerts feature works by many of the luminaries of Graham lore, still active-as-can-be in the perpetuation and expansion of their experiences with Martha's work. Graham Alpha-male Kenneth Topping (also performing wonderfully earlier this month with the Company) is director of both the school and the Ensemble, and he has curated a nice program here. The dances -- eight of 'em -- are from dancing stars from various stages of Grahams long long trajectory, and the works' premiere-dates span from 1938 to 2000! Right away, from glancing at this line-up, it's a treat, a sampler and a lesson.

Bertram Ross's 1981 "Nocturne" led things off, and a second after that evocative finger-snap, the curtain rose on a lovely sculptural tableau for four. Two women (Jessica Delia and Melissa McCorkle) and two men (Alejandro Chavez and Maurizio Nardi) played in moonlight in a lovely lyric quartet (and I wouldn't have known that was a Gershwin piece that carried them along.) Familiar with each other, they ran in and out of the shadows, alternately exuberant or reflective. There was a real tenderness and loveliness to it, and even though I expected them to be a little nervous, the four had great focus even from the close vantage point. But then, they're tomorrow's pros, and they're taught by the pros, right? Kudos in particular to Ms. McCorkle for the luscious workings of her back and for taking the chances, with living results.

I was very curious to see Linda Hodes' "Curley's Wife," based on an episode from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." A brief-ish dance this, but Hodes makes the points clearly and vividly, starting with Ms. McCorkle bent over and fluffing her hair and preening; her subsequent seduction of the stoic Mr. Chavez is in the works before anyone has time to think. This urgency, the feeling of falling, drives these two characters through an emotional spectrum in a matter of minutes, from lust to horror. Frankly sexual, and violent, I loved this tumble onto the crossroads. This work premiered in 1952.

Virginie Victoire Mecene choreographed "Between Two Worlds" in 1998. Against a lush score by Bruce Boughton, her pair of lovers are Yuko Suzuki and Mr. Nardi. Theirs are issues of devotion and distraction (what-is vs. what-might-be?) and their great technical development provided the stability required for the supple textures of the partnering and the deft way they interacted. Their walk into the upstage sunset is twice interrupted for a soliloquy for each of them while the other stands arrested and waiting to go on. This pair was really great together; the way they touched was authentic, they responded nicely to each other, and they are both fine fine dancers.

Wrapping up Act 1 was director Topping's "Dark Night." For a trio of men, actually a pair of men and another man (Ernest Gonzales, Luis Gabriel Zaragoza, and Eng Kian Ooi, respectively,) it was the classic gang-up. The most elementally effective dominance and the uneven numbers involved cause surges of adrenaline in all parties, causing here the men-in-black to be more daring -- Mr. Zaragoza was particularly menacing -- and their lone victim to be suffused with fear. (Wow, I've been buried in the Discovery Channel things recently, and after all the food-chain chases I've seen this was just the top of the pyramid. Remember: we're the ones that kill each other for anything but defensible motives like food.) Righteousness and white tights are no defense for Mr. Ooi, and even though he can dart around like a rabbit, he can't elude these other two, who have their minds made up that he is going down for good. Bracketed by the sounds of a storm, Freddie Mercury's haunted vocalese was a poignant backdrop for a classic battle.

Lyndon Branagh's contribution to the evening, "Trio For One" (1989), was intriguing. Stage scene: white squares are marked on the floor, two large ones which touch at a corne and a smaller one where a Speaker is seated. The Speaker (I think Nick Andrews, who's credited with the text) intones reflectively, a little wistfully perhaps, that "Thought is slow . . . impression is rapid," and of plans to connect, when the time is right. It was just evocative enough, as the prone figures of Kirk Gagnon and Catherine Lutton stirred to life, each within their square. Their early passages of unison kept them floorbound, staying at low levels for much of the piece, which was different, and a nice look at how ya can dance down there without looking like it's technique class. The dancers were beautifully synchronized as they eventually merged, a reverse-mitosis move over to one square, where they experience only a fleeting synchronicity. The conclusion was, I thought, simple and masterful, leaving me with an ache.

I wasn't really taken by "En Dolor -- A Woman's Lament." From the venerable Ethel Winter, this dance (from 1944) seemed not quite a lament to me. But maybe I mean to say that Ms. Winter had chosen a direction of stronger physical dynamic when she envisioned it. A black dress with peeks of crimson (thank you, Karen Brown, who also made them quite lovely for the "Nocturne") parallels the sadness hiding the passion of Rachel Grisi. Technically it looked quite challenging (yikes, those pitching ronds-de-jamb!) and employing a little too much gusto.

On the other hand.... The oldest work on the bill, Jane Dudley's 1938 "Harmonica Breakdown," absolutely delighted me. Jennifer Conley was sterling in this quirky solo (set to some priceless Sonny Terry jazz) and I smiled throughout. A very unusual dance vocabulary here, sometimes effortful, sometimes flung loosely, I honestly would have flunked trying to date it, so odd and fresh and it seemed. As the wailing harmonica train looped around and droned on through, Ms. Conley's interpretation was spot-on great, as she danced right over that line of technical surety to accuracy and back across to the spontaneity of acting, all with great aplomb. Brava! Loved this piece, and didn't want it to end.

The program concludes with Yuriko's "3 Celebrations," which dates from 1966. To a scratchy-ish recording of Vivaldi, it's the concert's big work, for eleven, and I found it a little over-the-top after that sweet solo, but there you are: the big piece should close the show, says the conventional wisdom. I got the feeling this is an original Ensemble staple, in showcase format. It has that thrilling surge of the Vivaldi behind it, and the dancing is very spirited, But I also found a frustrating drag to it, as if there was a conscious lack of buoyancy where buoyancy should have been inevitable. The dancers, throughout all three sections, were terrifically into it, but I missed a real sense of phrasing as far as choreography goes. Sequences, yes, but phrases, no not really. "3 Celebrations' seemed to me more demonstrative in design, but rather than moving [as in 'traveling'] patterning seemed to take the upper hand. A little abrupt, after all that preceded. Still, it was nice to behold the cast entering singly for the finale, each carrying a large flower, which they ultimately deposit in a materializing vase downstage center, left in a pool of light in front-of-curtain when all is danced and done.

The way the choreographers of these works strike out in new ways and also touch upon their Graham experiences provides a marvelous look at artists striking sparks from one another, informing each others' recipes, if you will. Each contributed a color to the palette, and in return they all have taken Martha's work forward, emphasizing and enhancing some different element through their own creations. (Mercy, just read their bios in the playbill, to note the huge contributions they've made to the world of dance!) These are parts of the synthesis, the going-forward.... They may break the boundaries of partnering, find a new sense of composition as a response to what was once just a what-if or a why-not? Showing you can be related yet different, and vice-versa too.

One last bit of ramble here...and not just to take a page from my dear and wise editor's book (see PBI's recent column; it's pithy stuff), but because this concert exemplifies something I care about. The passing-on, informing the next links in this long and varied chain of the dance idiom, is so important given the impermanence of dances (and sadly, of dancers too.) Yes yes, film and tapes do help a lot, as can the use of the written scores by diligent notators. But there still can be no substitute for really doing it, learning and performing the old dances and living part of that timeline of your chosen dance flavor.... There's still no substitute for learning it from the Ones Who Were There. If you choose a path in the classics, you've got to get to that particular Mecca and really hear the word from their prophets. That means company schools that can keep a technique alive, that give their students opportunities to learn AND perform repertory. Here are where the next great ones come from. Remember all that dance history, all those collisions of the titans in their early days? They taught, they learned, they joined or they went off to bend what they'd learned to serve their own visions. And then there appears this diverse, old, strong family tree that's inspired a lot of American modern dance.

Standing apart from state support in most cases, American modern dance also is an art form of highly transient practitioners, who in so many cases have to simply find another job, as strong groups are disbanded by circumstances. Yes, life does go on, and cross-pollinating is good, but so much knowledge is poured away as well. Expertise abandons -- or is cast out of -- the farm, and the new initiates coming behind may never realize what grew there. Well, not to be maudlin and pinch your tear-ducts, but I do applaud those who strive for this preservation and perpetuation of things too great to risk losing. Companies with histories all know about preservation, and the ones that keep on keeping-on survive and flourish to the degree they put it into committed action. Dance is such a highly evaporative form of art and communication, that even when the books may reflect otherwise, this kind of preservation, literally a passing of the flame, is artistic Money In The Bank.

The Martha Graham Dance Ensemble continues at Marymount through Saturday night. For more information, please call 212-838-5886.

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