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Review 1, 1-23: Deep Songs
The Martha Graham Dance Company is in the House
By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2003 Tom Patrick
Original Art by Robin
NEW YORK -- It was a
full supper of dance last night at the Joyce, opening night for
the Martha Graham Dance Company, and the program/menu was expansive!
The company's repertory for this two-week run is large, and there
are plenty of program
Act One last night was
a quintet of dances from the 1920s and '30s, mostly solos, which
were presumably Martha Graham's proving-ground. Ground-breaking
stuff, which I'll break down for you by dance:
"FRONTIER": A deliciously
simple set with its diagonally stretched ropes as a horizon framed
a woman's figure. She is at a fence, a squared-off corner on an
endless ranch. Elizabeth Auclair floated, all easy battements and
eager in the sunshine -- mostly. The deep clouds were already there
in Graham's sensibility, and the soloist here does deflate momentarily
(but with great core strength!) and is wracked by contractions.
A perfect overture for the concert.
"DEEP SONG": She is
sitting on a long white bench. She is bothered, agitated, moved.
Between she and us, Patrick Daugherty teases compelling music (Henry
Cowell) from his piano. Alessandra Prosperi was a dynamo onstage,
very strong and sure. This is a taut piece, a restless woman in
deep feeling, and the dancing was right on the money, even partnering
"SATYRIC FESTIVAL SONG":
Vintage Graham. The curtain rises to reveal Erica Dankmeyer far
upstage, jumping in sideways arches with her back toward us, blonde
hair cascading loose. It's arresting right off, and the quirkiness
of Ms. Dankmeyer's bourees, wiggles, and hair-tosses elicited grins
and giggles from us all. It's a great rhythm dance work, simply
and interestingly composed in an off-balance way, to solo flute
music (kudos to Allison Potter.) Love the hair, a welcome opposition
to some absurdly big hairbuns worn in other dances!
"LAMENTATION": The costume
and choreography are, in conjunction with the lighting, a perfect
illustration of the relentless torque of Graham's work. Kodaly's
piano music further surrounded the fabric-engulfed Katherine Crockett
on her bench. She's obscured by her costume, but maybe that just
pulls our focus in. As Crockett spirals and stretches, the sculpture
constantly changes, and she is utterly focused.
Her eventual standing
(a rising wail?) is glorious, as she seems to just keep unfolding.
"HERETIC": A real oldie
-- premiered in 1929! I had long ago read a description of this
one, and it was really cool to finally see it. Then, it sounded
like a classic vehicle for Martha, where she could be protagonist
against the strength-in-numbers of her budding ensemble -- a simple
illustration of the idealist vs. the masses. They are in black,
and the Individual wears white. She keeps to the foreground.
of the Martha Graham Dance Company in Martha Graham's "Heretic."
Studio drawing by Robin Hoffman.
Perhaps as a byproduct
of Graham's training and her school -- by her very success -- the
effect tonight might have been different than the original, because
I barely noticed Fang Yi Sheu -- no discredit to her, but this ensemble
is so good I couldn't look away! Their tautness was total, without
repose, and their unison work quite impressively woven with the
music (a repeated four-staff phrase, a little odd, original composer
"ERRAND INTO THE MAZE":
This one's a killer! Elemental, involving the virulent rise of fear,
it's as tense a piece as I know. Gian Carlo Menotti's electrifying
music is a huge reason why, with that intense piano left hand and
the cry of the brass responding, the pulse of the woodwinds. In
a filmed interview, Martha Graham recounted how in a prolonged bout
of turbulence on an airplane, she had mentally run through the dance
several times to quell the fear of crashing, and rightly so. As
Ariadne in the mythic maze Ms. Auclair was repeatedly beset by Gary
Galbraith as the Minotaur, and more significantly by her terror
of those encounters, those taut skirmishes, after which she soars
in lyric relief. It looks to be a devilish piece to dance, full
of musical exactitude and long-phrase strength as well as frequent
textural shifts. The Minotaur is quite encumbered by design, and
his unusual costuming leads to some very tricky business, especially
And then there was "MAPLE
LEAF RAG": Created in 1990 and Graham's last dance, it's a splash
of sunshine, a rare bit of mirth in this Dance Goddess's world.
How fresh and spunky the cast looked, charging out from the wings,
and how beautifully they attacked this work. Miki Orihara and Tadej
Brdnik lead the evening's largest group through this witty tour
de force of easy virtuosity (or rather, virtuosity with ease.) The
Scott Joplin music seems such an un-Martha choice for stage work,
simply rhythmic and infectiously familiar, but the dancers all seemed
to relish its bounce and charge. I've loved this dance on video
for years, and this was better. The stage explodes with great dance
architecture, and this was the only piece where the Joyce's floorspace
seemed truly stretched to the seams.
"DARK MEADOW": I was
really surprised to see this work had such a long-ago premiere,
1948, as I pegged it as a product of a late-era Graham from this
viewing. Not to smudge the cast -- the luminous Christine Dakin
and the sleek panther Martin Lofsnes had to put in long stretches
of stage-time and did as well as the material seemed to allow. That
said, I was put off by the meandering nature of "Dark Meadow" --
by the excesses of decor and prop stuff and the rather blunt way
of using the soloists and ensemble. The tone or narrative of She
Who Seeks et al eluded me before long, and even the wonderful intrusion
of the ensemble's rhythm and choreographic vigor seemed dulled by
the slavish unison. There were props and statues and cloth everywhere,
and the profundity of everything also seemed perpetually pulled
down -- it's a long dance -- by the meandering score ("La Hija de
Colquide’" by Carlos Chavez). They all seemed doomed by the music's
inertia, or a reluctance to edit the dance.
Make no mistake about
the music though: all night it was live, and very tight as conducted
by MGDC music director Aaron Sherber.
On the technical side,
I loved the costuming for almost every piece: design, execution,
maintenance. The decor and the costumes are also co-existent works
of art with the dances and dancers of Graham, and these clothes
are cool -- my faves are the ones designed by Martha. I didn't really
get much impression of lighting; nothing too daring on this program.
Graham's longtime set designer, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, contributed
his odd and engrossing shapes to almost all of the works on this
program, though sadly I could not find his bio in the evening's
Graham may not be your
cup o' tea, but this is work dance insiders should see, and especially
now. Graham's company is a phoenix rising, an endangered species
back from the brink -- and, after all, doesn't her work inform (toward/away)
much of what we are as dancers even now? The MGDC dancers shine
in the repertory, with everything so clean and in their bones, dancing
with a lot of focus and passion. It was a very full program with
great live music throughout, and the proximity of Joyce seats to
the stage is a big big big plus in revealing the dancers in the
To sum up, I'll say:
Go to this! And also, I will look forward to seeing Alicia Mosier's
DI review of the season. Stay tuned for that, but grab tickets now!
Tom Patrick, the Dance Insider's senior writer, currently works
with the Metropolitan Opera as a dancer and dance captain. From
1989 to 1999 he was a proud and hungry member of the Paul Taylor
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