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Flash 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 Hoffman

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 choices.

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 that bench.

"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.

A member 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 unknown.)

Act Two:

"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 in partnering.

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.

Act Three:

"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 Playbill.

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 dance.

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 Dance Company.

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