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Review 1, 2-6: Of These, History and Hope
Graham Season: And Now the Work
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2003 Alicia Mosier
NEW YORK -- The dancers
in the Martha Graham Dance Company, which just concluded its two-week
season at the Joyce Theater, had an unmistakable look in their eyes:
they were making history. For the first time in years, after a harrowing
legal battle, some of the most important works of art of the twentieth
century were seen again at last in their full glory, before an audience
that was as hungry to see them as the dancers were eager to perform
them. On each of the three nights I was there, the mood in the jam-packed
Joyce was ecstatic. These ballets were being born again before our
eyes. They had, at times, the qualities of a newborn; but they are
here again, being danced and seen, and that is history and hope.
The range of the season
was breathtaking in itself. From "Lamentation" to "Appalachian Spring,"
from "El Penitente" to "Diversion of Angels," the eleven ballets
I saw were stunning in the diversity of their moods and colors,
in their explorations of narrative and character, and most of all
in the genius of their dance language, created by Graham not ex
nihilo but out of the most fundamental actions of the human body:
contraction and release. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the
company's season was simply to recover for a new generation the
achievement of Martha Graham.
I am part of that new
generation, having seen Graham's works often on film but rarely
on the stage. I was prepared to be most impressed by the "Greek"
ballets -- "Phaedra" and her sisters. To my surprise, those were
the least satisfying works in the season. The dancers are impeccably
trained in Graham technique and refreshingly unburdened by melodramatic
excess. In most of the ballets that simplicity of style was bracing,
but in Graham's larger-than-life theater pieces it often made for
two-dimensional characters and unclear narratives.
Despite vividly erotic
performances by Christine Dakin (the slightest flinch of whose pelvis
can set off ripples of movement throughout her body ... even through
her toes), "Phaedra" (1962) and "Night Journey" (1947) were murky
and long-winded. There was a lot going on in these ballets, which
retell ancient myths from the perspective of their female protagonists,
but too often the stage felt dead. What energy there was existed
in the vortex of Dakin's mind and body, dissociated from the rest
of the dancers, who needed more dramatic authority and physical
follow-through. "Night Journey" -- in which at the moment of her
death Queen Jocasta (mother and wife of Oedipus) relives the harrowing
story of her life -- came off better than the late-Graham "Phaedra,"
with its anatomical sets and relentless horniness. (Phaedra's in
lust with her stepson Hippolytus, performed by the slightly blank-eyed
but vigorous Tadej Brdnik.) In each case, though, all the excellent
dancing -- by Dakin, by Kenneth Topping as Theseus in "Phaedra,"
by Alessandra Prosperi as the chorus leader in "Night Journey" --
could not a coherent performance make.
"Dark Meadow" (1946)
needs the most work in this respect. The program note says the setting
is "a world of great symbols, the place of experience, the Dark
Meadow of Ate, the meadow of choice, the passage to another area
of life." But here, despite their magnificent names, the One Who
Seeks (Miki Orihara), He Who Summons (Martin Lofsnes), She of the
Ground (Katherine Crockett), and They Who Dance Together mostly
just meandered for the better part of a very long hour. The dancing
was good and the choreography complex, but instead of drawing us
in it just kept passing by, without momentum or motivation. Orihara,
new to her role (as were many of the dancers throughout the season),
seemed not so much a Seeker as, well, a young woman skittering around
and looking over her shoulder amidst a strikingly aggressive corps,
a tall woman with leaves on her head, and a collection of Isamu
"Embattled Garden" (1958)
suffered from the same malady, but I'm not sure a different performance
would have improved it. In a candy-colored Garden of Eden, Lilith
(Elizabeth Auclair) and the Stranger (i.e. the Devil, danced by
Christophe Jeannot) torment poor Adam and Eve (Brdnik and Orihara)
with a lot of "We know the secrets of the universe better than you
do!" japery. Arlene Croce once described it as "a suburban sex comedy."
Substantially more engrossing
were several smaller pieces in which Graham's exploration of the
life-force was less wedded to narrative, more purely psychic and
physical. The two solos I saw -- "Lamentation" (1930) and "Deep
Song" (1937) -- were very brief and very potent. Elizabeth Auclair,
enveloped in a tube of gray cloth, grew into a roar of suffering
as she swayed and pressed against the air in "Lamentation"; as she
rose, eyes blazing, her dress became a shroud, a baby's blanket,
an open maw, a body bag. In "Deep Song," Prosperi was jumpy and
intense, her black-and-white dress rustling in a subtle dance of
Prosperi was equally
vivid in her debut in "Errand Into the Maze," a study in fear and
its conquest. In a dark space, jabbing her feet into the ground
to Gian Carlo Menotti's music (performed live on January 24 by a
superb chamber orchestra led by Aaron Sherber), she fought the leering
Minotaur (Jeannot); even after he withdrew and she breathed deeply
in relief, she shuddered at the thought of him and had to gather
strength all over again. Prosperi's eyes were everywhere, her face
perhaps too active. Her body's jolts and quivers were telling the
more compelling story.
On the same program
with "Errand" were "El Penitente" (1940) and "Appalachian Spring"
(1944), two of Graham's finest works. The former, in the style of
a penitential mystery play of the sort found in the American Southwest,
featured Lofsnes as a striking Christ Figure, Auclair as the Virgin
Mary/Magdalen, and Brdnik as the Penitent. With his perfect golden
body and woeful face, Brdnik brought both pure strength and vulnerability
to his role, equally impressive when he skipped and slapped his
thighs in the closing Festival Dance as when he lashed his back
with a rope in the Flagellation scene. As the Mother, the delicate
Auclair made one feel the weight of sorrow in her body as she supported
Brdnik while he carried the cross.
As for "Appalachian
Spring" -- what a wonder this ballet is. Pure oxygen, pure frontier.
Aaron Copland's famous score, written for Graham, is buoyant and
brisk, tender and hopeful. It's the music of the American soul.
Graham's characters are utterly distinct in their movement. The
Bride is full of excitement in little steps, then full of longing
as she kneels, imagining a baby. The Husbandman is steady and sound,
jumping straight up and scanning the sky. The Revivalist, in a long
coat and hat, declaims a sermon then wrestles with devils in a terrifying
solo. The Pioneering Woman moves like a quiet force of nature, sweeping
her hands across the air. And the Followers, the Revivalist's coterie,
flutter and skitter and bob up and down. The movement is unceasingly
January 24's lead performances,
all debuts, were mixed. Virginie Mecene was a sweet and soulful
Bride, but very high-strung. Gary Galbraith as the Husbandman was
a puzzle: he was both unstable and heavy on his feet, making everything
look hard. But Jeannot's Revivalist could not have been better --
he towered, he glowered, he leapt up like a cat, his body shook
with Holy Ghost fervor. A brilliant performance, perhaps the best
of the season. And as the Woman, Heidi Stoeckley (who comes from
the Oklahoma where the ballet might take place) looked like a tall
bronze statue in her simple red dress, and moved with an astonishing
serenity and breadth.
Of all the glorious
moments in these two weeks, the best of all was the conclusion of
the January 28 program: "Diversion of Angels" (1948) followed by
"Chronicle" (1936). I saw "Diversion" twice, on the 28th and again
the next night. This gorgeous ballet's three couples -- in white,
red, and yellow -- represent three "aspects" of love: its maturity,
its erotic passion, and its adolescent flowering. It was my great
good fortune to see Katherine Crockett and Martin Lofsnes both nights
as the Couple in White. Rapturously loving, they danced together
with the calmness and comfort of a long-married couple, and Crockett
did the most beautiful penchees I've ever seen, her sphinx-like
profile gleaming in the light. Fang-Yi Sheu and Maurizio Nardi were
much better on the 29th as the Couple in Red than Mecene and Galbraith
the previous night (Put simply, they had passion.) Prosperi and
Jeannot on the 28th and Erica Dankmeyer and Ari Mayzik on the 29th
were both delightful Couples in Yellow; I especially enjoyed Dankmeyer's
feisty frivolity as she skipped around her man.
The applause for "Diversion"
on the 28th was deafening -- the ballet really moves at the end,
with all the couples and a small corps of six flying across the
stage and pausing in happy reflection. The "Chronicle" that followed
was pure dynamite. It is a ballet about war, and in the first solo
movement, "Spectre -- 1914 (Drums, Red Shroud, Lament)," Sheu was
as piercing as an air-raid siren. She consumed the stage in her
huge black skirt, with red showing through; her body seemed on fire
with rage and anguish as she gathered up the fabric and hurled it
into the air. In the second movement -- the famous "Steps in the
Street (Devastation, Homelessness, Exile)" -- Orihara led twelve
women in black in a stark procession, sometimes in silence, sometimes
to music that had in it the sound of factories and cannons and death-marches.
The women walked slowly at first, torsos wrenched to the side, then
they were everywhere, filling the air like ravens. Sheu returned
in the final movement, "Prelude to Action (Unity -- Pledge to the
Future)," now in black and white and as fierce as ever, this time
a force for solidarity and hope instead of destruction, running
with her sisters into white-hot joy.
This was, indeed, a
history-making season -- a rebirth, a tribute, a vindication. How
often in the arts do we get to see such a splendid second coming?
For the Martha Graham Dance Company, charged with keeping these
treasures alive, and for all of us, these happy two weeks are only
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