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Flash 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 Noguchi phalluses.

"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." Enough said!

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 mental torment.

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 thrilling.

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 the beginning.

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