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Flash Review, 4-20: The Legacy, Reborn
Ribbon-eating Graham takes Center stage

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2004 Gus Solomons jr

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NEW YORK -- It's a good thing Ralph Lauren makes plus sizes. He furnished the elegant gray tweed suit and cape larger-than-life Andre Leon Talley (in his day job, editor-at-large for Vogue Magazine) wears for the current Martha Graham Dance Company City Center season as the narrator in Graham's 1978 ballet "The Owl and the Pussy Cat." (Liza Minnelli originated Talley's role.) Although no one was larger-than-life than Martha Graham herself, this ballet, set to music by Carlos Surinach, is a trifle. Graham's signature movements appear: contracted turns, knee crawls, et al, but as parody in service of a literal miming of the Edward Lear verse about the barnyard pair who elope in a pea-green boat.

Talley manages to maneuver his ample frame around the stage amongst the dancers, delivering his lines like a charming, if slightly salacious cocktail-party host, flicking his tongue suggestively and trying to wrench double meaning from the word "pussy." Seen April 16, Virginie Mecene as the Pussy Cat, Tadej Brdnik as the Owl, Gary Galbraith as the Turkey (who weds the pair), and Christophe Jeannot as a trim and fit Pig all paint their portrayals with appropriately broad strokes in the spirit of mindless entertainment, to which the whimsical work deigns.

But "Cave of the Heart," which follows on Program A reminds us of the incredible dramatic power of Graham's unique vocabulary, centered in the contraction, which physically knits the body together and generates amazing power of gesture and posture. That lexicon of heroic movement matches the scale of mythic Medea's horrible vengeance on Creon's daughter -- her rival for Jason's love -- and her own children, after Jason abandons her. As the Princess, Yuko Suzuki completely embodies Graham's technique and style with deep, functional contractions and strong, pliant legs that propel her like a breeze.

Kenneth Topping as Jason -- a killer role, technically -- represents Graham's ideal man-god. Topping is a marvel: athletically muscular, yet supple; emotionally clear without histrionics. Heidi Stoeckley in her debut as The Chorus, who sees the impending disaster, tries to forestall it, and suffers most from its enormity, proves a worthy exponent of Graham's epic dramatics as well as a fiercely strong mover.

"Medea," danced by Christine Dakin (company veteran and co-artistic director with Terese Capucilli), tears passion to shreds as the demented sorceress whose jealousy drives her to destroy her loved ones. Had she begun at less of an emotional pitch, the final solo -- her insane recrimination -- would have carried us to even greater heights of horror and terror than it did. Still, Dakin rivals even Graham's own performance in emotional depth and idiosyncratic detail, like her devouring of a blood red ribbon, as she skitters across the stage on her knees, and wracking her chiseled torso with spasmodic contractions, as if a nest of vipers were roiling in her gut.

Interestingly, the dances on Program A moved backward through time, from the seventies to the forties to the thirties, and became increasingly powerful with each earlier generation. "Sketches from Chronicle," a three-part meditation on war, as relevant today as in 1936, shows the originality of Graham's kinetic expression. Set to stirring music by Wallingford Riegger, the ballet, created for her all-woman company, is as dynamic and athletic as anything seen in many a season of dancing.

'Spectre-1914' presages the advent of World War I. In it, Fang-Yi Sheu -- a new member of the lineage of great Graham dancers -- sits atop a two-level drum in a voluminous black skirt with crimson lining. When she rises to standing on the drum, the skirt reaches to the ground, giving her supernatural height. Manipulation of the fabric is integral to the visual imagery of the heroic figure she depicts. This represents an early example of Graham's investigation of the visual excitement fabric can create, which continued over the course of her seven-decade long dance-making career.

In 'Steps in the Street,' a dozen women led by Miki Orihara interpret Devastation, Homelessness, and Exile. In contracted poses the women stiffly step backwards along weaving diagonal paths; seven women in line drop to their knees and rise, faces lifted to heaven; a line of four tilt with their legs stretched high then fall to the floor, sitting; others obsessively pound the edge of one foot on the ground as they reach upward. The massing of the women into opposing lines and groupings is abstractly sculptural, yet the expression of the piece is intensely emotional.

In the final section, 'Prelude to Action,' the women charge across the stage like a cavalry in galloping leaps and circle the central figure with big barrel-turn leaps in a hair-raising, visceral incitement to activism that resonates now -- as then -- in a time of social and political anxiety.

At the conclusion of "Chronicle" the audience sprang to its feet in a spontaneous, well-deserved ovation. The power of Graham's archetypal movement, performed with virulence by a cast of thirteen strong women cannot be underestimated. With the messy lawsuit over the ownership of her work behind it, the company has renewed vitality.

Whatever else you do, do not miss this triumphant Graham season at City Center, continuing through April 25.

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