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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
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.
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
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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