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Review 1, 3-16: Martha, More than Ever
Making Graham Resonate in 2005
By Allyson Green
Copyright 2005 Allyson Green
SAN DIEGO -- Martha!
Martha! Martha! For three weeks the name Martha Graham seemed to
be everywhere here. After too long an absence, the La Jolla Music
Society (LJMS) presented the Martha Graham Dance Company for only
two nights (March 11-12) in the cavernous Copley Symphony Hall.
However, the performances were brilliantly couched within the American
Movement Festival, celebrating two of the US's most esteemed cultural
icons, Graham and Aaron Copland. An array of events produced by
various cultural partners took place from February 21 through March
12, giving San Diego audiences a wealth of experiences including
chamber music, dance, lectures, master classes, film and even the
Richard Move cabaret Martha @. By placing the performances of the
company as the finale of the festival, the producers provided audiences
with a range of references and experiences to shape the viewing.
So by the time the actual company appeared, there was a buzz of
anticipation in the air.
It has been some years
since I have been able to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform
in New York, and over a decade since the troupe has appeared before
audiences in San Diego. I arrived at the theater Saturday with eager
curiosity, but with a question in my mind. I was no longer simply
a choreographer wanting to see a master at work, but now also a
University Professor. I could hear the voices of my students asking
me, "Why should we care about seeing dance work created 60 years
ago?" They know Martha Graham (and all of her peers) as required
reading and video viewing, an assignment for a dance history or
aesthetics class. They watch dances recorded on flat videotapes,
on small monitors in a badly lit classroom and, unsurprisingly,
they are not moved. "It is the problem with video," I tell them,
trying to convince them of the kinesthetic power of live performance.
But inside I am unsure:
IS it just the video? Would this work prove too 'old' to move me?
Is the present company too far removed from the original intent?
Or more specifically can Martha Graham still speak to new generations
After the performance
I can honestly report a resounding yes to the last question.
The performance I attended
offered a well-chosen spectrum of classic Graham masterpieces from
the 1930s and 40s and, most significantly, was accompanied by live
music performed by members of the San Diego Symphony (conducted
by the Graham company's musical director, Aaron Sherber). What a
difference that made, to both the dancers and the audience; to experience
the works in the way that Graham intended -- enveloped in responsive,
breathing music, an equal partner on the stage.
The program opened with
the classic "Appalachian Spring," to Copland's beloved score. I
have seen this ballet many times as a New Yorker, but to see it
in California was a new experience. The wide-open vistas, the spare
set of Isamu Noguchi frames, the clear simple lighting, the charged
stillness and then explosions of the dancers -- this ballet resonated
with a new power for me in this landscape. I realized that the former
Santa Barbara resident Graham knew full well the power of the simple
gesture across a horizon line and the hope and respectful fear of
nature that underlines life in the West. Virginie Mecene danced
the Bride with a vivid though tight clarity, fleetingly birdlike
in skittering passes, and gathering assurance through the dance.
David Zurak as The Husbandman offered a truthful open gaze, a tenderness,
and commanding presence in taut long-limbed gestures. The stage
felt too small for his jumps, which often exploded in search of
space. The slap of hands on thighs in his solos reverberated, as
did the rhythms of the stamping feet or cupped clapping hands of
the Followers. I thought then that these are the vital physical
sounds in counterpoint to the music that my students never get to
hear on a video. Heidi Stoeckley (originally from Oklahoma, so perhaps
no stranger to an open vista) was truly The Pioneering Woman with
a capital "W." With a calm, radiant face and masterfully expansive
body, Stoeckley was riveting as she glided across the stage in her
red dress. I was not convinced at first by the casting of Maurizio
Nardi as The Revivalist, Nardi giving an affected countenance of
haughty Prince more than Preacher. But when he removed his broad-brimmed
hat and set off into the fire and brimstone solo everything changed.
Leaping, shaking, filled with fervor and a catlike musicality, he
ignited the audience, and then silenced all with an outstretched
pointing gesture. The last moment of the dance, with Mecene and
Zurak gazing skyward, brought a small contented sigh of recognition
from the California audience.
Next was "Cave of the
Heart," the ballet of dark passions, set to the music of Samuel
Barber, that seemed to resonate from the dancers' center. Jason
was danced by a strong, lithe Martin Lofsnes, The Princess by an
exquisite Erica Dankmeyer and the Chorus by another riveting (W)oman,
Katherine Crockett. All three gave a compelling interpretation of
the mythic Greek story. But the standout performance of the evening
was the unexpected dancing by Terese Capucilli in a show-stopping
creation of Medea. Fang-Yi Sheu had been listed in the program as
the Sorceress and, distressingly, there was not a program insert
or vocal announcement of the cast change. Immediately following
the dance there was a flurry of inquiries -- "Who was that remarkable
That woman of course
was the powerful Capucilli, co-artistic director of the company
with Christine Dakin and more remarkable than I have ever seen her.
(That many in the audience did not recognize Capucilli underscores
the sad fact that the company has not performed in San Diego in
too many years). From the first quivering, passionate breath Capucilli
did not play Graham's signature Medea, she WAS Medea. Watching her
clear, articulate body, I realized how rare it has become to see
fully committed emotion in dance these days. There was nothing dated
about her performance; this was not a history lesson in a classic:
this was real fury, real pain, as ancient as life and just as relevant
today. When Capucilli stepped inside a Noguchi brass sculpture filling
it with her breath and being, the shimmering sounds of the vibrating
metal, flashing in the light like flames, gave a sight and sound
that could only be experienced, viscerally, in a live performance.
With the last striking note of the piano, the brass sculpture continued
to quiver as an extension of her center, bringing the audience to
the strongest ovation of the night.
After a second intermission,
the company presented three short but arresting Graham solos. The
veteran Elizabeth Auclair, a commanding vision in a black and white
striped dress, was impressive in the Spanish Civil War lament "Deep
Song," from 1937. Moving sorrowfully along a long white bench that
became both support and cage. Auclair's body called forth the prepared
piano music of Henry Cowell, beginning and ending the dance in a
An early solo, "Satyric
Festival Song"(1932), brought an unexpected humor to the evening.
Another veteran, the wonderful Miki Orihara, became a playful imp
in a green, yellow and black striped jersey dress. With her sly
looks, whipping black hair, and light-as-air jumps (with seemingly
no preparation) Orihara also seemed to call forth the breathy trills
of the flute in music by Fernando Palacios.
The last solo was that
personification of grief "Lamentation," performed hauntingly by
Dakin to the resonant music of Zoltan Kodaly. Like Capucilli's Medea,
Dakin has made this solo her own from the first rocking motions
within the blue cocoon of fabric. Her lament feels real, stretching
out of her skin, head emerging only to slip back into the womb,
hands opening and closing with a guttural moan. We have seen this
pain on the front pages of the newspaper, we have felt it in the
privacy of our homes; it is from 1930, and it is from 2005.
The last work of the
evening highlighted the other members of the company in "Diversion
of Angels," a crowd-pleaser to the rolling music of Norman Dello
Joio. Once again Erika Dankmeyer was a bright, exuberant jewel of
a mover, one half of the Couple in Yellow partnered with the equally
fine and elegant Christophe Jeannot. Maurizio Nardi has a marvelous
jump, and brought a natural presence supporting Catherine Lutton
as they performed the Couple in White. Lutton, a lovely dancer newer
to the company, appeared jittery at the outset, but nailed the impossibly
long balance of front attitude at the end. Alessandra Prosperi effectively
delivered striking images as a streak of brilliant red, flying diagonally
across the stage in a blur, or slashing a diagonal tilt with fierce
determination. (Graham's inspiration for this vision came from a
red stroke of paint in a Wassily Kandinsky painting). Her partner
Gelan Lambert Jr. is a powerhouse, but not yet as clear in his lines
or contractions. (I did have to moan for him holding the longest
hinge, Prosperi draped across his thighs. Graham was not kind to
the men in this work.) Jennifer Conley, Jennifer DePalo-Rivera,
Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Blakeley White-McGuire and Whitney V.
Hunter completed the cast with fine and lyrical dancing, some more
accomplished than others.
In the end, I came away
moved by choreography that though created 60 years ago, seems more
relevant to the particular tenor of these days than the post-modern
work that I have loved of my own peers. Perhaps it is the sickly
contradiction of living in a climactic paradise, while some of my
students are indeed being shipped off to war from the San Diego
port. I found myself grateful for the Graham dancers' commitment
onstage; the revelation of stark, clear, emotions that no longer
seemed dated at all.
And so a new question
arose for me: Now, what do we all want to create in response to
The Martha Graham Dance Company returns to City Center April
Allyson Green is a choreographer who was based in NYC from 1986
to 2001. She is currently an Associate Professor of Dance at the
University of California, San Diego, where she is helping to create
a new MFA in interdisciplinary dance theater. She is also the artistic
director of Sushi Performance and Visual Art, which was a co-producer
of the Martha @ performances in the American Movement Festival.
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