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Flash 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 of audiences?

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 woman?"

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 charged silence.

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 these times?

The Martha Graham Dance Company returns to City Center April 6.

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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