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Flash Review 2, 3-23: Everything's Coming up Marthas
Martha is Back, and Richard's Still Moving

By Brian Schaefer
Copyright 2005 Brian Schaefer

SAN DIEGO -- On a video screen, scenes from dance numbers throughout history are interspersed with dialogue from a variety of films all saying one word: Martha. She is everywhere. Her presence is felt from the voice of Walter Matthau to the hips of Elvis Presley. Charles Atlas's film collage, which opened the March 6 performance of Martha @ the Lyceum Space Theater in downtown San Diego hinted not-so-subtly that Martha Graham's influence is widespread. Her name, her movements, her image, and her persona have endured for more than three quarters of a century and Richard Move is eager to bring them into the next century in his charming homage to the mother of modern dance. Co-presented by La Jolla Music Society and Sushi Performance and Visual Art (whose artistic director, Allyson Green, is also my professor), the performances were part of a three-week American Movement Festival that honored both Martha and Aaron Copland and preceded the actual Martha Graham company by one week.

From one diva to another, Richard Move displays a clear kinship to his subject. Though perhaps I have quite a different perspective on that matter. While I generally feel it is unnecessary to reveal the age of a reviewer, there appears to be a bit of a generation divide among audience perceptions of Move's portrayal of Graham and so I find in this instance that I should reveal at least my generational status as one who has never experienced the true Martha Graham live, nor did I witness performances by her company when Graham still maintained artistic control and her influence was strongly seen and felt. I received several comments from audience members who have experienced Martha and her company for years that his impersonation was over-the-top and overly dramatic. I heard critiques from those who studied with her company members that his technique was soft and did not do justice to the sharpness of Graham's technique. But these things are only marginally important. What Move does is bring Martha Graham back to life in breathing form that, yes, may play up her eccentricities or her self-congratulating way of stating her own importance. Move's Martha is a caricature. The gowns, the slow, oh-so-particular speech, the sly look of the eyes, the harsh makeup -- it's Martha 2005: larger than life, as perhaps only someone no longer living can be.

From the view of one who knows the persona and the works of Martha only second-hand, Move's exaggerated portrayal of his subject does not necessarily detract from the strengths of the show, which are namely the way he uses Graham's own words to reveal her to the audience. He presents 'excerpts' from several of Graham's most well known works, among them "Appalachian Spring," "Cave of the Heart," and "Lamentation," but not to their original scores; Graham's thoughts and comments on the works provide the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of the explanations of the themes along with the movement makes a connection between the two that is a rare glimpse into the mind of the icon.

Another particularly effective use of text comes during Move's lively reading of Graham's choreographic notes. As he reads off movements and positions, dancer Denise Vale, a former member of the Martha Graham company, performs, bringing them to life before the audience's eyes. Vale also comes to the aid of Move in several of the presentations of Graham's works. Her muscular body displays the years of Graham training and she exhibits the classic Graham contractions with a preciseness that Move cannot approach. Watching the two together highlights the technical distinctions between them which, while a bit awkward, brings to mind Graham's later years, when she insisted on playing the female leads in her works surrounded by young, agile dancers more technically proficient than she.

A notable component of Martha @ is the inclusion of local works to round out the show. The first featured piece here was an excerpt from McCaleb Dance's "La Rumorosa." Having recently seen the full version of "La Rumorosa" at its San Diego premiere, I was initially disappointed to hear that it would be performed as a solo, despite the program's listing it as a duet between Greg Lane and Brad Lundberg. Indeed, the strength of "La Rumorosa" was in the stunning and complex partnering that provided the muscle of the piece.

Yet Lane, on his own after an injured Lundberg was unable to participate, performed with an intensity that was just as satisfying as the original. His sharp, spontaneous jumps took him flying through the air and flung him to floor in bursts of energy, as if to say that he didn't really need a partner after all. Perhaps most memorable, however, were the slow, aching crawls that were so quiet and almost still, except for the muscles on Lane's back, which performed a dance of their own.

The second work from a San Diego artist to be presented consisted of two sections from Sadie Weinberg's "The Mourner's Dance," which provided an appropriate complement to the 'excerpts' from Graham's classic "Lamentation," taking the subject of grief and providing a different perspective. In the context of the whole show, Weinberg's work could almost be seen as a type of update of the representation of Graham's as offered by Move. Weinberg performed a haunting solo alternating between the stillness of disbelief and the chaos of pain and misery before sinking into a chair to bury her head in her hands, a gesture which, coming after the jumps and falls in the center of the stage, was heartbreakingly human.

But mourning is not always as obvious as a display of grief. Alison Dietterle-Smith entered with a smirk and glided around Weinberg, teasing and taunting her. Perhaps Dietterle-Smith represented the stage of denial, trying to make the memories go away. Perhaps she was that evil urge -- or defense mechanism if you will -- that causes some to laugh at a funeral. Either way, Smith attempted to entice Weinberg out of her anguish, although Weinberg, intrigued (or irritated, or some fine line in between), ultimately stood her ground, determined to mourn.

So in one short afternoon, San Diego received a visit from "Martha," some insight into her work and demonstrations of her technique, and two strong examples of local artists, thanks to Richard Move. Whatever one thinks of his Martha impersonation, however one views the current Graham company, or whatever one's thoughts on Graham technique, Martha @ is an amusing tribute to a 20th-century celebrity. Much gratitude also goes out to Move for bringing in impressive San Diego-based artists and making it a community event.

Brian Schaefer is an aspiring dancer and writer from Los Angeles currently finishing degrees in both Dance and Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

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