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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.
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
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
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
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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