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Flash Review, 4-21: Part Here, Part Gone
Clinging to History with the Graham Company

By Chappelle Chambers
Copyright 2006 Chappelle Chambers

NEW YORK -- The stage at the Skirball Center for the Arts, a venue at New York University's fancy new student center just south of Washington Square, is flanked by two gynormous gold columns. Many artists who play there drape the pillars in black, as they tend to dwarf whatever's going on between them. The Skirball auditorium is steeply raked and has no handrails, a circumstance which posed challenges to the many senior citizens, Graham fans all, who ventured out to the Martha Graham Dance Company's 80th anniversary gala evening Tuesday. For this show, the gold columns just stood there and luminesced.

The performance, essentially a two-hour lecture-demonstration, was introduced with coy speeches by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Judith Ivey, punctuated by a rambling routine from Richard Move (the Graham impersonator best experienced, I fear, by a nightclub audience already fairly deep into its cups), and capped by Graham's last work, "Maple Leaf Rag" (with guest artist Maxine Sherman). In between were tidbits of history, on stage and screen -- a pastiche of entertaining morsels apparently designed to attract and hold the attention of the young (tickets for NYU students were $12) and remind us oldsters that the company still exists and desperately needs financial support.

Last year's heroic City Center season used a live orchestra at every performance, a fabulous extravagance that helped break the back of the organization's finances. This "season" was accompanied by solo piano (good work from Alan Moverman and, playing the Joplin rags, Patrick Daugherty), and instead of the Noguchi sets the fragments of Graham choreography were staged around a simple bench. I have to say that neither of these things bothered me; being as I am primarily a denizen of "downtown" -- and familiar with the works in their unexpurgated form. The snippets of "Appalachian Spring" and "Clytemnestra" that company members performed were interesting on their own terms, but I feel for those who bought tickets expecting the full Graham catastrophe -- I mean, experience. What looked best were the earliest, simplest pieces: parts of "Heretic," "Lamentation." "El Penitente," and "Satyric Festival Song," as well as the "Steps in the Street" section from the 1936 "Chronicle." Even in these reduced circumstances, the stark power of Graham's choreographic ideas comes through.

One of the selling points of the evening was a duet from "Part Real -- Part Dream," a rarely performed work from 1965. Move, who is at least six-four and well over 40, took the female part in this excerpt. Alas, while he is irresistible channeling Graham the speechifier, he's a little too thick in the middle to carry off a dancing role (though he says his first dance classes, back in Virginia, were with a disciple of Matt Turney, who originated the part he essayed). Desmond Richardson, who tried to partner him, looked tiny by comparison, but maintained his sense of humor.

We can't just abandon this repertory to other ensembles, the video vaults, and history books, but it remains to be seen if the current Graham organization -- under the artistic and executive direction of Janet Eilber and LaRue Allen, respectively -- will be able to rally the funding needed to keep the dancers on payroll, the school open, and the whole operation functional. "Graham lite," John Rockwell's name for what went down at the Skirball on Tuesday, can't possibly be their entire vision.

Included in the press kit for this performance was an invitation to "Modern Dance on the High Seas," a transatlantic crossing on the Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 late in October "with a voyage-long program offering a truly unique look into the life and work of dance pioneer Martha Graham and her acclaimed company." Perhaps that will be the true future of this ensemble: stimulating elderly members of the leisure class on their vacations.

 

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