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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.