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Flash Perspective, 6-11: Reach
Does Martha Graham appeal to young people?

By Kelly Centrelli
Copyright 2009 Kelly Centrelli
Photography by and copyright Julie Lemberger

NEW YORK -- I'm going to be honest. Although I have studied a bit about Martha Graham in my dance classes, until this month I had never seen or studied her style of choreography. As a 23-year-old recent college graduate who majored in English, I was thrilled with the opportunity to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform "Clytemnestra" at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 12. Not only could I view the piece from a dancer's perspective but a literary one.

The Martha Graham Dance Company's Fang-yi Sheu (Clytemnestra), Tadej Brdnik (Orestes) and Blakeley White-McGuire (Cassandra) in Martha Graham's "Clytemnestra." Photo by and copyright Julie Lemberger.

The work not having been given in its entirety for decades, the 50th anniversary evening-length performance of "Clytemnestra" was a treat and a gift to watch. Dancing the title role, Fang-yi Sheu portrayed a troubled and fiery woman, refusing to submit to her husband, death, and fate.

Being a person who enjoys dance, symbolism and the like, I truly appreciated the little details in costumes, props, and sets. For example, the dark blue-gray background perfectly illustrated the melancholic overtones of the piece and the dank, cold underworld of Hades. When Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon (a quietly chilling and amazing scene), one may notice that the fabric "curtains" are red and purple -- red being associated with Clytemnestra and purple being associated with Aegisthus, her lover. All costuming, from Clytemnestra's royal black gown to Hades's purple wrap skirt and cane, was aesthetically accurate and pleasing both visually and historically. These little details make the dance fluid and fun to analyze. Furthermore, I noted how Graham embraced and pushed away traditional ballet technique by alternating ballet steps with flexed feet, contractions (in a very Hawkins style), and sharp rhythms and angles. Coming from a dance background, I embraced these nuances enthusiastically.

However, I brought my husband, a "general public" person who has no dance experience, to see the show and noticed a very different reaction in him. He watched with intensity for the first few minutes of each act, becoming gradually more and more uninterested -- I swear he was itching to take out his Blackberry to check his e-mail. He observed that those who are not dancers may get bored by the lengthy acts found in "Clytemnestra." With the advent of rapid-communication technology, attention spans are shorter and it may be difficult for a non-dancer to watch acts that last more than 15 minutes. While Graham is a notable and important name in the dance world, it may not translate well outside of those who have studied dance. Here in New York City, millions of people visit our various art museums, while dance performances are held mostly in small theaters. There is something in people that makes them feel that they can see art without necessarily understanding it, but not dance. It's interesting to ask yourself why that may be.

Think about the time "Clytemnestra" was created and performed. It opened in 1959. At that time, television wasn't huge, the Internet wasn't created -- not to mention video games. Live performance was a prime form of entertainment. Today that isn't the case. We can play online video games, providing endless hours of entertainment, for $15 per month. In tough economic times, purchasing tickets to live performances may be too expensive. In highly technological times, dark sets and non-elaborate staging may be boring to many. Perhaps one of the most brilliant features of "Clytemnestra," outside of choreography, was the projector screen above the stage that informed the audience about characters and plot points. Injecting that bit of technology made the dance that much more enjoyable and "public-friendly."

Appealing to today's youth is a difficult thing. By far, the audience for the Skirball Center performance of "Clytemnestra" was comprised of older adults. There were very few teens and young adults to be found. The question may not be "Does Graham appeal to today's youth?" but rather "Does dance appeal to today's youth?" It's hard to find advertising for dances (with the exception of Alvin Ailey) unless you are already immersed in the dance world. If you're already in that world, you know what you would like to see. For example, I couldn't help but notice a few older people sitting behind me commenting very knowledgeably on Graham's typical choreographic style, her love of fabric, etcetera. Reaching out to that particular audience is fine -- but only reaching out to that audience spells a slow death for dance as audiences dwindle off. Just as technology has evolved to meet the general public's changing perspectives and desires, dance too has to innovate to generate a wider audience. Appeal to the general youth is possible, if we make dance more mainstream. If dance companies embrace things like Facebook, Twitter, television, and generalized magazines, a greater audience may be willing to view these pieces. Everyone in New York City can "google" where the Metropolitan Museum of Art is; it's unmoving and unchanging. They look it up, find it, and go. However, since dance performances happen anywhere, it's not as easy to find. Immersing today's youth in dance by using their "technological turf" could perhaps open up new audiences and new perspectives in dance.

Does Graham appeal to young dancers? Sure. In the same way that Degas appeals to art history majors or in the same way that Chaucer appeals to literature buffs. We look at them with a mix of reverence and gratitude. Without them, without people like Graham, who knows where we would be in art, dance, literature, music, and whatever else. But ultimately, at the end of the day, thoughts of Graham become just another crashing wave in an ocean of new experimentation, new ideas, new innovations, and new technologies.

Kelly Centrelli is a recent graduate of Queens College of the City University of New York. Although she has a strong love of dance, her true calling is English, and she is now obtaining a Master's degree in English literature. She has had several years of dance experience with a myriad of forms of dance. Kelly is also the creator of the recently released writing blog, unenlightenedenglish.com, which gives various writing tips from reflections on commonly confused words to academic advice.

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