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By Susan Yung, Lynn Colburn Shapiro
Martha Graham Dance Company
Skirball Center, NYC • May 12–16, 2009 • Reviewed by Susan Yung
Watching Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra (1958) served as a reminder of what might be missing or impossible in today’s cultural climate. Graham’s indelible, un-ironic language of angst—enhanced by Noguchi’s reductive set and elegant costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee—plumbs the pungent psychological depths of Greek mythology. All told it was a remarkable experience, weakened only by certain vocal segments of Halim El-Dabh’s strident score. The other program in the company’s season featured Graham repertory and Lamentation Variations, a collective, morphing homage by contemporary choreographers.
The mere existence of a five-performance, two-program season is welcome after the legal and financial turbulence endured by the company in recent years. The principal dancers are by now familiar faces, which helps to foster audience interest—especially the return of Fang-Yi Sheu, a fine interpreter of Graham’s work. The company’s technique as a whole looks remarkably sharp, without which all of this would be irrelevant, as Graham performed weakly can be more spoof than tribute.
Clytemnestra shifts between recollections and visions in a potentially confusing way, but artistic director Janet Eilber has taken measures to clarify and contextualize the plot. Supertitles help audiences approach what could, without context, come across as a museum piece; spoken, often humorous introductions to the repertory do the same. It is tempting to dismiss these efforts as heretical, but they seem to engage viewers.
By virtue of her technical mastery and dramatic gifts, Sheu conveyed Clytemnestra’s inner machinations brilliantly. Some Graham dancers tend to manifest emotion so that it reads as very conscious action, but Sheu seems to feel it naturally, simply, deeply. Her renditions may not be as shockingly dramatic as the choreographer’s were, but they have defined Graham’s work for this generation.
Kerville Jack, as the messenger, commanded the stage with his muscular presence. Tadej Brdnik struck the right tragic tone as Orestes, the conflicted son. Blakeley White-McGuire, as Cassandra, balanced passion and desperation, and Maurizio Nardi portrayed Aegisthus with his typical dashing effervescence.
The repertory program reflected Graham’s dual serious and light-hearted sides. Errand Into the Maze (1947), a dark psychological exploration, paired an intense Elizabeth Auclair with the solid David Martinez. Sketches from “Chronicle” (1936), among Graham’s essential works, is a fiercely political dance—from its oracle predicting the horror of war, to its columns of dancers reacting to (or depicting) fascism, wielding limbs like sledgehammers. Subject matter aside, its punchy rhythms and shapes rendered crisply by the women are an invaluable index of Graham’s vocabulary. Jennifer DePalo brought a particularly grounded yet ethereal aura.
Lamentation Variations, a series of tributes to Graham, included Larry Keigwin’s harmonic ensemble movements punctuated by swoons. Katherine Crockett danced Richard Move’s dramatic solo luxuriantly. A new segment by Bulareyaung Pagarlava featured Sheu partnered by three men in cause-and-effect chains, fluid lifts, and a walk suspended in midair.
Graham was probably laughing in the mirror when she made Maple Leaf Rag (1990). A collage of studio-inspired flirtations on an ingenious bouncy plank alternates with deadly serious, self-skewering passages that move across the stage. A few years back, the company seemed somewhat uncomfortable in this giddy vehicle. This time around, they fully embraced the absurd. The emotional range between Clytemnestra and Maple Leaf Rag shows how complete they are right now—a gift that cannot be taken for granted in light of Graham’s tenuously thriving legacy.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
The Harris Theater, Chicago, IL • June 4–7, 2009 • Reviewed by Lynn Colburn Shapiro
The company’s summer season served up a three-course meal, falling roughly into appetizer, main course, and dessert. But the appetizer whet the appetite for more than the main course delivered, and dessert was a complete change of cuisine at a different restaurant on the other side of town.
A more-than-tempting appetizer, Alejandro Cerrudo’s Extremely Close (2008) showed off its sleek cast of eight with a burst of striking visual design and arresting movement. Three white rolling panels and a stage covered in white feathers contrast with the dancers’ black athletic togs. Dancers and panels move each other in swift continuum, constantly reconfiguring the space and engineering hidden entrances and exits. The feathery floor lends a floating uncertainty as dancers sweep into long low promenades and lift each other from a sea of weightlessness. Of note are Meredith Dincolo’s strong articulation in the first section and a superbly nuanced solo for Benjamin Wardell, whose love affair with space and suspension culminates in his exquisite descent into the feathers. Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran’s score alternately propels the dancing and seems propelled by it.
The anticipated main course, Slipstream, a premiere by outgoing artistic director Jim Vincent, illustrated the orchestral swells and melodic accents of Benjamin Britten’s music. The work’s strength lies in the unusual architecture of its impeccably danced solos and group segments. But with a movement style so similar to that of Extremely Close, Slipstream disappoints next to the visual novelty of the preceding piece. The group choreography loses focus among too many musical ideas. The fierce energy of a men’s trio and the wild fingers of a female quartet—a response to the increasing dissonance of the score—promise a climax that never fully matches the music.
Nacho Duato’s delectable dessert, Gnawa, created for HSDC in 2005, brought a 180-degree shift in both style and use of music. The score, which combines sounds of nature with flute, voice, and drums, sustains an atmosphere of the folkloric and faraway. The group movement is especially powerful, driving the dancers in rapid exchanges like herds of animals migrating across the Serengeti. Penny Saunders and Terence Marling’s poignant duet builds to a dramatic ceremony, with lit candles lifted by the ensemble in quiet exaltation.