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Martha Graham Dance Company

By Susan Yung

Joyce Theater, NYC
March 13–18, 2012
Performances reviewed:

March 16 (evening) & 18 (matinee)

The Martha Graham Dance Company will always be a pioneer, even 85 years after its founding. But now it’s less about new dances and more about finding the right balance between keeping an iconic choreographer’s work alive and adding new elements that complement her oeuvre.

 

The company’s recent Joyce run featured three programs on the overarching theme of “inner landscape.” Each began with the Graham alum Peter Sparling’s video Beautiful Captives running as the audience entered, and at one show, awkwardly rerun after the lights went down. A cluttered montage of clips, often superimposed, featured Graham performing alongside similarly melodramatic scenes from classic films (cited in the program as “the Cinematic Id”), set to a noisy score. While the intent was likely to pay homage to Graham, at times it crossed into spoof.

Short solos by non-Graham choreographers managed to orbit gracefully around her giant presence. Witch Dance (1926), by Graham's counterpart in Germany, Mary Wigman, is a gem of economy and expressiveness. PeiJu Chien-Pott wore a mask/wig, forcing her terse, electric gestures to communicate. As she rose from a seated butterfly position, she transformed from bug-like to a larger kind of animal. In contrast, in Anna Sokolow’s “Allegro Misterioso” from Lyric Suite (1954), Xiaochuan Xie used percussive or lyrical moves to convey roiling internal emotions.

 

 

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Mary Wigman's Witch Dance

 

Lamentation Variations is a clever, low-commitment way for a variety of contemporary dancemakers to honor Graham. The new additions included Yvonne Rainer’s witty piece which recruited artistic director Janet Eilber as a straight foil to Katherine Crockett, who dragged a plywood box centerstage, climbed atop, and squatted, pulling her white T-shirt over her knees and stretching the fabric with her hands. Lar Lubovitch’s remote elegy featured a central couple who intertwined limbs or cradled one another, as 10 dancers in purple shrouds struck signature Graham poses.

Every Soul Is a Circus (1939) showed that even early in her career, Graham could poke fun at herself. The circus staff seem to be at the beck and call of the Empress (Crockett), whom we first see lounging on a chaise, full of ennui. The Ring Master (Tadej Brdnik as a preening disciplinarian) commands the ring, but he obviously wants to please the boss. They’re joined by an acrobat, prancing performers, and an audience member. While Philip Stapp’s scattered set elements, which include a see-saw, indicate a circus, the relationships in this work could be analogous to a choreographer imposing her every whim on her company.

Repertory staples included Night Journey (1947), one of Graham’s quintessential myth dances. Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, who performed Jocasta, has gained in authority with each year, and now thoroughly inhabits her roles. Brdnik, as Oedipus, has been an indispensable company keystone, and never more so, as the company's men seem generally thin-ranked (Maurizio Nardi, the company's other male principal, was absent this season). Brdnik conveys wrenching emotions through his body and mannerisms, leaving his face essentially placid, and his technical soundness gives him an unshakable confidence. His performance was one redeeming aspect of Deaths and Entrances, a psychological study on the Brontë sisters that is like a play with movement instead of words. The 1943 work reveals little of consequence in the stifling household of an insular, in-fighting family, led by Blakeley White-McGuire, whose vivid facial expressions could land her silent film roles.

 

 

Katherine Crockett in Graham's Deaths and Entrances

 

Chronicle (1936) still resonates as fresh and timeless. Jacqueline Bulnes danced the lead role, a crucible of essential Graham with its broad expressionistic vocabulary, call to action, and a magnificent costume (by Graham, a masterful designer) that doubles as a set piece. Bulnes’ youthful guise lent an inciteful urgency to the leadoff solo, and her large features amplified her intense emotions. “Steps in the Street” remains a primer of Graham’s lexicon, an ebb and flow of women mobilizing in the face of revolution—the perfect parable for the profound impact Graham's choreography made on modern dance.

 

All photos by Costas.

Pictured at top: Blakeley White-McGuire in Every Soul Is a Circus