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Martha Graham Dance Company

By Susan Yung

"Myth and Transformation"

Joyce Theater, New York City
Performances reviewed: February 27 and March 2 (evening), 2013

 

Pictured at right: Errand, with Ben Schultz and Miki Orihara

 

The Martha Graham Dance Company, 87 years old, seems fated to undergo melodrama appropriate to its founder, to whom pathos was paramount. After what seemed to be a full-circle (if wobbly) turn of events—moving the whole business into the old Cunningham Westbeth spaces last summer—Hurricane Sandy mercilessly swallowed the sets, costumes, and archives stored in the basement, some of which were irreparable. It would be devastating to any troupe, but Graham’s dedication to the work of her collborators—Noguchi and Halston among them—meant that some of the repertoire would be essentially stripped of its signature pieces. But was that a bad thing? Maybe not.

 

Errand (1947, “into the Maze” now pruned) was pared down to its movement, with the help of choreographer Luca Veggetti and company veteran Miki Orihara. The ever-expressive Orihara and a muscular, tattooed Ben Schultz wore beige and white costumes instead of the old squiggle-patterned ones. (Her dress retained the flattering dropped “v” waistline in the back, a signature of the Graham Company’s innovative costume aesthetic that both conceals and reveals the body, and should be heeded more by current designers.) Gone were Noguchi’s sculptural sets. Schultz bore a lucite “yoke” and a stocking over his head instead of a minotaur mask, and a light projection defined the maze. Instead of feeling incomplete, it felt modern, liberated from the artifacts that, while iconic, can become baggage.

 

Night Journey photo, Courtesy MGDC

Night Journey with Katherine Crockett and Ben Schultz

 

This emerged as Errand was juxtaposed with two other Greek myth dances on one program, Cave of the Heart (1946) and Night Journey (1947). The dancers in the latter, in particular, seemed to tussle with the weighty cloaks, sticks, and harnesses in addition to the signature plinth, rope, and headpieces (Graham designed the costumes; Noguchi the sets). When Abdiel Jacobsen (Seer) tripped on his cloak while stumping his way across the stage, it shattered the ominous rhythm meant as an inexorable warning. The ingenious harness/cape worn by Katherine Crockett (Jocasta) was distractingly small for her, diminishing her otherwise regal presentation. The chorus could have moved as a more synchronized unit, although the company’s increasing racial diversity was a welcome sight.

 

Cave of the Heart, Courtesy MGDC

Blakeley White-McGuire in Cave of the Heart, Photo: Costas

 

Cave was performed on two programs. Of all of Noguchi’s designs for the company, the spiny gold cage (a reminder that Medea is the sun’s daughter) is one of the artist’s most essential, alluring, and dangerous in its shimmering kineticism. And yet Graham’s language here—flattened shapes and frozen poses—feels its age, rather than appearing classical. It is archaic rather than timeless, ironically locked into place by the modernist set pieces. It is still absolutely unique in the dance canon, but its contemporary relevance is questionable.

 

Doug Varone's Lamentation Variation, Courtesy MGDC

Lamentation Variations/Varone Variation with Tadej Brdnik, Lloyd Knight, Abdiel Jacobsen, Maurizio Nardi, Photo: Paula Kajar

 

Artistic director Janet Eilber is taking steps to keep the company relevant, giving pre-show comments to provide context, and mixing new with old rep. The very successful Lamentation Variations series grows each year; this season, Doug Varone added a beautiful segment for four men that wrings emotion from their proximity and interactions. In the wake of the hurricane’s devastation, Luca Veggetti donated From the Grammar of Dreams in a large-hearted if mutually beneficial deal. It showcased several of the younger women who wore unflattering white camisoles, black wide-legged pants, and slippery socks. Darting between squares of light, the uniformly sized dancers hit elegant poses with a robot-like precision; legs hovered to the side, or arms morphed in fluid shapes. It showed the technical prowess of the dancers in a contemporary work stripped of emotion, if also of character.

 

From the Grammar of Dreams, Courtesy MGDC

From the Grammar of Dreams by Luca Veggetti, with Xiaochuan Xie, Mariya Dashkina Maddux, and Ying Xin

 

Diversion of Angels (1948) struck the right balance of form and pathos without feeling antiquated. Three women represented phases of maturity. Paired with men, they moved with joy, unfettered by the weight of myths, impending doom, or museum artifacts. The sheer athleticism, and often hidden exuberance, of Graham’s style was evident in the explosive stage-crossing phrases. Natasha Diamond-Walker and Xiaochuan Xie, two of the newer company members, showed great polish and promise. A third program featured Graham's Phaedra and The Show (Achilles Heels) by Richard Move, which is discussed in his recent “Choreography in Focus.”

 

The hurricane’s disastrous effects could only be read as a tragedy, but its consequences might have provided an unforeseen boost—to rejuvenate some of the repertoire by paring the dances to their essence.

 

All photos courtesy MGDC