Graham Today: Pros and Cons

September 24, 2007

Seeing the Graham classics is like seeing a museum exhibit, but there are moments that break through that dustiness, and they can be thrilling.

    For those of us who studied at the Martha Graham School, it’s a comfort to see certain movements that we did endlessly in class (the triplets, the step-draw, the “sparkles”). But these are so familiar now, and soooo much has happened in movement experimentation since then, that I wonder who the audience will be for these works that are so faithfully re-assembled.

    I agree with critics who say that the dancers used to be more powerful more dramatic emotionally or physically. But I don’t agree that all the company needs is for another Fang-Yi Sheu or Terese Capucilli to come along. There are just some things about the whole presentation that freeze the work in its time. First, I’ll just talk about these, the ‘cons,” particularly in Appalachian Spring.

Number One:
All the posing and long looks into the distance. If you look at movies from the ’50s, you see the same kind of pregnant pauses. Maybe Americans liked to dwell on long lingering looks at that time. Today, we can take in floods of information in a second.

Number Two:
The bride and husbandman don’t even look at each other (and to think that was made when Graham first fell in love with Erick Hawkins). Which leads me to

Number Three:
Graham dug deeper than decorum, but there is still plenty of decorum. Bodies are upright and never get too close (at least in this ballet). The best role is the Revivalist, who gets to anoint or hurl curses at people, and jump and sway his hips just a little. Maurizio Nardi was great in this role. He was really dancing instead of straining to fit into a role. And, blessedly, when he had to be still, his back was to us.

And now for the pros.

Number One:
The women, the WOMEN, in Sketches from Chronicle! Ohmygod, who has ever presented a group of women that strong onstage? They are almost possessed. Especially in the middle part, “Steps in the Street,” where they are so unified, so moving-from-the-core, to Riegger’s driving score (in sevens, no less!). They do a jump where one arm cuts down thru space, elbow leading, and this propels the body upward into a powerful leap held in the air by a contraction. They may be dancing for peace but they are warrior-like in their zeal.

Number Two:
What Graham does so well is to juxtapose opposites. The four young Followers in Appalachian Spring are light and delightfully energetic in their mindless adoration of the Revivalist, which is a perfect counterpoint to the Pioneering Woman, played with grounded stoicism by Katherine Crockett. Those contrasts are satisfying, both artistically and psychologically.

I know how deep and strong the Graham technique is, how demanding it is to do. Dancers from many different countries flock to the Graham school and company because it’s the real thing. But I worry about the ability of the ballets to attract American audiences.