Martha Graham Dance Co.
Two Views of the Martha Graham Company Season
At first view, the current repertory of the Martha Graham Dance Company seemed unusually generous in its time span. It extended from Heretic (1929), touchingly danced by Fang-Yi Sheu, to Maple Leaf Rag (1990). Actually there was an odd lapse; the years between 1948 and 1990 were represented by only one work, the decidedly minor Acts of Light. Why did this three-part opus, or sometimes just its finale, “Ritual to the Sun,” appear on eighteen of the twenty-four programs?
Graham often dealt with sexual awakening and death. How poetically she did so, for example, in Dark Meadow. But in the first two sections of Acts of Light this subject matter had almost a tabloid tinge accentuated by Halston’s vulgar costumes.
In the concluding “Ritual to the Sun,” the participants plunged through an expertly structured display of Graham classroom technique as it evolved in the 1980s, but repeated viewings revealed a disquieting combination of sentimentality and physical risk.
It took the José Limón company about twenty years after Limón’s death to strike a meaningful balance between his works and additions by other choreographers. Ronald Protas, artistic director of the Graham Company, has been searching for a similar balance since Graham’s death in 1991. The opening week featured the New York premiere of Susan Stroman’s But Not for Me “Gershwin/Graham” and a quartet of Duets for Martha.
In But Not for Me, set to love songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Stroman, one of Broadway’s more inventive choreographers, tackled the theme of urban loneliness. Sleeping dancers curled on the floor, their heads uneasy on their pillows. Their search for love led them through casual jazz seasoned with allusions to Graham vocabulary. One participant (Katherine Crockett) took refuge on a pile of pillows. From their midst popped Mr. Right (Martin Lofsnes). By this time, But Not for Me had become almost a parody of Graham’s own dances of quest. Lucinda Childs’s Histoire was the only premiere among Duets for Martha. Like Stroman, Childs made allusions to Graham vocabulary. Virginie Mécène and Gary Galbraith slithered about dreamily, while Terese Capucilli and Peter Roél added urgency.
Equally lightweight were Maurice Béjart’s Notre Faust and Robert Wilson’s “Shaker Interior” from Snow on the Mesa. The former combined two men (Kenneth Topping with Lofsnes; Tadej Brdnik with Roél) in a playful tango, while Snow used Rika Okamoto and Daniel Cardoso in a butoh-styled commentary on pursuit and flight.
Guest artists Ashley Tuttle and John Selya of American Ballet Theatre shared a duet from Twyla Tharp’s stylish Nine Sinatra Songs. The entire suite might have been a provocative addition to the Graham context, for, like Graham, Tharp cares about craft.
In Graham’s artistic development, the decade separating Panorama and Chronicle from Dark Meadow and Night Journey was a lifetime, so much did she mature between the 1930s and 1940s. In the thirties her dancers were maenads, with Graham stirring their brimming energy into one heady brew after another.
The blazing ensemble of Panorama, was this time entrusted to students of the Martha Graham school and was directed by Susan Kikuchi. At first the participants weren’t experienced enough to project the full demands of the choreography, but by the final week, its lines were becoming boldly drawn.
In the 1940s, the raw power of Graham’s dancers became shaped into the chorus of Dark Meadow and the prescient ensemble of Night Journey. Graham’s personal focus had become more subjective. Where Panorama and the sketches from Chronicle had left the audience physically stirred, Dark Meadow was ruminative. On this occasion, it was presided over by Crockett as She of the Ground. A statuesque dancer, she seems to derive an almost spiritual pleasure from every step she takes.
In the same work, Christine Dakin and Capucilli alternately danced the principal role of One Who Seeks. These two fine artists are the company mainstays. They assumed most principal roles interchangeably. Dakin’s warmth suited her well to Dark Meadow and Night Journey, while Capucilli’s hot-blooded attack was impressive in Errand into the Maze and Chronicle. The current male contingent does not yet have much in the way of personal inflection. A notable exception was Topping’s Oedipus in Night Journey. Previous incumbents have tended to make this hero somewhat pompous; Topping added vulnerability. When he and Jocasta met and loved, one sensed the terrible trap awaiting them.
As Leader of the Chorus, Elizabeth Auclair also enhanced Night Journey’s sense of doom. Her moments of frozen stillness made the Chorus seem even more driven. Martha Graham could endow the most ordinary of human emotions with the stature of ritual, and yet their humanity remained. As the woman beset by the Minotaur in Errand into the Maze, Miki Orihara triumphed over
Galbraith in a visceral way; Capucilli conquered him with sheer moral force. Appalachian Spring may well become for Graham what Serenade was for Balanchine-an entrée into the repertories of other companies. While its subject matter, a pioneer wedding celebration, is more accessible than Graham’s brooding mythological texts, don’t let that fool you. Appalachian Spring is not superficial.
The first time I saw Sheu as the Bride, she skittered about as though attending a garden party. As the Husbandman, Lofsnes seemed preoccupied with remote concerns, while Roél’s Revivalist pointed out the wages of sin in a manner more demented than persuasive. Only Crockett’s Pioneering Woman held fast to the gentle stoicism that gives this work much of its sweetness.
When Orihara portrayed the Bride, one immediately shared in her joy in home and husband, shadowed by her trepidation at a new way of life. In later appearances, her interpretation also began to deepen.
Another strength of Appalachian Spring lies in its sense of the pictorial, of groupings that keep the stage interesting even when they are not in motion. An especially charming one involves the four Followers, each in a slightly different pose, forming a bucolic pas de quatre around the Revivalist.
Primitive Mysteries is also strongly pictorial. It combines two basic elements: a white-clad Virgin and her worshippers in their severe royal-blue shifts. But the ceremonial way in which they enter and leave, how they drift into smaller units or frame the principal figure, are stuff of magic.
As the Virgin, Joyce Herring and Okamoto have not yet reached the level of fragile beauty that Yuriko brought to the role when it was first revived in 1964. This time it was she who rehearsed Mysteries.
The season took place while the company and its school were losing their building. All the more reason to be grateful to the dancers for their steadfastness. Many were new in their roles; some were new to the stage. But by the final week, the “sold out” sign appeared justifiably in the box office window, and one’s hopes for the future of the Martha Graham Dance Company began to take new wing. Gratitude for Martha Graham was also rekindled. She strides beyond all the others.
Senior editor Doris Hering has reviewed for Dance Magazine since the 1940s.
For the Martha Graham Dance Company to survive in the coming century, it must perform. That’s not exactly an earth-shattering concept, but since Graham died in 1991, the company’s appearances have been sporadic. Excluding Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa (1995), the Graham repertory hasn’t been performed in New York City since the company’s 1994 engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The company’s season this year at the Joyce Theater from February 2 through 21 was glorious for two reasons. By modern dance standards it was long (three weeks), and it was packed full of good stuff (thirteen works by Graham spanning the years 1929 to 1990). And with a crop of young, rarely seen dancers, it also marked a new beginning. The season was an investment that paid off; it proved that three weeks of Graham repertory isn’t enough for anyone’s lifetime.
The first week’s performances were a bit shaky; everything seemed rough around the edges. This was due in part to the size of the Joyce’s stage, which is considerably smaller than that of BAM, City Center, or the Met, places where the company has a performance history. The combination of Graham’s movement, so big at times that it dwarfs the stage, and the spacing of the dancers in the ensemble pieces made the audience dizzy. By the second week, the dancers got their bearings, and the lighting was toned down as well.
Still, masterpieces like Heretic (1929), a bare-bones dance, seem to serve as the catalyst and framework for future Graham works. The dynamic Fang-Yi Sheu is the solitary figure surrounded by a gang of women who portray society’s conformists; they move woodenly, with their arms crossed and feet planted widely, rejecting and castigating Sheu at every turn. Even by today’s standards, it’s terrifying-a revealing portrait of a woman lost and alone, but who will not give up.
As a way to create some drama for the season (Graham’s work alone was surely enough!), artistic director Ron Protas selected a couple of choreographers to create new works for the company. Both were odd choices: Susan Stroman, of Broadway renown, and Lucinda Childs, who hails from the postmodern world of Judson Church. Stroman’s But Not for Me.
“Gershwin/Graham” is inconsequential, the dancers dressed in beige, a beige ballet. It doesn’t, thankfully, attempt to copy the Graham technique. The only streak of color comes from Katherine Crockett, an intense twenty-eight-year-old principal dancer who woke everybody up, dancers and audience members, including my snoring neighbor.
Childs’s premiere, Histoire, was part of Duets for Martha, a strange hodgepodge of dances: Histoire, Maurice Béjart’s Notre Faust, Twyla Tharp’s duet from Nine Sinatra Songs (performed by American Ballet Theatre’s Ashley Tuttle and John Selya), and Wilson’s “Shaker Interior” from Snow on the Mesa. With the exception of the latter, I don’t understand what any of them had to do with Graham herself.
In alternating casts (Terese Capucilli and Peter Roél; Virginie Mécène and Gary Galbraith), Histoire paired disjointed harpsichord music with jazzy steps and stalking movement. I would have liked to see Capucilli dance with Galbraith, a more powerful partner than Roél; Mécène possesses grace but lacks the forcefulness and assurance of that Graham veteran Capucilli.
Aside from technique, a Graham dancer must move with honest intent. Capucilli and Joyce Herring were marvelous as usual in Errand into the Maze and Primitive Mysteries, respectively, but it is Christine Dakin who truly embodies the Graham spirit. She loses herself in whatever character she’s portraying, whether it is the woman in Herodiade, who finds herself facing another era of life, or as the leader in the momentous 1936 protest sketches from Chronicle. The same is true of Rika Okamoto, one of the company’s most magnetic dancers; in Satyric Festival Song, she was electrifying, partly because it was obvious that she was having a ball.
Ensemble dancers Sandra Kaufmann and Ariel Bonilla stood out for their passion and determination. To watch Kaufmann, who I wish would dance soloist roles, is to see everything in place. She not only moves with confidence and poise but knows where to direct her gaze and how to place her head.
Of the senior men, Tadej Brdnik and Martin Lofsnes improved with each performance, repeating less of what they were taught and moving instead from their guts.
Brimming with passion, Crockett, a big, lush dancer, was the season’s star. She’s the antithesis of the Graham body type, but, like all the great ones before her, she treats the movement with devotion. She’s improved tremendously from past seasons, letting go of the tension that used to plague her upper body. She has attained a certain amount of calm; as a performer, she now trusts herself to be vulnerable without sacrificing power. As the PioneerWoman in Appalachian Spring-a part that could have been created especially for her-she was breathtaking. Next time around, I want to see her as the Bride.
None of these dancers (they tried!) could save Acts of Light, which was performed frequently and never without glaring mistakes. A glitzy work in which the dancers wear gold unitards by Halston, the final section, “Ritual to the Sun,” brings Graham’s classroom exercises to life on the stage. That joyous celebration is meant to feature the Graham technique performed in shimmering unison. Night after night, it looked more like improvisation, the dancers in the front glancing sideways to see if it was time to change positions. In essence, a piece that should have been easy and fun actually looked hard. I saw wobbly inner thighs, weak attitudes, and, across the board, faulty centers. Roél, a principal dancer, fumbled his way through the “Conversation of Lovers” on two occasions; in one, poor Elizabeth Auclair practically had to romance herself.
All these inconsistencies and mistakes didn’t kill Graham for me; I wanted more. Dancers only improve by dancing, not so much in class, but onstage. And anyway, the biggest mistake wasn’t made onstage, but in the audience. Where were the so-called downtown dancers, the ones you see religiously attending concerts by Merce Cunningham? Over and over, I was stunned by Graham’s inventiveness of character, her way of solving spatial problems-she’s not just a choreographer to appreciate for historical purposes, but also a teacher, for dancers and audiences alike. And I think she would be pleased to know that, even after all these years, her company is still a verb.
Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York.