Merce At Martha @ Mother

February 29, 2000

Merce At Martha @ Mother

New York, New York
February 29, 2000

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

A tiny nightclub in the meat district, [email protected] is packing them in for its hilarious send-ups of early modern dance. This is the fourth season that the Bessie Award-winning co-producers Richard Move and Janet Stapleton have presented a show that simultaneously reveres and mocks the mother of all modern dancers, Martha Graham.

Move’s Graham imitation has already attained cult status. An experienced dancer, tall and statuesque, he captures her glamorous despair, but lacks the fierce torque in the center of the body that Graham flaunted. His facial expressions are perfect?the grandeur, the mock modesty, the pride in suffering. When speaking, his voice is right out of Martha’s honeyed narrative in the documentary film  A Dancer’s World. It is all very funny and somehow deeply moving. To be in a room crowded with others who let Graham under their skins is like, well, being with one’s spiritual brothers and sisters. And what a delicious relief to laugh at it all!

The evening begins with Charles Atlas’s collage of film clips from old musicals, dramas with stars like Barbara Stanwyck playing the part of someone named Martha, some kitsch Denishawn-like stuff, and Martha, in her waning years, going through the motions of  Acrobats of God. The audience howls and mutters at these witty juxtapositions, and generally gets in the mood to see Move. The night I went, special guest Isaac Mizrahi gave his camp rendition of her obsessive dedication to creating the perfect costume. The dancers, some of whom also dance with the Graham Company, perform bits from the repertory.

Into this heady mix comes Merce Cunningham, dancing a solo on a chair. His electric stillness is broken by a hand slowly lifting toward his face to support a tilt of the head. Using his eyelids as shutters, he gradually makes his eyes into slits and then opens them wide. His mouth too. Suddenly, he shifts his whole body to a three-quarter view, and the piece is almost over.

Then Richard Move, as Martha, re-enters and interviews Cunningham, who has plenty of stories from when he danced with Graham. For example, in one rehearsal she hasn’t made up her mind whether his character is a preacher, farmer, or something else. She asks him to work on it independently, and is delighted with the results. “Oh,” says Martha, “Now I know how to finish the piece!” (Appalachian Spring, one presumes.)

In another story, the famously blind and deaf Helen Keller visits the studio and asks to touch a dancer dancing. Martha leads her over to Merce so she can touch his waist as he jumps, after which Keller declares, “How light, like the human mind!”

Pieces by Julie Atlas Muz, Kate Valentine, Donlin Foreman, Doug Varone, and Mark Baldwin were also presented. Some other performers who have appeared in this zesty series are Mark Dendy, Se·n Curran, Carmen DeLavallade, Maxine Sherman, Deborah Jowitt, and Jane Comfort. Attorneys representing The Martha Graham Entities have filed cease-and-desist orders against [email protected] Meanwhile, it seems clear that these loving lampoons help ensure the legendary status of Martha Graham. The next [email protected] series is May 3?5.