That Was Fun!

September 16, 2007

As Richard Move has discovered, Martha Graham is an irresistible target for both reverence and ridicule. It could have been his idea to do an edition of “From the Horse’s Mouth” with 27 Graham dancers, past and present. But it probably wasn’t. The matinee at the Joyce on Saturday (Sept. 15) sent everyone out into the street feeling like they had just had a great time at a family party, one where everyone enjoyed each other’s stories.

The structure of “From the Horse’s Mouth” (begun in 1998 by Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll) requires each person to tell a story for one and a half minutes, improvise based on instructions, and then improvise with another dancer. The dancing was mostly background to the stories.

Ellen Graff told about being a handmaiden to Martha in Seraphic Dialogue—and learning to create stage presence while being immobilized. Peggy Lyman spoke of Martha’s humanity in loving a child. Tadej Brdnik spoke of wanting to dance like Indians praying for rain, and finding that in the Graham dances. Steve Rooks spoke of Martha deflating him with her wish for stillness. Pascal Rioult spoke of Martha asking him to portray a death figure six months before she died. Gus Solomons jr intoned about the “large gesture” he was supposed to do, and taking a bow with Martha—just the two of them—because he happened to be bolted to the stage during her curtain call. Dot Berea remembered Martha’s scathing critique: “You dance from the ankles down!” Janet Eilber remembered her saying, “Stiffen your spine until your incisors show.” Someone spoke of her space as a temple, but really that’s what everyone was talking about.

A recurring theme was how much she admired men’s bodies. Two male dancers told of her saying point blank—and rather raunchily—what beautiful bodies they had. (I have never heard a women dancer tell of this particular compliment.) And there was more of this reverse sexism. When David Zurak recited his wonderfully rueful list of the 10 things that made him uncomfortable while dancing in the company (which he joined in 2002), Number One was that people would say, “For a man, you’re not a bad Graham dancer!”

Another theme was how you had to be a fighter to dance for Martha. You had to give back Attitude when she threw it at you. Peggy Lyman brought this out, also saying she was addicted the sturm and drang “onstage and off.”

Two or three times there was a processional on the diagonal (to the too-loud sound of horses neighing) in various Graham costumes from Diversion of Angels, Appalachian Spring, El Penitente, and others, giving hints of the Graham movement vocabulary. And for another hit of Graham memory, the Noguchi set for Embattle Garden (and maybe a couple other dances) was placed on the stage for dancers to climb on while improvising.

Our hallowed elders Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Mary Hinkson only did the story part and not the dancing (understandably, for they are all getting on). But one elder book ended the whole show beautifully. Stuart Hodes began the evening in a tuxedo doing Martha’s step draw (oh how I remember being goaded to lean so far into your hip that you almost fell over) in a gentle fashion. And Hodes was the last to perform his story, which was a brilliant poem that he called “Martha Rap.” I wish I could repeat it here, but suffice it say that one of the lines was about how Ruth St. Denis thought Martha was ugly, but Ted Shawn wanted a partner less pretty than himself. I was hoping for a little more wickedness along those lines in the rest of the stories. But even with minimal ridicule and maximal reverence, this was fun.