The Martha Graham Dance Company
April 22, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Can the muscle contractions and willpower at the core of Martha Graham dances be excerpted? Can the guillotine of her mind flash without a frame? Ought those who repeat her steps and postures be devotees or troupers? There was a lecture-demonstration mind set about this one night stand by The Martha Graham Dance Company. Theater magic was in short supply.
Graham selections dominated the program but there were, too, related examples beginning with the "Serenata Morisca" by Graham's "teacher" Ted Shawn. This solo for an Orientally exotic female was danced by Graham in the early 1920s. Its supple appeals do provide contrast for what followed, Graham's own, extremely tense, stark and isolating "Lamentation". While the Shawn isn't inelegant for a cabaret number neither is it auspicious enought to come first.
Of "Lamentation" and related to it we saw a lot. This 1930 solo to Kodaly piano music was danced live by a current member of the Graham company and on screen by Graham filmed. The film was preferable because lighting and the live dancer's stylized expression combined to make her look like a man in drag until she peeled back the cloth covering the top and back of her head. Graham on screen is convincing as the essence of grief.
There were three variations on "Lamentation" by contemporary choreographers. Richard Move's stiff, angular version looked like a bad translation of the original into German modern dance. Josie Moseley's to jazzy music softened the the mourner's pain. The most worthwhile variation was Larry Keigwin's. It seemed to ask the question whether Graham's utterly personal solo could be taught to a class. A dozen "students" went through some of the motions, each in his/her own manner and brought it off for the most part, largely refraining from outright caricature. Inspired was Keigwin's choice of inappropriate music, a Chopin nocturne.
The battles, debates, dialogues and soliloquies of Graham confronting mankind's mythic history need context. Some need it less, some need it more. "Appalachian Spring" is romantic, spacious, humane and often even optimistic. It has passages for the husbandman, his bride, the preacher and his flock that make some sense and register emotionally when shown apart from Graham's whole dance story, Noguchi's set and the entirety of Copland's musical weave. It also helped that these excerpts were on the program's second half, when the audience had had the chance to attune itself to the Graham idiom and the dancers seemed more warmed up. The Adam, Eve, Lilith and "Lucifer" quartet from "Embattled Garden" and a Medea solo from "Cave of the Heart", danced prior to the intermission, looked bereft. The desirous duet on a long bench from Robert Wilson's Graham portrait (the "Shaker Interior" section of "Snow on the Mesa") showed off Ben Schultz's body and projection as the tunic clad male. Wilson though, inventive as he can be with dramatic movement, doesn't have a distinctive step vocabulary to fully utilize dancers.
The only big work performed whole came at the close of the program. It was Graham's "Diversion of Angels" (music: Norman Dello Joio), potentially a brilliantly sly rebuttal to ballet'omanes' claims that modern dance movement can't cope with the lyrical in life, the easily sensuous or the truly amorous. Graham's choreography combines dalliance and urgency ingeneously. The company worked hard at being heralds of play but I've also seen some of these very dancers be fresher, show real elan and seem utterly dedicated. This time they looked as if they'd been on tour a while.