Martha Graham Dance Company
Graham Pleasing and Political
'Errand into the Maze', 'El Penitente', 'Circe', 'Sketches from Chronicle'
by Rosella Simonari
February 22nd, 2004 -- Teatro Comunale, Ferrara, Italy
Unlike any stereotypical image of Italy and very much like the actual winter weather in the north, Ferrara has welcomed the opening of the Martha Graham Dance Company Italian tour with an atmosphere of mist and humidity. This kind of weather particularly suited the city whose heart is characterised by the beautiful Renaissance Estense castle, still surrounded by waters. At the same time it particularly suited the choice of co-directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin to re-stage a 1963 piece, "Circe", based on the charming witch who put a spell on Ulysses and his fellow Greek soldiers. The other choreographies included in the programme were "Errand into the Maze" (1947), "El Penitente" (1940) and "Sketches from Chronicle" (1936). In other cities along this tour there is also "Lamentiation" (1930), "Deep Song" (1937) and "Satyric Festical Song" (1932).
The Company last visited the Italian peninsula in 1998 when they toured to Pelermo. During the press conference, Christine Dakin highlighted Graham's attachment to Italy and the Company's intention to reinforce this important bond which is further strengthened by the presence of a couple of Italians as members of the Company. Maybe that is partially why Alessandra Prosperi pictured as Leader of the Chorus in "Night Journey" features in the poster promoting the Ferrara performance. Two parallel events surrounded the performance: a lecture given by dance historian, Susanne Franco, and a technique class organised by the Company with dance students interested in learning the principles of the Graham technique. At this class a video of the 1930s was shown to improve the understanding of Graham's unique appoach to the human body.
The Teatro Comunale registered a sold-out, a symptom that a lot of Italians had been waiting for the Company to come back. The opening piece, "Errand into the Maze", perfectly introduced the sense of anxiety and struggle intrinsic to Graham's Greek pieces. Elisabeth Auclair as wandering Ariadne well measured her pulsing energy in the spiral turnings as well as in the frantic interaction with the pelvic bone sculpture designed by Isamu Noguchi, while Martin Lofsnes danced the imponent role of the Minotaur, the so-called 'Creature of Fear', with stamina and charisma. The repeated duets in this piece are quite peculiar, as the two partners fight for the survival of their psyche. The final body-against-body battle represents the climax of the choreography: the Minotaur falls to the ground, releasing the stick that enables him to be so monolithically strong and Ariadne finally faces her fear as a source of energy.
The dark tint of this piece led to a sharp change with "El Penitente," where three figures play three Biblical and yet indigenous episodes. Three are the dominant colours as well: white, sky blue and black. First performed in 1940, it was the result of Graham's frequent visits to the American Southwest where she studied the pueblos' sense of space. At the same time it echoes the structure of the Medieval morality play where characters usually represented vices and virtues of humankind. In this instance the dance figures characters inspired by a religious sect from the Southwest who practiced the ritual of self-flagellation to reach soul purification. Tadej Brdnik performs a concentrated penitent in the initial phase which is characterised by jumping, turning and high paced self-whipping. Alessandra Prosperi emerges as a sweet Virgin in the first episode, a lively and seductive Magdalen in the second and a dramatic Mater Dolorosa in the last one. Gary Galbraith features as a punitive Christ figure with punctual and preaching movements. He reminds me of his performance as the Preacher in Appalachian Spring from last November in London.. The pipes of the music score by Louis Horst became joyous in the last festive closing where the three characters strip off their roles to get together in movements of celebration, mainly done in parallel positions.
An interval allowed the audience to digest the incredible amount of input already delivered by the Company. Then the performance of "Circe" began. According to Christine Dakin the audience gets physically involved with the dancers. I see it as a kind of mutual and mute exchange of body language, the applause being only a final and possible aspect of it. "Circe" was almost shocking after "El Penitente", the movement quality is so different; there are more than twenty years between the two works and during those two decades great changes had occurred in the Graham technique. From an angular and bidimensional style it had moved towards a more fluid and tridimensional one thanks to the development of the spiral movement. "Circe" displays this latter rotundity and plasticity.
At the front of the stage on the left, Ulysses, danced by an excellent Kenneth Topping, and his helmsman, played by an intriguing David Zurak, travel on a stylised boat designed by Isamu Noguchi. They seem to be transported into a world of wind and magic. Their arms repeatedly float in undulating movements, their focus over a mysterious horizon. At the back of stage center a curvilinear sculpture hosts the blond and Juno-esque Katherine Crockett, who is a languid Circe surrounded by a series of animal-like figures, who appear one by one, each performing a short solo. There is Christophe Jeannot who is a cunning snake, Whitney Hunter who represents a powerful lion, Martin Lofsnes who is a jumping deer and Maurizio Nardi who plays the role of an exciting goat. Circe will put a spell on Ulysses and his helmsman and she will display an enchanting flame red veil that will hypnotise the Greek hero in a very sensual interplay of movements. In the end things will close in a circular manner -- Circe back on her sculptured domain and Ulysses on his boat travelling away. The performance of the five dancers in the roles of animals was stunning, especially because they did not much imitate the animal they were performing, but rather they incorporated its essence in their movement approach.
Sketches from "Chronicle" first performed in 1936 kept the magnetism began with "Circe". The first part, Spectre -1914, totally hypnotised the audience this time. In the title role a splendid Fang Yi Sheu was in perfect control of her body as well as of her skirt of two layers and two colours. Her costume which as in many of these early pieces constitutes so much of the choreography and scenography consisted of a black layer to evoke the obscure force of war and a red one emerging underneath to underline the sacrifice of blood that any war requires. The second part, the all women Steps in the Street, confirmed the capability of Miki Orihara to play the leader of this collective and articulated dance where there are frequent comings and goings of parts of the group according to different paces. The last part, Prelude to Action, involved the audience so much that an enthusiastic applause in mid performance virtually elected Fang Yi Sheu the most appreciated performer of the Ferrara programme.
At the press conference, Dakin highlighted the incredible response they usually get with this piece. She added that it is deeply political, was created between the two World Wars and is possibly still so meaningful because, unfortunately, not much of the world's geopolitics has changed since then. Terese Capucilli talked about its technical aspects, saying how difficult it was to reconstruct even only three of the original five parts of the piece. I would say that they have done a marvellous job and that as the closing piece for a programme like this, it was a perfect statement, representative of Martha Graham's dance, and not only dance, world vision!