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Martha Graham Dance Company

'Appalachian Spring,' 'Errand into the Maze,' 'El Penitente,' 'Diversion of Angels'

 

by Toba Singer

October 23, 2004 -- Mondavi Center, Davis, California

The Martha Graham Company, its place in American History, legacy to the universal vocabulary of dance, singular choreography and roster of great dancers, could cause us to view it as a museum, rich with retrospective treasures, were it not for the timeless technique that birthed it. That technique is the pulse of the company, regardless of who is dancing the roles today as compared with earlier periods in its groundbreaking history.

A generational comparison is by definition ahistorical. The earliest dancers, Gertrude Shurr, May O’Donnell, Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Pearl Lang, and those they invited to join them: Bertram Ross, Mary Hinkson, Yuriko, Lucas Hoving, and those they taught—the current artistic directors, Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli -- made the art under the mastery of Ms. Graham. Now they curate it and share it with the artists in today’s company and, ultimately, with new audiences. There is, of course, a different mood in the company, as there is a different mood among those who today defend Cuba from threatened military invasion by the U.S. government, compared with that of “Los Barbudos” who made the revolution against U.S. occupiers in the late 1950s.

Capucilli and Dakin stood up to the exclusive claims on Graham's work made in court by Ron Protas, and won a victory that brought this substantial body of work back to SRO audiences. Christine Dakin spoke to me briefly after the performance, and noted that today's audiences are “focused” and “educated” and altogether delightful to dance for.

So when the opening strains of Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" played by the well-tempered U.C. Davis Symphony Orchestra introduced the audience to Graham’s signature Americana piece by the same name, there was a palpable readiness on both sides of the proscenium to fully experience the range of Martha Graham work. The minimalist set by Isamu Noguchi offers a slice of a white-shingled clapboard house, a bench with a churn and enough supports to suggest that there’s more here that's not seen. It’s all ye know and all ye need to know, because it represents the youthful simplicity that characterized every region of post-Revolutionary America: New England, the Great Plains, the Southern Plantations, and the Prairie territories. Here is what the pioneer farmers set down in broad strokes, leaving room for embellishments when and if the future proved itself a loyal fixture.

The algebra of the set harmonizes with Graham’s choreography, where the energy transfers in the interstices between steps and combinations. Graham called them “transitions.” The cartoonist, Jules Pfeiffer, lampooned the naturalist themes that dancers inspired by Graham copied. Yet, for young-feeling people of all ages, Graham classes were purgative. Not a single rib was left unchallenged by a rigorous technique that refreshed the body and spirit like nothing else.

What’s held and pushed under The Revivalist’s homespun suit, or The Bride’s extravagant peach gown, or by the quartet of Followers, whose dancing intones like a Greek Chorus, is the phenomenology of Graham. A coltish prance spells fecundity, a sleek arm gesture throws invisible grain. It’s plain, but glamorously cinematic at the same time. The Followers are like poetic quatrains that chime perfectly into the violin, flute, dulcimer and piano.

Mauricio Nardi gives us a Revivalist whose exorcism turns his ribs into tuning forks. The Bride, is danced so faithfully to Dakin’s interpretation by Virginie Mécène, that she could easily be taken for Dakin’s double. The arm spirals at the end confer a kind of halo of fertility, not the religious “cult of the virgin” kind, but more like the diurnal barnyard variety that captures the imaginations of children in the “Charlotte’s Web” story. The descant signals nightfall, and leaves the Husbandman and his Bride alone in their new togetherness, alone with nothing but the cold comfort of the stark landscape. The celebrants exit, and the audience catches a last, lingering glimpse of the way we were when we were the very youngest of the Americas.

"Errand Into the Maze" has a deceptively simple set, an outcropping of random branches, sprouting from what would appear to be the dark side of the moon. The branches are the axes of a maze of good and evil, explored with no holds barred by two dancers, Fang Yi Sheu and Martin Lofsnes.

Fang slowly dials in the space between the branches, deft and calculating on her way downstage. Then she boldly crisscrosses her own swivel-hipped steps. Her costume opens audaciously and we see that it is veined arbitrarily, like the branches in the maze. Lofnes is a painted tribal icon, with a horned headdress and a branch skewered across his back and under his arms. The dancers circle each other on bent knee, and he frightens her into an off-count body roll. She snags a vine-like rope that hangs up in the vortex of the branches. He’s suddenly back, posing in ritual penchées, falling to the floor, still skewered. He tacks her into place, as he steps deliberately around and over her supine body. He pulls her onto his back, where she’s balanced low on his spine. She reconquers her space in a series of hallmark Graham one-foot ronds de jambes à terre, slapping her knees as her body descends to the floor. He runs kicking backward as he goes, and then she shudders across his inclined body, disposing of him with triumphal straight-knee, then bent-knee battements. It’s all about good and evil, loss of power and retrieval. It’s frightening and funny; many think it’s what underlies the war games and the money.

"El Penitente" is the classic Graham story ballet, offered in the modern idiom. In this piece, we see three of the younger dancers in the company, Christophe Jeannot, Maurizio Nardi and Elizabeth Auclair, as the Penitent, Christ Figure and Mary (Virgin, Magdalen, Mother -- pay close attention “Da Vinci Code” fans), respectively. Utilizing a banner on crosspieces, and a cart made of wooden dowels, the story of the Crucifixion is unfurled. The piece is ritual, yet references pagan touchstones in its rudimentary enactment of the New Testament story. The exception is a very Nikiya/Salome-like seduction, danced by Auclair, where she is outfitted in a stunning fuchsia turban.

The program’s closing piece, “Diversion of Angels” is built around The Couple in White, The Couple in Red and The Couple in Yellow, with remaining company members costumed in Sepia tunics (women) and tights (men). Perhaps because the work is more diffuse than theatrical, it reveals weaknesses in the dancers’ technical development—or perhaps there are some injuries that inhibit full-out execution, especially among male corps members. The coryphées of women look a little shell-shocked. Overall, what elevates the piece and lifts us, are the welcome “up” accents, which distinguish the work in this program from all other iterations of modern dance, which tend to trend floorward.

The audience was ebullient at having the Martha Graham Dance Company back. A new generation of dancers is being recruited, trained, and conditioned to offer audiences the deepest possible interpretations of this work. Re-knitting the company’s continuity with its past will take time; it is clearly a privilege for those who get to do it. The company will selectively add to its repertoire from choreographers whose work is in keeping with the Graham spirit. Martha Clark was cited as an example of such an artist. Now that the company owns Graham’s work again, it will begin to be set on other companies that are in the best position to prepare their dancers for it, technically and artistically. All of this moves the work of Martha Graham through yet another transition. It will be fascinating to watch the company rediscover its center in the breadth of appreciation that is waiting, watching and welcoming of work whose classicism spirals the spine of its iconoclasm.


Edited by Jeff.

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