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University of Washington Chamber Dance Group

'Primitive Mysteries,' 'Beat,' 'Ring,' 'Pigs and Fishes'

Martha's mysteries

by Dean Speer

February 3, 2005 -- Meany Hall Theatre, University of Washington, Seattle

It was great seeing Martha Graham’s early work "Primitive Mysteries" (1931) after a nearly 30 year hiatus off of my radar screen. I last saw it at the Lunt-Fontanne on 46th Street in New York during one of Martha’s seasons. For that revival, Graham added pleated ruffles to the skirts, and I remember this as being a big-deal brouhaha. I was a devoted Graham acolyte at the time and was impressed by the strong reactions of the various audience members around me who thought this somehow heretical, never mind that it was Martha herself who approved this addition. The original 1931 costume designs are also by Graham. However, Martha was entering her “Halston” period about this time, so this may be the cause for the ruffles.

Part of my strong impression and memory of this lay in complete strangers striking up conversations with me about this and their opinions of the current state (mid-‘70s) of the Graham Company. Not the same power, interpretations, dancers who are lovely but don’t quite “get it,” etc. Gee – how like today with another now long-time tempest about another New York company.

Well, I find myself in the somewhat awkward position of praising the production and the value of its treading the boards again on the one hand, and sighing on the other – finding myself agreeing with Martha’s directive that only her company do her works (or at least those schooled in the idiom) and torn with my strong desire and wish to see her works staged more and globally. It takes about three years to really “get” the Graham Technique. Otherwise, it’s kind of like the experience of looking at lesser-experienced ballet dancers who, while they might have good technique, don’t yet have “classicism” in their bodies and souls. You really can see the difference. I sometimes call it having real, hard-core technique -- not just great skill.

The UW Chamber Dance Company dancers were trying -- they really were. But of the thirteen in the group, I saw only one (a brunette whose name I don’t know - sorry) who used her torso, contracting and having the right kind of sustained power and energy needed for this deceptively simple piece. Everyone else needs to use their torsos more. The dancers were well-rehearsed to be sure, with tightness in their patterns, unity and, I think, an understanding of what they were trying to achieve. Opening night nerves may have played a part. I would urge them to fully submit themselves to the work. Be in “high” contraction like crazy throughout (sometimes needing to be in “deep” contraction) and to let the passionate drive that’s in each of Martha’s works live in their inner souls and to try to feel this energy in their torsos and really let it be the “driver” for all of their movement.

They were intense, but much more is needed. At first blush, it would appear that "Primitive Mysteries" is a quiet dance with lots of “nice” tableaux. This is far from what it’s about. Graham was never “nice.” In 1931, Graham’s company was only five years old and this work is a solid example of finding her own artistic voice. Sculptural, yes, and definitely kinetic too. Elizabeth Spatz as The Virgin in Martha’s part was of the right maturity and stature and seemed deeply “seated” in her dancing of the part.

I do applaud both the group and Chamber Dance for the courage to take this wonderful step of having a Graham work in their repertory. I should note it was very well staged by Diane Gray, who had been in residence in October to set the piece and put the dancers through the paces of getting a handle on the basic Graham technique and vocabulary. It really is like learning another language. While we don’t have to learn how to walk all over again, it does take time and commitment. And with more performances and allowing this piece to “season” I believe they will give subsequent performances of Graham’s works that will be powerful, moving, and a special artistic and elevated experience. I hope Chamber Dance will stage more of Martha’s works in the future. They deserve to be seen and to be experienced by the dancers and audiences alike.

While I’m on my Graham kick – some might say high horse – I have to note that it was the pre-performance lecturer Lodi McClellan, who about 25 years ago – back when she and I were both dancing in the same company and she under a different name (both first and last; I shall keep the secret!), broke me of my entire and complete devotion to Graham by writing the most marvelous parody poem for one of my birthdays, based on the 23rd Psalm. “The Contraction is my Mantra, I shall not Release...” I read this – out loud – and laughed and laughed and laughed, until I cried. It was brilliant and so funny. I’m still a believer in Martha’s work but have tried to get over myself and have just a little more perspective.

Mark Dendy’s "Beat" from 1985 is a bouncy work – literally. My impression is that he’s taking material from and poking fun at the gym classes that everyone loves to hate and makes a fun dance game out of it for four. Often in pairs, this sneaker-clad piece is lively although a little long. It could have been more than it was if he had really taken the courage to do more, going further in his treatment of his material. It was cute but safe and ultimately, after the introduction of motifs, really didn’t go anywhere. Dancers Carl Brittain, Sarah Carlson, Jürg Koch, and Carly Pansulla were brilliant and deserve a least one oxygen tank each for getting through this aerobic workout!

"Ring" (1979) by Hannah Kahn was probably my favorite work of the evening. Set to some shorter works by Debussy, I particularly enjoyed – and I felt the piece came into its full maturity – the last section, “Underwater or engulfed cathedral” (La cathédral egloutie). A somewhat “gestural” piece, I enjoyed Kahn’s building of her material. Dancers Peter Kyle and Chalie Livingston were particularly good and sensitive to Kahn’s choreography.

From 1982, Elisa Monte’s "Pigs and Fishes" suffered by comparison to the other works, mostly by not having live music. Yes, I understand it’s to a score that probably impossible to reproduce live yet there’s nothing that deadens a live show faster than canned music, even if it is an commissioned electronic score. (Okay, there are exceptions, but I’m trying to make a point here.) Also, if you tuned out the score (easy to do) and just watched the dance only, all of Monte's movement and gestures seemed to be duple. One-two, one-two. This never varied much. I did like many of her patterns and shapes for the ensemble. Many were interesting. Dancers were sharp and it was a pleasure seeing now graduate student, Li Hengda – a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer for 6 years, treading the board again.

The UW Chamber Dance Company and Founding Artistic Director Hannah C. Wiley deserve many kudos for giving Seattle audiences a taste of Modern Dance’s rich history and for a Master’s Degree program that’s worth having, seeing their product, and writing home about. Ditto for their use of live music for three of the first four pieces. This elevated the level of the work so much and really added “value” to the experience.

Edited by Jeff.

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