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Errand into Graham's Maze:

The Martha Graham Dance Company in Italy

by Rosella Simonari

February 16, 2007 -- Teatro Rossetti, Trieste, Italy

In 1954, Martha Graham toured in Italy for the first time. As dance scholar Susanne Franco has recently highlighted, the audience’s response was not good. At the time, there was not a body of specialised critics for dance and ballet was seen as the main ‘respectable’ dance form. After the second Italian tour in 1975, things started to change and since then, the Company has established a special bond with Italy. Furthermore, in recent years it seems like this bond has also been fed by academic studies and events dedicated to Graham. In 2003 the University of Bologna dedicated a conference, a demonstration and other events to her. In the same year a monograph by Franco herself has been published and a few months ago, the Ikona Gallery in Venice organised an exhibition of Barbara Morgan’s famous photographs. After the legal problems the Martha Graham Center had to face, the Company has toured in Italy on several occasions, in 2004, 2005 and 2007. In all these occasions some pieces from the rich repertoire like “Errand into the Maze” (1947) and “Sketches from Chronicle” (1936) have recurred.

Last February in Trieste the programme also included “Diversion of Angels” (1948) and “Embattled Garden” (1958). The company looked in very good form and it showed once again that the Graham legacy endures. Trieste is the place where two eminent writers of the twentieth century, Italo Svevo and James Joyce lived and worked. Because it is close to the national border, it has the special aura of borderline places and it is famous for its cafes and cultural liveliness. In order for me to arrive at the Rossetti Theatre, I had to walk through a nice road full of street vendors who had come to sell their organic products, on occasion of the Carnival, a period of joyful celebrations all over the country. Inside, the theatre was characterised by blue and golden decorations. As lights went down a nice man, smartly dressed, came out of the red curtain; it was Maurizio Nardi, one of the Company members, who greeted the audience and talked a bit about the pieces in the programme. His Italian was good and, in spite of his American pronunciation, he caught the audience’s attention. His arrival was unexpected and a good move. It reflects the new approach to Graham’s work taken by artistic director Janet Eilber. According to Eilber, Graham’s dance approach needs to be contextualised for people to understand its revolutionary aspects. Graham’s aesthetics are crucial to understanding the development of dance history, but they are sometimes seen as old-fashioned. However, as Eilber has told Joan Acocella, dance critic of The New Yorker, it is rather a classic and it is important to see it according to the context where it was conceived.

I have to say that Nardi’s introduction contributed to hooking the audience members, who started to look back at the programme notes and seemed ready for an intense evening of dance. The first piece, “Errand into the Maze”, was the right start. Based on the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne, it represents a quest into the protagonist’s labyrinthine psyche. Graham eliminated Theseus and replaced him with a woman in search of herself, in conflict with her own fears which are embodied by the Minotaur. The quest is then internalised and the myth transformed into a psychological errand. Elizabeth Auclair danced the suffering heroine and David Zurak the fearful creature. The music is by the late Gian-Carlo Menotti and the set, by Isamu Noguchi, is represented by a V shaped sculpture, resembling the pelvic bones, a white rope placed on the floor and a kind of moonlike object on the top part of the stage left. The errand is symbolised not only by the rope, which the dancer will cover through different steps, but also by the curving lines on her dress and by those on the Minotaur’s body. The dance itself is a kind of labyrinthine quest, with Ariadne’s pelvic thrusts and her horizontal walks, at times full of anxiety, at times relieved and almost joyful. Auclair convincingly performed the tormented role and finally won against the ‘Creature of Fear’, stiff and rigid in his movements thanks to a stick placed behind his neck. Zurak, for his part, portrayed his role well. However, in their body-against-body fights they lacked the empathy demanded by the piece. When, at the end, they bowed to the applauding audience, one could appreciate the nice features of the dancers devoid of the characters’ pathos they were performing a minute before.

“Diversion of Angels” represented a nice shift with its more ethereal love theme and its constant changes of direction and different geometric choreographical patterns, as Nardi had specified in his introduction. It was inspired by a Kandinsky painting which has a long red brush crossing it diagonally. Colours are very important in this piece and they are some of the primal colours in nature, white, red, and yellow. Blue is also present as the stage background. The music is by Norman Dello Joio. The choreography rotates around three women, each paired with a partner, each wearing a costume of one of the three above mentioned colours. The woman in white, danced by a sweet Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, represents mature love, the one in red, performed by Blakeley White-McGuire, erotic love and the one in yellow, danced by a sparkling Jennifer DePalo-Rivera, adolescent love. Years before creating “Diversion”, Graham had named the One in White and the One in Red the two main characters of her first version of “Letter to the World” (1940), a complex piece dedicated to the figure and poetry of Emily Dickinson. In that piece the former embodied a more balanced and mature version of the latter, thus, in a way anticipating the two women in “Diversion”. The woman in red performs sensuous and fluid steps while the woman in white is characterised by more sedate movements. Maurizio Nardi was particularly sweet and delicate towards his woman in white, Tadej Brdnik was a luminous presence beside his woman in red, and Lloyd Knight energetic beside his woman in yellow. The ensemble, which is fundamental to creatingthe atmosphere, also performed very well. “Diversion of Angels” is such a joy for the eye and the heart.

An interval of about fifteen minutes gave the audience the chance to reflect and talk about the performance. Soon the programme continued with “Embattled Garden” which belongs to a series of works that Graham dedicated to Biblical and religious themes. The music by Carlos Surinach contributes to the tension and irony of the piece. The domestic bliss of Adam and Eve is broken by the presence of two creatures, the Stranger who recalls the evil snake of the Garden of Eden and Lilith, who, according to some Apocryphal Testaments, was Adam’s first wife. Colours play a significant role here too, even in the set created by Isamu Noguchi. As the curtain opened, on the left we saw the green and yellow striped stylised trunk of an imaginary tree on which the Stranger, danced by a malicious Maurizio Nardi was placed. In front of the tree Lilith, performed by a witty Elizabeth Auclair, lay down with a yellow dress and a flaming red fan. On the right there was a platform resembling a garden where Adam, a splendid Tadej Brdnik and Eve, a stunning Miki Orihara were. The two couples soon confronted each other in an interplay of lively dance phrases. The Stranger is far more wicked than Adam and Lilith is more experienced than Eve, so that when she faces Adam she is quite aggressive. This is a piece where love is treated as ‘raw’ and ‘primitive’ material; there is no room for sentimentality or romanticism. Nardi’s airborne quality enriched the flowing dimension of the Stranger, and Orihara’s performance stood out as particularly impressive. The way she combed her hair in the opening scene as well as her elegance and precision in the dance phrases were magnetic.

“Sketches from Chronicle” kept the magnetism of Orihara’s stage presence and brought the audience into a completely different dimension. Where we had the tragicomic aspects of love, we found the horror of war. Politics and dance are articulated in a powerful manner in this early piece inspired by the Spanish Civil War which greatly affected Graham and other artists of the time. Unlike other Graham’s choreographies, “Sketches” is not a narrative account of a specific war, but it is a modernist approach to its aspects. Key elements such as movement, costume, light and music are reworked to synthesise an evocation of the tragedy of war, rather than a pragmatic description. Divided into three parts, “Spectre 1914”, “Steps in the Street” and “Prelude to Action” and set to the music of Wallingford Riegger, it was created when Graham had a company of women only and when her technique, according to Don McDonagh, was characterised by little or no transition between one movement and the next. The result was often difficult for the audience to grasp, so Graham also used to organise lecture demonstrations to explain her approach to dance. One admirer, Stark Young, mentioned by Nardi in his introduction, even said that “if Graham ever gave birth, it would be to a cube”.

The opening was a solo danced by another magnetic figure, Jennifer DePalo-Rivera, whose long and straight blonde hair presented a sharp contrast against the red background and her black and red costume. As in “Lamentation” (1930), the costume, made of a very long and wide overskirt, a skirt and a long sleeved black top, actively contributed to shape the choreography. When DePalo-Rivera threw her overskirt along her whole body, it was like she was changing the course of time; it was as if the cry for the cruelty of war was being shouted out loud, without fear. It is such a powerful solo! The second part was a choral piece, where Miki Orihara danced the leading role of the group. The spasm portrayed in the initial backward walk done in complete silence and with a twisted torso was a striking introduction to the dance. The hardships of the 1930s Depression, which also affected the mood of the piece, were echoed through the recurrent dancers’ jumps. At the same time the group also expressed strength and determination through their poses and energetic fists. The last part was a triumph of choreographic dynamism and crescendo, with DePalo-Rivera as the leading figure, together with Orihara and the ensemble jumping and performing turns in circle. “Sketches from Chronicle” is usually performed at the end of programmes as it embodies the great force and simplicity of Graham’s early style. In this instance it was no exception that it once again conquered the audience.

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