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Martha @ the JCCSF

by Toba Singer

March 31, 2007 -- Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

The audience files in. The house lights are on when the curtain opens to the screening of a video montage by Charles Atlas. The video looks like it was assembled by a researcher who tapped out the keyword “Martha” (no, not “Martha Graham” because that wouldn’t have yielded a sufficient number of hits), and spliced together footage from damned near any film over the past 75 years where the name “Martha” came up.  As you heard quiz kid audience members of the eminence grise vintage show off by shouting out the identity of a recognizable dancer, actor, comic, or snatch of choreography, you found yourself wondering whether this short trip down memory lane would prove to be an inauspicious beginning…

The house lights fade, and strains of “Appalachian Spring” can be heard coming from a not-state-of-the-art sound system.  Richard Move, this evening’s Martha Graham, enters in a long black dress, enveloped in a beige wrap that hides everything about his body that will later reveal itself, only to tug the production values of this effort down considerably. 

He speaks in the purple prose associated with Graham, expressing “joyous despair” and “divine turbulence” at having an opportunity to perform “Martha @ JCC.”  His character makes reference to her impressive longevity with a quip about how audiences want to know “How long I intend to keep all of this up” and delivers the diva’s response:  “As long as I have an audience, a faceless audience.”

By dint of Move’s efforts, the audience gets the message that Graham was a self-centered woman.  Tangentially, we learn that she was the dance pioneer whose technique gave us the contraction and the release, the flexed foot, the lunge, prances, and the off-balance extension. It is also reported that when challenged by Balanchine to choreograph a piece using the theme of Mary Queen of Scots’ issues with her cousin Queen Elizabeth to music by Webern on his NYCB dancers while he set his own piece using the same theme and music, she bested him, a defeat he refused to concede.

Guest dancers were invited to help elaborate aspects of Graham’s life’s work and career. Matthew Holland and Levi Toney danced a piece by former Graham student, Bay Area choreographer, Margaret Jenkins, called “A Slipping Glimpse.” Jenkins employs generous Graham-derivative stretches and low elevation lifts, along with Cunningham-like quick changes of direction in a series of discontinuous vignettes that progressively shorten the distance between the two dancers until prolonged contact melds their stories.

When Move himself dances Graham works, he is at times mirrored by current Martha Graham Company dancer, Katherine Crockett.  Having had the privilege of seeing the Martha Graham Company perform when Graham herself, Yuriko, Bertram Ross, Mary Hinkson, Ethel Winter, Marni Thomas Wood, David Wood, and later Mario Delamo and Christine Dakin performed her works, I found it difficult to watch Crockett do her best while suffering through the humiliation of having to take a back seat to Move’s incompetent mimicry of Graham. 

There was nothing he did that could have ignited anything in Crockett:  she was on her own, and one is the loneliest number except when there’s two and the one who’s not you is unwittingly making a mockery of a figure the entire dance world revered for as long as she could “keep this up” and then some. 

I studied with three of the original Graham dancers, Gertrude Shurr, May O’Donnell, and Nancy Lang, and with their student, Cora Cahan.  Each of them was exacting in carrying forward the refinement of Graham’s words in class. It was this precision and creative imagery, as well as the musical use of the voice when sometimes the only accompaniment was a tambourine that made a Graham class so outstanding. 

The crystalline quality of those Graham classes is with me forever, where I have lost all recollection of the many ballet classes I took, though I savored them just as much at the time. Unlike my teachers – and I think it’s safe to assume, unlike Martha – Move reads notes from a Graham class in the same licentious tone of voice that he uses throughout, as if he were narrating a society runway benefit.

Following a ten minute intermission, the show was rescued by the intervention of two dancers of outsized talent, Spoken Word performance artist, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer, Muriel Maffre, who brought a full measure of authenticity and virtuosity to the stage.

In the poem “Word Becomes Flesh,” Joseph utilized Graham technique to share the gripping story of his son’s birth and grandfather’s passing in tragicomic counterpoint to the counterfeit “share your feelings” coaching of a Lamaze group leader. In the poem “Breaks,” he dances and tells the story of his encounter with his first African American, a white woman he met in Africa who had completely embraced and integrated herself into Senegalese culture, whereas he, a more traditionally-defined African American, could not relate, until circumstances demanded it.  His pacing, spoken and danced, came with perfect pitch, and his geniality elicited the audience’s warm response.

Maffre’s piece was her legendary “Dying Swan,” which has nothing at all to do with Graham technique and everything to do with a woman dancer earnestly creating a role that is distinguished among great portrayals – exactly as Graham did many times.  Maffre’s Swan alternately fluttered and faltered, beat its wings frantically, and strained toward life in a tug of war with death.  It is not only her swan, but – at least in terms of her career at San Francisco Ballet – her swan song, as she finishes her tenure with the company this season, so the audience was doubly lucky to have this moment with her.

What are we supposed to think about a man who presumes to take the role of perhaps the greatest female 20th century dance pioneer?  The one-dimensional misogynistic message that she was mostly a diva and secondarily, a genius, has the tail wagging the dog.  While there’s plenty in the evening’s script to educate, the slant is so off-center that if you are not among the cognoscenti of a certain age, you could come away with some very wrong-headed notions of who Martha Graham was. 

Move’s waddling portrayal of her work, absent its hallmark clean lines, lyrical dappling, and unquenchable attack, makes him a poor choice for the role.  If it was still around, and Move the only player, it is conceivable that this event could have been credibly staged at Josie’s Juice Joint – a former Castro District drag artist night spot – and recast as “Martha @ JJJ.”  Let’s hope that as it continues to make the rounds and buttresses its presentation with local talent, it finds others as willing to come to its aid as forcefully and persuasively as Joseph and Maffre did.

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