The Martha Graham Dance Company
'Appalachian Spring' (excerpt), 'Errand Into the Maze', 'Diversion of Angels', 'Chronicles'
by Jerry Hochman
March 14, 2012-- City Center, New York, NY
When a dance company, whose future was in doubt following the passing of its founder and the ensuing internal conflicts that threatened its continuing existence, not only survives but flourishes apparently as strong as ever, it is cause for celebration. And the celebratory gala at City Center on Wednesday was appropriate recognition for the remarkable resurgence of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
I’m aware that the Company has been slowly rebuilding, and over the past few years has performed at multiple venues in New York and around the world, but Wednesday’s gala performance was the first chance I’ve had to catch up with it in many years. If it was ever really gone, that’s not the case now. It’s back. The signs were not the guest artists or the principal dancers, who one would expect to give stellar performances – and did, or the presence of a well-heeled gala audience. Rather, it was the soloists and the ‘supporting’ dancers (the Company doesn’t have ‘corps’ dancers denominated as such) whose performing excellence most effectively demonstrated that under the leadership of Janet Eilber, who I remember vividly from her performances with the Company (and who looks as stunning as ever), great things are happening.
On this night, the Company was performing in three venues (concurrently at the Joyce Theater, where it is concluding a week-long run, and in Italy), so the dancers I saw were not the Company’s full complement, but they included soloists, dancers, and even apprentices with the Company only a year. The fact that I begin this review by recognizing these dancers as a group is a reflection of the quality of their performances and the impact that they all had.
There was no one high-point to this performance. It wasn’t so much “Martha’s Greatest Hits” (although it included many of them) as “the hits just keep on coming.” Except for the final piece, which was new to me, they are all familiar masterpieces, so extensive descriptions are unnecessary.
Preceding introductory remarks by Ms. Eilber, the evening began with a tantalizing aperitif: ‘Duet’ from “Appalachian Spring.” As fine as the performances were (by Tadej Brdnik and the glorious Miki Orihara), I felt cheated. I wanted more superb dancing, more Graham, and more of Aaron Copland’s magnificent score. At least I got two out of three.
I had heard some negative advance comments about Diana Vishneva’s decision to assay Graham technique. Based on what I saw (and even allowing for my prejudice, frequently acknowledged, that, if I could, I would travel the world to see Ms. Vishneva dance – she’s that good), Ms. Vishneva gave a remarkable performance.
Purists may decide that Ms. Vishneva has not acquired all the nuances of Graham technique. This may or may not be true. From my point of view, perhaps she was a little less crisp, a little less powerful in her contractions, and a little less angular (and more balletic) than ‘authentic’ Graham. But I don’t consider myself an expert on Graham (or any other) technique; rather, I look at a performance from the point of view of its impact on me and, where appropriate, in comparison to others. I’ve seen “Errand into the Maze” before, and to this viewer Ms. Vishneva’s portrayal was as complete and as gut-wrenching and as ‘Graham’ as any of them.
That Ms. Vishneva is a world-class ballerina is a given. But it’s not just because the lady can dance. It’s the extra qualities that she brings to whatever she dances. She inhabits every character, and adds dramatic tension to every role. But other great dancers do the same. Ms. Vishneva, however, is dramatic (where appropriate) with a minimum of extraneous gesture. This may sound contradictory with respect to an artist whose performance quality is based on the execution of movement. But her ability to add drama without adding extraneous gesture enhances her already extraordinary execution of movement.
Several years ago, in a review of Ms. Vishneva’s performance as ‘Juliet’ with American Ballet Theatre, I observed that Ms. Vishneva had captured the dramatic essence of a particular scene with no physical movement at all: through her eyes alone. They’re not just passionate, or powerful, or incandescent (all of which are true): they’re intense. And in “Errand,” from start to finish, Ms. Vishneva uses her intense eyes as if they were pounding fists. At one point, as Ms. Vishneva stood between the skeletal prongs of Isamu Noguchi’s stage set, her eyes moved as if they alone were dancing to the Menotti score, her searing eyes apprehending and inviting terror, and daring the demon to reappear so she could conquer it. Remarkable. It may be sacrilege to Graham purists, but I can see Ms. Vishneva as Clytemnestra.
While Ms. Vishneva’s role was the focal point of the piece, her performance was enhanced by that of Abdiel Jacobsen as the Minotaur. Only a company apprentice, Mr. Jacobsen is already a compelling and dominating presence.
"Diversion of Angels” has been performed so frequently by so many other dance companies that one forgets how much better it looks danced by natives. Even though the piece is ‘about’ three different emotional facets of love, it is much more than that: it’s a joyous explosion of color and movement; love’s essence unrestrained. Each of the dancers (Katherine Crockett and Samuel Pott as the Couple in White; Blakeley White-McGuire and Mr. Brdnik as the Couple in Red, and Xiaochuan Xie and Lloyd Knight as the Couple in Yellow) was flat-out fabulous, but particularly notable were the performances of Ms. White-McGuire, a principal who has been with the Company for ten years, and Ms. Xie, a corps-level dancer who only joined the Company in 2010. With Ms. White-McGuire, every movement of the passionate Woman in Red had the impact of an ignited firecracker. Ms. Xie’s effervescence tingled the eyes like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
I had not previously seen “Chronicles,” an anti-war piece choreographed in 1936 in response to the menace of Nazism, The original production was divided into three parts evoking the prelude to war, war’s devastation, and a response to avoid it. The current production, reconstructed in the mid-1990s, is divided similarly, but eliminates certain sub-sections within each of the three divisions. As much as I would like to have seen the original, I cannot see how it could have been more potent than the current production. Flawed, to this viewer, in the excess of the final section, it is nevertheless a shattering work that is comparable in impact to “The Green Table,” Kurt Jooss’s more well-known anti-war dance of the same era (created in 1932).
The initial section, ‘Spectre-1914’, depicts a lone woman’s apprehension of war after having only recently experienced what was supposed to have been the war to end all wars. As drums beat in the distance, the woman senses approaching calamity, knowing full well the devastation that war will bring. A prophetess of doom begging, praying for help that she knows will not come. A Cassandra already in mourning.
The section bears a superficial resemblance to the earlier-created (1930) “Lamentation,” in that the woman is costumed in a single garment, like an oversized blanket, and moves with, and within, it. The lower section of the striking black costume (which was created by Ms. Graham) initially appears to be infused with red. Gradually, as the woman moves, the red color becomes solid, and overtakes the black so that the garment appears almost entirely red, as if foreshadowing the bloody result of the impending war.
The performance is a tour de force for guest artist Fang-Yi Sheu, a former Principal Dancer with the Company. With nearly all movement restricted to the confines of a two-tiered pedestal, Ms. Sheu’s emotional and physical range is enormous.
To this viewer, the middle section, ‘Steps in the Street,’ is a monumental depiction of war’s devastation of body and spirit. Performed by twelve women, the section is not only dramatically and visually stunning, it is heartbreaking without being either graphic or maudlin. Instead of an army of male soldiers in battle, we have an army of women who suffer war’s consequences. They do not deliver the violence, they are the victims of it. And the image as the section begins of each of the women cupping her head with her left hand as if in agony, her right hand across her body in fear and resignation, which is repeated by one woman as the section ends, is unforgettable.
The dancers, led by Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, appear to be responding to spiritual (and perhaps physical) assaults by some overwhelming unseen force. They withstand the onslaught, only to be terrorized further. The section is as powerful in its way as ‘Guernica’, which it emotionally resembles. Fractured lives, fractured bodies, fractured souls. As danced by the army of women sufferers, it is, and they were, awesome. The dancers, in addition to Ms. Ellmore-Tallitsch, were Jacqueline Bulnes, Greta Campo,
The final section is entitled ‘Prelude to Action’. According to the program note, it suggests an answer to the imminent catastrophe. [Rather than linear – prelude, result, answer; I see the piece as somewhat circular – what is going to happen, what our lives will be like if we don’t do something to stop it, and what we can do to stop it.] While it is as powerful as the other sections of the piece, it is also more martial – a call to arms rather than a call to action. Instead of an army of women victims, we have an army of women soldiers, led by Ms. Sheu, as if she were Spartacus leading the charge against the warrior oppressors. It is superbly danced, but it was over the top, suggesting that a war against war is the answer to war, leading, ultimately, to the triumph of our will over theirs. To this viewer, Aristophanes (“Lysistrata”) had a better idea.
Regardless, the evening was a stunning assemblage of Graham treasures, and an equally stunning assemblage of superb dancers. Based on this gala performance, and with the continuing infusion of Graham-trained dancers from the Graham School and satellite schools around the world, the Martha Graham Dance Company should be around for a long time.
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