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Martha Graham Dance Company

"Indisputably Martha Graham"

City Center, New York, NY

May 9, 2002
By Malcolm Tay


Legal spats and money issues have kept the Martha Graham Dance Company, the prime custodian-interpreter of its founder's technique and extensive repertory, out of action for two years now. But the company ended its forced hiatus with a triumphant comeback, in the form of Indisputably Martha Graham on May 9th. As Francis Mason, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, declared to a very, very full house at the City Center after the first intermission, "The art of Martha Graham is imperishable and should go on forever."

This one-night-only performance, featuring five dances that span forty-five years of creativity from 1936, involved as many dancers as was possible, including students of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and Martha Graham Dance Ensemble members. None of Graham's solos were on display. Instead, two works that haven't been seen in the US for over seven years, Seraphic Dialogue (1955) and Embattled Garden (1958), had been revived for this occasion. One can only hope that 1940’s Letter to the World, which hasn't been performed in more than a decade, will be brought out of cold storage as well.

The opening Seraphic Dialogue (score by Norman Dello Joio) bears testament to the peerless faith and tenacity of Joan of Arc. Here, just before her final moment of honour, she recalls her life as a maiden, warrior, and martyr. You first see the central Joan, solemn and still, at the foot of Isamu Noguchi's cathedral of detachable brass tubing (from which a long sword and a cross can be nicely plucked), in which the imposing Saint Michael stands with Saints Catherine and Margaret beside him. Joan as Maid, Warrior, and Martyr, are seated in their brilliant robes of blue, purple, and red. It is a stunning tableau that had the audience applauding and hooting in agreement when the curtains were raised.

Thankfully, actual historical events are not re-enacted; it is Joan's inner landscapes, as envisioned by Graham, that are of interest. What Graham couldn't adequately convey by herself in The Triumph of Saint Joan (1951), she could express marvellously in a group. Terese Capucilli, as the main Joan who eventually takes her exalted place among the saints, danced with great passion; every gesture, every pummel of her knees against the ground, brimmed with strength and resolve. Catherine Lutton and Heidi Stoeckley were Saints Catherine and Margaret who, like the bouncy followers in Appalachian Spring, flit about in pairs and symmetrical patterns, ceremonially introducing each Joan persona by removing their cloaks. Leaping buoyantly, Virgine Mecénè played a young, virtuous Maid, awakening to a more sacred direction. Alessandra Prosperi was the noble Warrior, encouraged by Saint Michael in a fast, heady duet to take up the sword. As the Martyr, Elizabeth Auclair moved with serene resignation, piously bearing the cross with both hands, carving it close to her bosom. Kenneth Topping's Saint Michael was a commanding presence, even in his shapeless technicolour gown.

Seraphic Dialogue, of course, inherited its unique narrative structure – retrospective story-telling, where the protagonist is placed at a decisive moment as she relives a fateful experience in her lifetime – from predecessors like the erotically tragic Night Journey (1947). With a tumultuous score by William Schuman, Graham retells the Oedipus legend from Jocasta's point of view, as she recollects that inauspicious encounter with her son. But unlike the strong, steadfast heroines of Graham's earlier work, Jocasta (a consummate interpretation by the experienced Christine Dakin) is powerless, trapped from the start. She holds the rope that will come to signify many things: her lifeline, her inextricable link to Oedipus as both the umbilical cord and the bond of sexual union, and her suicide tool. Topping dramatically enacted Oedipus' downfall, from the proud, royal stud who blatantly seduces his own mother, to the fallen, disgraced man who blinds himself in shame with Jocasta's brooch. Gary Galbraith was grave and foreboding as the blind seer Tiresias, whose prophecy Jocasta ignores at her own peril. The excellent Daughters of the Night, that chorus of ominous birds led by Prosperi, trembled with fear and revulsion at the incestuous act, as if almost on the verge of tearing out their eyes.

In Conversation of Lovers, a duet taken from the larger 1981 work, Acts of Light (music by Carl Nielsen), Katherine Crockett and Martin Lofsnes were the two skimpily clad lovers, long-limbed and beautifully soft. They tease each other. At times, when he embraces her, she looks like she's about to choke. When they separate on an unhappy note, she rocks sadly from side to side, alone. By turns lyrical and agitated, Conversation of Lovers, while comparatively lightweight beside the other Graham dances in the programme, suggests a love that is not so simple, not quite so sweet.

Relationships, however, get a lot spicier in Embattled Garden, where the Garden of Eden appears to be a sordid place. In the beginning, The Stranger (Christophe Jeannot), sly and spindly, hangs from Noguchi's skeletal tree, with Adam's first wife, Lilith (Auclair), lounging below it, while Adam (Tadej Brdnik) and Eve (Miki Orihara), as she innocently combs her long tresses, are positioned on a multi-coloured platform of pliant poles and hollow areas. But these neat couplings don't remain for long. Set to Carlos Surinach’s Spanish-flavoured score, the four characters cross paths, exchange partners, stalking in predatory circles; both the fan-toting Lilith and The Stranger are such deadly temptations. Adam and Eve have problems of their own as well, locked in a tight handgrip as they take turns trying to induce submission. Love never looked so complicated, so delightfully unsavoury.

Lost in 1937, Steps in the Street, extracted from the anti-war Chronicle (1936), was reconstructed in 1989, with Wallingford Riegger's missing original score replaced with a scratchy tape of his composition for Doris Humphrey's 1935 New Dance – namely, what sounds like the music for the "Variations and Conclusion" section. With group action drawn in big, bold lines against Orihara’s recalcitrant central figure, it is possibly one surviving example of what could have been Graham's early interest in formalism. One by one, thirteen women in black appear onstage, pacing backwards in silence, as though lost and dislocated. Then, they march in strict lines, diagonals; break into smaller groups, brandishing their arms in taut, rigid angles; stride forcefully across the stage, repeatedly wrenching their torsos forward as they lash their arms backwards. Simply striking.

 

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Edited by Marie.


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