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March 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: March 21, 2011
Category: review

Martha Graham: The Gold Is in the Old

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — Keeping the artistic legacy of Martha Graham (1894-1991) alive is a conundrum. The choreographer pioneered a technique that physicalized feelings of loss, desire, rage and resignation. But today her dance aesthetic, with its cubist lines and hyper-intense characters, can feel passé, despite its universal themes. Last week (March 15-20), the company celebrated its 85th-anniversary season at the Rose Theater by offering, ambitiously, four different programs.

The Graham Company doesn’t have it easy. Its choreographer is dead and modern dance companies traditionally open their season with a new work by their leader. So for opening night, Artistic Director Janet Eilber turned to Robert Wilson, reviving his over-long Graham homage, “Snow on the Mesa”(1995). The thinking seems to be that, if you can’t bring Graham back from the dead, a reprisal of Wilson’s larger-than-life theatricality isn’t a bad second choice. But Wilson is no choreographer.

So the opening gala was a bit of a dud, starting with “Mesa” and proceeding – with no bathroom breaks – through lectures on Graham and Wilson’s genius and a performance of one of the least emblematic works in the choreographer’s repertory, the light-hearted “Maple Leaf Rag” (1990). Midway through “Rag” five female philanthropists, including the wife of actor Robert De Niro, danced across the stage in practice skirts and leotards. They looked like clowns. Graham would not have been amused. Now it appears that donors not only get to dine with dancers, they get to dance with them. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a trend.

Fortunately, Program 2 (March 16) got down to the business of showing why Graham still matters, with two of her masterworks, “Cave of the Heart” (1946) and “Deaths and Entrances” (1943). Veteran company dancers Blakely White-McGuire, Katherine Crockett and Miki Orihara demonstrated why Graham’s mid-century work is still riveting, exuding the choreographer’s battle-ax spirit and dancing as if every moment was lethally important. Graham strove to grab the gut in her tragedy dances, choosing to focus on iconoclastic figures—in this case Medea and the Brontë sisters. Stillness reigns, yet gestures are exasperatingly large; everything is symbolic; women and men do horrible things to each other (like kill their children and destroy their chances for love).

The evening ended with the premiere of “Chasing” by Taiwanese choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava, set to excerpts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 23 and two Michael Nyman works, “In Re Don Giovanni” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to the Shepherds.”

Though said to be inspired by the above “Deaths and Entrances,” which explores the interior psyches of the Brontë sisters and their writings about thwarted love, “Chasing” is a lark. It needs editing, but it does manage to show off the Graham dancers’ expressive range. Known for their death stares and murderous eyeball-ings of each other, here they are in comedy mode with toothy smiles. At the opening, five dancers run in and out of the wings, like kids on a sugar high.

The three Brontës remain only in name, their inner heaviness fully leavened. Gone too are the romantically-etched male characters in “Deaths” called the “Poetic Beloved” and the “Dark Beloved.” Tadej Brdnik performed the latter role, transforming from a Victorian Rake, in “Deaths,” to an oversexed playboy, in “Chasing,” who smokes a cigar, mugs the audience and steals a kiss from White-McGuire. Midway through the work, White-McGuire falls to the floor repeatedly, as if to represent a dancer with a compulsion disorder to fall, and fall again. Is Pagarlava exorcizing the demons of Graham’s female protagonists? Is he making fun of Graham’s melodrama? Possibly. Is this appropriate to the Graham legacy? No.

The Graham Company should not push aside its important old repertory for throat-clearing newish works. Ballet companies aren’t afraid to open their seasons with late 19th-century ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Giselle.” Why can’t the oldest American modern dance company celebrate its founding choreographer by featuring her mid-century modernist masterpieces? She wasn’t just any choreographer. She was Martha Graham.

Copyright © 2011, Musical America

Musical America


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