After Scandals and Wrangles,
The Return of Martha Graham
The sense of occasion was so intense at the City Center, where the Martha Graham Dance Company held a one-night stand on May 9, that the actual dancing was something of an anticlimax. When the curtain rose on Noguchi’s great, glittering metal construct for Seraphic Dialogue , the audience burst into impassioned and prolonged applause-and not a few tears. Many of us had been unsure that we would ever see it again, and the beautiful work that it so magically ornaments.
The entire dance world was present-or at least the modern-dance world: every critic who could walk; an impressive cadre of former Graham dancers; passionate Graham admirers of every generation, from nonagenarians who had been there with Martha in the front lines of the modern-dance movement in the 20′s to many who know her work only from the diluted performances of the 80′s and early 90′s. The struggle between the old Graham establishment-the devoted women and men who were at her side through the decades-and Ron Protas, the young man who essentially took Graham over and became the heir to her work, has been a public fascination and scandal as the Graham board of trustees and Mr. Protas battled in the courts over who has the right to teach and perform her work; in fact, to employ the Graham name. But unlike so many scandals and legal wrangles, this one has enormous consequences: the fate of the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
May 9 was a declaration-of intention if not of war. We’re back, despite threats and legal ambiguities , the Graham people were announcing. And to deflect any doubts as to the legitimacy of the occasion, the names attached to the evening as coaches and members of the honorary and benefit committees included almost every important Graham dancer still living: Merce Cunningham, Pearl Lang, May O’Donnell, Sophie Maslow, Yuriko, Helen Mc-Gehee, Robert Cohan, Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross, Donald McKayle, Mary Hinkson, David Wood, Ethel Winter, Linda Hodes, Stuart Hodes, Matt Turney,DudleyWilliams,Takako Asakawa, Noemi Lapzeson, Janet Eilber, Elisa Monte, Diane Gray and many more. (And you can throw in non-Grahammodern-danceeminences like Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs.) Nothing could more conclusively assert the legitimacy and authenticity of the current company than this list of supporters; these are the people, along with artistic coordinators Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, who understand the technique and embody the repertory. Without their knowledge and dedication, and the freedom to pass along what they know, there is no future for Martha Graham.
Seraphic Dialogue is Graham’s masterpiece about Joan of Arc, originally created as a solo for herself in 1948, then expanded in 1955 into a work for seven dancers. The performances in the 60′s and 70′s involving Graham’s leading dancers of the period were overwhelming; these were major artists with powerful personalities, and the current dancers have not reached their level of intensity and individuality. Joan as Maid (Virginie Mecénè) was more like a healthy, vigorous tomboy than Yuriko’s simple, rhapsodic peasant girl; Alessandra Prosperi as the Warrior Joan was timorous rather than bellicose, lacking the defiant pugnacity of Helen McGehee-she seemed to be clinging nervously to Saint Michael’s back rather than taking courage from him; and Elizabeth Auclair’s Joan the Martyr also lacked intensity: The Martyr etched in my memory is Linda Hodes, burning with ecstasy. In the role of the central Joan figure as she recalls the epochal stages of her life, Ms. Capucilli seemed to me to be impersonating Martha Graham rather than Joan of Arc on her way to transfiguration. Her conviction was total and ardent, but she lacked the incandescence, the pure, etherealized beauty of Ethel Winter. As Saint Michael, the experienced Kenneth Topping came closest to his model, the superb Bertram Ross, though he seemed more controlling, less spiritual. But just to be seeing those huge swooping tilts to the left and the right, those hands fluttering above Joan’s head as he sanctifies her and welcomes her into Heaven, was deeply moving. Seraphic Dialogue may never rise to its former glory, but this performance was exact enough and sincere enough to remind us of what a magnificent piece it is.
About the garish duet excerpted from Acts of Light , an extended work from 1981 when the Halstonization of Graham had already set in, the least said the better. By this time, Graham-in her mid-80′s-was incapable of producing respectable work (although you wouldn’t have known it from the hype in The New York Times throughout this dismal period). We can only hope that those in charge of the current company don’t feel obliged to maintain the futile pretense that the work of these years is worth preserving.
Two other major pieces were on the program: first, the suggestive and touching Embattled Garden , that sex comedy from 1958 set in Noguchi’s Eden and dealing with seduction, partner-swapping, loss of innocence, and resolution if not absolution. Miki Orihara as Eve and Christophe Jeannot as the Stranger (the Serpent, to you) were particularly strong, while Tadej Brdnik and Elizabeth Auclair as Adam and Lilith, having already mastered the style and the steps, will undoubtedly project more forcefully with further performances.
Then came Night Journey . Christine Dakin was Jocasta, in a carefully considered examination of this quintessential Graham role. It was an honorable performance, convincing in its traversal of a tragic woman’s passage to self-knowledge and death, though lacking in the blazing charge that Graham brought to it, particularly in its final moments. But then how do you match
Graham in her most personal roles? Mr. Topping had all the swagger and aggression of Oedipus, but I didn’t sense the sexual electricity between him and Ms. Dakin that Graham had with her partners, beginning, by all accounts, with her husband, Erick Hawkins, in the original 1947 production. Gary Galbraith was appropriately ominous stomping and wheeling across the stage as the blind seer, Tiresias. But the real
triumph was the chorus, brilliantly led by Ms. Prosperi, as it convulsed and shuddered at the terrible story it was there to witness and comment on. The propulsive power of these women demonstrated not only the strength of the current dancers, but also Graham’s supreme theatrical instincts. The old question of what the chorus in ancient Greek drama was like became irrelevant: If it wasn’t like this, it should have been.
Finally, there was “Steps in the Street,” an excerpt from an extended 1936 work, Chronicle , featuring Ms. Orihara and 12 other women, all in black. Standing on its own, “Steps in the Street” doesn’t reveal its intentions, but it does suggest the high earnestness of this period of Graham’s work, with its dedicated sisterhood of devoted acolytes (no men in Graham’s company until 1938 and Erick Hawkins). Perhaps a complete Chronicle is planned; certainly it should be part of the company’s mission to show us what this austere early repertory was like.
The almost total absence of Graham performances during a recent years, following the years of decline, leaves us grateful for whatever this dedicated group can achieve. Its dancing is irreproachable; its weakness lies in dramatic interpretation. But there is considerable talent here, and if the dancers are given the chance to perform regularly and can count on the continued support of the wider Graham community, they will surely discover in themselves the theatricality that is so crucial an element of Graham’s genius. The company has announced a season at the Joyce for next January. Think how wonderful it would be, then
or thereafter, to have masterpieces
like Appalachian Spring , Deaths and
Entrances and Letter to the World
restored to us!