Graham’s Company Endures Takes a Big Step Forward

Considering the traumas-psychological, financial and legal-that the Martha Graham Dance Company has recently undergone, it’s a miracle that it has pulled off the coherent two-week season that just ended at the Joyce. The one-night stand at City Center last May was a hint and a promise of what might be, but this season was the real test of whether the company could make us forget (and forgive) the travesty of Graham that was being offered through the dark ages of the 80′s and 90′s. (As if to remind us of what those days were like, the company exposed us to Maple Leaf Rag , which Martha Graham, or someone, threw together in 1990 in a blatant effort to come up with a hit.)

The good news is that the tremendous effort that’s gone into keeping the company together and bringing it to this level of performance has paid off: This is not yet great Graham, but it’s intelligent, ambitious and often satisfying. There’s a platoon of young dancers devoted to what they’re doing; you can see it in the expressive and energized corps. In certain works- Dark Meadow , for one-the corps is now the strongest element. But then the famous Dark Meadow , with its step-right-up-and-stroke-me phallic impedimenta, is looking dated these days, its 1946 Carlos Chávez score grimly unappealing, the endless solo passages Graham created for herself as One Who Seeks (and now gamely attempted by Christine Dakin and Miki Orihara) sometimes not much more than vamping. This was a major disappointment, yet it was instructive in serving to remind us that-as in the thrilling passages for the Chorus in Night Journey and the bouncy dances for the attendant girls in Appalachian Spring -Graham could be as masterful with an ensemble as with her dramatized interior journeys.

The company is now run by two experienced dancers, both well into their 40′s. One is Terese Capucilli, off this season on maternity leave; the other is Dakin. She’s a small and fragile-looking woman, with thin arms and a mature face, and her dedication to evoking what Graham intended is palpable. She was at her best as Jocasta in Night Journey -a signature Graham role. Dakin understands the arc of Jocasta’s life as she looks back on it from the moment of her suicide, and her long experience of performing Graham (she joined the company in 1976) explains her mastery of the technique. Everything is correct, polished, appropriate. What she lacks-and what just about everyone else lacks-is the ultimate intensity and individuality that Graham and the great dancers of her golden period brought not only to each role as a whole, but to each movement and gesture. Dakin doesn’t yet own Jocasta-her attack is modest, as if she were still auditioning for Martha. Even so, Night Journey came across; Dakin’s honesty and clarity read better in the more intimate space of the Joyce than they did last year at the City Center.

Dakin also bravely took on the title role in Phaedra , Graham’s “scandalous” work of 1962 that even back then looked like pastiche. It’s not that it has dated: It looked just as silly on its opening night as it does today. This was one of Graham’s final stabs at impersonating great mythological ladies-she had already gone through hell as Jocasta, Medea, Clytemnestra, Ariadne. But she was too old (68), and her Phaedra, passionately drawn to her innocent young stepson, Hippolytus, was an embarrassment: This wasn’t a woman in sexual torment, but a woman wishing she still were, and very pissed off about it. Even the costumes seemed to be parodies of Graham’s extraordinary lifelong adventure with cloth. By the end, when Aphrodite, dangling from a florid vulval construction, triumphantly flings her legs wide open-a world-class crotch shot-it’s become clear that a great choreographer is resorting to easy shock tactics.

The current Aphrodite was the highly estimable Orihara, who also dances Ariadne confronting the Minotaur in Errand into the Maze (the Mintoaur doesn’t stand a chance), a rather knowing Bride in Appalachian Spring and the not-so-innocent Eve in Graham’s 1958 sex comedy, Embattled Garden . This Eve knows exactly what she’s doing, unlike her Adam, Tadej Brdnik, whose youth and open Slavic features project an incorrigible innocence. (As Hippolytus to Dakin’s Phaedra, he looked like a victim of child abuse.) The Stranger (or snake) in the Embattled Garden I saw was the talented Christophe Jeannot, whose exuberant energy is more sensual than Brdnik’s. Back in the days when dancers like Yuriko and Paul Taylor were the embattled ones, this piece was witty as well as evocative; now it’s trying too hard to be erotic.

All of these works have been staples of the company’s repertory. Newly disinterred were several Graham solos from the 20′s and 30′s which haven’t been seen in over 60 years. I think it was a mistake to present them, with a couple of better-known solos, as a group, each with a different soloist. Were we supposed to be impressed by these contrasting facets of Graham as creator and artist? It didn’t work that way: Our sense of Graham fragmented rather than cohered. Nor did each work make its mark individually. In the famous Lamentation , the remarkable, statuesque Katherine Crockett was the master of the equally famous jersey costume that serves as veil, shroud, cowl, habit. (In another performance, Elizabeth Auclair looked more scared than grieving.) And the very talented Alessandra Prosperi, dancing full-out as always, made Deep Song moving. But Auclair made very little impression in Frontier , and all of Erica Dankmeyer’s young charm couldn’t make Satyric Festival Song into anything more than a lighthearted surprise-Martha cavorts!

And then directly after the solos came a real triumph-the 1929 Heretic , in which Fang Yi Sheu, a dancer of compelling power and presence, stood alone against 11 condemning women. The corps may need more rigor here, but Sheu needs nothing: She is so intense, so full, so sensitive to nuance-and so beautiful-that you forget to wonder what Graham was like in the role. This is what should happen when a dancer of the first rank assumes a role associated with an earlier genius-you look forward rather than back; or, rather, you’re so riveted to the present moment that you forget to look back.

Sheu also performed the lead in a strange series of “sketches” from the 1936 Chronicle , which “sets forth the fateful prelude to war.” It’s the closest thing I know in Graham to poster art, and, as led by Sheu, it’s amazing. In the first section, she wears one of the most beautiful costumes I’ve ever seen-a black leotard top above a vast circular skirt of some kind of off-black with a faint diamanté glitter, and with a blazing scarlet underskirt. Effortlessly, Sheu not only dominated her costume, which is almost a partner in the dance, but proclaimed herself a major artist, the inevitable inheritor of the great Graham roles. Alas for me, I missed her in Errand into the Maze , but I watched her flash through Diversion of Angels as the woman in red, eating up the stage with relish and without egotism. I don’t have to alert you to keep your eyes on her the next time Graham is in town; your eyes won’t have any choice.

With Sheu in place, plus the exciting Prosperi, the majestic Crockett and various up-and-coming younger girls like Dankmeyer, the female side of the Graham repertory should be in safe hands when the senior members of today’s company step down. There are larger questions about the men. Kenneth Topping held his own as the mature Theseus in Phaedra , but his is a career in slow decline. The same is true of Gary Galbraith, who brought nothing to the role of the Revivalist in Appalachian Spring (this was originally Merce Cunningham). As Oedipus in Night Journey and as the Minotaur, Galbraith had not much to offer beyond his beefy strut. Holding up a large section of the repertory was a big guy named Martin Lofsnes-responsible, focused, but less than galvanizing. There are strong young men: Jeannot, Brdnik, Ari Mayzik, a standout in the corps. But where are the formidable personalities to replace Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunnigham, Paul Taylor, Bertram Ross? Men in Graham may be stupid, arrogant, doomed, but they have to matter , if only to justify Graham’s obsession with them.

As for repertory, it’s wonderful to be seeing that masterpiece Appalachian Spring again, and several others of the old standbys. But Phaedra ? Maple Leaf Rag ? There may be other worthy curiosities like Chronicle waiting to be reconstructed, but until we see what this company can do to restore vitality to Primitive Mysteries , say, and to revive those great works Deaths and Entrances and Letter to the World , the final verdict won’t be in. Still, we can be grateful for what we’ve been given while we hungrily wait for more.