Martha Graham Resurrected-The Mythic Along With the Fluff

There’s no point pretending that all of Martha Graham’s pieces are equally strong. Because her choreographic career was so long-extending over 70 years-and because she changed direction so deliberately (and sometimes self-destructively), there’s a wide disparity between her finest work and her throwaways. The question facing the new Graham company is which pieces to bring back to life and which should actually be thrown away. Since this reconstituted company emerged two years ago, after the resolution of the legal struggles that had bedeviled Graham loyalists for so long, emphasis has been placed on disinterring Graham relics from the 30′s. This has proved a mixed blessing.

Although these pieces all have historical interest, without her animating presence they tend to remain curiosities-foreshadowings of the greatness to come rather than great in themselves. Still, a good deal of the 1936 Sketches from Chronicle holds up to more than one viewing. This is political Graham (war is bad), but it’s also powerful Graham, and the soloist’s black dress with scarlet lining, designed by Graham herself for “Spectre-1914,” may be the most gorgeous costume ever devised. Danced by the ravishing Fang-Yi Sheu, “Spectre” was intensely moving. Elizabeth Auclair was simply less expressive-which means less true to Graham.

Repeated from last year’s season was Errand into the Maze -Graham vs. The Minotaur. Also back was the cute, cute, cute Maple Leaf Rag : Apparently, the company feels it has to put on Graham Lite to attract an audience. This uninteresting bit of fluff was made in 1990 by Graham, or somebody, or somebodies-it was the last piece mounted under her name; she was 96. Reviving it once may just be forgivable, but two years in a row?

Equally forgettable and not much more forgivable is the 1978 The Owl and the Pussycat . This throwaway dates from Graham’s embarrassing Halston era, when she was dragging in celebrities to cover up loss of creativity and to bolster box office. Nureyev and Fonteyn were roped in (remember the bizarre Blackglama ads?), and as the narrator of Lear’s wonderful poem, we got Liza Minnelli. The whole thing was blatantly without merit, and it looks even emptier now, with the misguided choice of Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley as the narrator-heavy-handed and heavy-footed. I’m trying hard to forget the adorable dolphins and mermaids. There are earlier witty Graham pieces-why resurrect her late fumblings?

Two major pieces were revived. Cave of the Heart is Graham’s distillation of the Medea story, made in 1946, when she was in total command of her genius for narrative. Her Medea is a terrifying embodiment of the corrosive power of jealousy and rage. Triumphantly destroying her arrogant, foolish husband, Jason, and his smug new bride, she knowingly also destroys herself. Dehumanized and implacable, she incorporates herself into Noguchi’s shimmering, shuddering bush of gold and-upending it-turns herself into a monstrous insect, gloating over the havoc she has unleashed, unmoved by the horrified, impotent Chorus who fails to stay her hand. At first, the superb, statuesque Katherine Crockett as the Chorus dominated the stage, but by the end, Terese Capucilli’s Medea struck home. In her glittering black and emerald robe, reveling in her dreadful victory, she finally, in Arlene Croce’s brilliant phrase, “becomes the evil that she feeds upon.”

Cave of the Heart has been seen fairly regularly since Graham first turned it over to other dancers in the 60′s. Hérodiade , from 1944, is far rarer, and its return to the repertory is the most memorable and satisfying event of the current City Center season. The company’s most thrilling dancer, Fang-Yi Sheu, danced Hérodiade, a woman looking into the mirror of her self, meeting the challenge of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. Unlike Cave of the Heart or the other mythological stories Graham commandeered to dramatize her own conflicts and torments, Hérodiade has no plot, and its heroine has no antagonist to overcome other than herself. (Her Attendant-Katherine Crockett, again magnificent-is more a sympathetic Racinian confidante than an active participant in the drama.) Without a narrative touchstone, Hérodiade ruthlessly exposes its central dancer: Everything must be conveyed through quiet expressivity, through intensity unpunctuated by event. From the first to the last moment, Sheu gripped my heart-a great performance of a great work.

A far lesser work, Circe , was the season’s final revival. It wasn’t very interesting back in 1963 when we first saw it, but it was then and remains an efficient and intermittently interesting dance drama, superior to most of what was to come. For once the center of attention is a man, Ulysses, as he’s tempted by the blandishments of the cruel sorceress who has already enslaved his crew (through lust) and turned them into beasts. (That’s where sex gets you, at this point in Graham’s career.) There are beautiful images of Ulysses and his Helmsman-who can be taken for his conscience, or superego, or mentor-poling their boat dangerously close to disaster before escaping. The men who perform as the transmogrified Snake, Lion, Deer, and Goat are given effective solos, but Circe herself, at least as portrayed by a pallid Virginie Mécène, is hardly the stuff to bring out the beast in one-or at least in me. At this point, mythology has becomeroutinizedfor Graham, more plot than metaphor, but this is an honorable work, unlike the crass Phaedra , made one year earlier when she was still presenting herself as a tormented sexual being. Even so, Circe is not remotely on the level of the major Graham works we’re hoping to see in the near future: Deaths and Entrances , Letter to the World , even, some day, Clytemnestra . Rags, owls, pussycats, mini-myths-these are no substitute for the real thing.

And speaking of the real thing, can someone explain why the North Carolina Dance Theatre, a Balanchine-inflected company run by two major Balanchine dancers, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and his wife, the great Patricia McBride, should make a New York appearance in the midst of the Balanchine centenary and not show us any Balanchine? Rumor has it that the board of directors chose the program, and if rumor has it correctly, someone should tell the board to butt out of artistic decisions. From the moment this appealing group of very young dancers first appears, it’s clear that their training is Balanchinian-they have the attack, the speed, the clarity. Why are they giving us Alvin Ailey’s old-hat The River ? Why are they giving us Brave! , a typically empty Nacho Duato imitation by Duato alumnus Nicolo Fonte? Bonnefoux’s own Shindig is an amusing Balanchinian exercise- classical ballet (at last!) masquerading as a hoe-down. We’ve been here before, yes, but after Ailey and Fonte, we’re glad to be here again. The dancers knew just what to do with it, although ironically the company’s most experienced and impressive dancer, Uri Sands, was at his least effective here in Balanchine’s world, whereas he was superb in The River (and no wonder: He’s ex-Ailey). Come on, Jean-Pierre and Patty-we hear that your Agon is brilliant. Won’t you show it to us?

By some cosmic coincidence, while North Carolina was avoiding Balanchine at the Joyce in Manhattan, at Long Island’s Tilles Center, Miami City Ballet-under the leadership of McBride’s incomparable City Ballet partner, Edward Villella-was putting on a thrilling Balanchine display: Ballo della Regina , Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the “Rubies” section of Jewels . When you’ve said that they did these ballets justice, you’ve said it all.

To go from the sublime to the excruciating, a word about the recent season of the Maguy Marin company and its intermission-less Les Applaudissements ne se mangent pas ( One Can’t Eat Applause ). The curtain goes up on a multicolored semi-circle of hanging striped ribbons. People in everyday clothes slip through the ribbons to the sound of numbing music (by Maguy’s husband). They stare at each other. They walk around. They stare at us. They run around. One of them falls to the ground and is dragged offstage. Something bad is happening . Another corpse. A third corpse. More running. These people are trapped. Now they’re all flopping to the ground. Perhaps five minutes have gone by-an hour to go. The sound drones on. (It reminds me of something-yes, a dentist’s drill. And in fact the whole experience is like a session at the dentist.) The noise of an airplane. The performers wiggle offstage on their bottoms, heads down, backs to us-it takes a long time. They infiltrate themselves back on to the stage, through the stripes. Sounds of strafing. Corpses. More dragging. A girl in red stretches out on the floor and rolls across the stage, followed by the others. More machine-gun fire…

The piece doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t come from anywhere, it’s just an endlessly repetitive protest against oppression. We all sympathize with the downtrodden of Latin America, but what good can this dreary, earnest agitprop at the Joyce do for them? (“It seems to me essential,” Marin writes in the program notes, “that this piece explore spatial and corporeal possibilities, inextricable situations, strategies of power and battles of force that govern human functioning.”) Balanchine famously remarked that there are no mother-in-laws in ballet, but is there a better case for propaganda, however well meant?

Maguy Marin’s dancers are dedicated, and they seem capable-one of them, Ulises Alvarez, is considerably more than that. But they’ve been given nothing of intrinsic interest to do. I haven’t been so bored since the economics course my father made me take at college, when I sat in class, catatonic, counting the minutes.