Continuity at Graham’s Company Preserves the Founder’s Spirit

Martha Graham, along with George Balanchine, is one of the two commanding figures in 20th-century American dance. For those much younger than I am, her genius as a performer will have to be taken on faith-and on the always-suspect evidence of film. What will last, if things go well, is her genius as a choreographer, as a woman of the theater.

But Graham, like all choreographers, is at the mercy of institutions. Balanchine’s work is based on the universal language of ballet, even if its accents and tonalities are his own, and while his ballets may be eroding at his own company, New York City Ballet, they are by now planted firmly if unevenly around the world; they’ll survive. The Graham situation is far more precarious. Since her language is self-created, it can be transmitted only by her direct descendents-there aren’t many companies equipped to carry the flame. And her own company, already a shambles by the end of her life- performances in the 80’s and 90’s were mostly travesties-almost expired in legal entanglements and internecine warfare.

This is why the re-emergence of her company several years ago, under the leadership of Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, was greeted with such emotion by the dance community. We may disagree with some of its choices, fault specific performances and regret the lack of input from major Graham dancers of the past, but the company is providing the crucial thing: continuity. Without continuity, dance works can only be revived in unsatisfactory “reconstructions,” bleached of all artistic authenticity.

The most publicized event of the current Graham season at the City Center is a new commissioned work by Martha Clarke, whose mother, we’re told, named her after Graham. (This piece, Sueño, bears so little relationship to Graham’s art that Clarke might as well have been named after yet another Martha: my mother.) The most important event of the season is the revival of Graham’s 1943 masterpiece Deaths and Entrances. It says something about the company’s eagerness to attract a new audience that it should be performing Sueño five times and Deaths and Entrances twice. Talk about priorities!

Sueño is a tribute to Goya-or an exploitation of Goya, take your pick. It’s at its best before anyone moves; that is, when you’re first admiring the handsome construct in the middle of the stage-two metallic-seeming high walls at an angle to each other, with an opening between them through which the dancers can pour in and out. And then there’s the lighting, or lack of lighting-designed (by Christopher Akerlind) to keep the dancers in the dark, possibly to mask the fact that they barely dance. You see, Sueño takes place at night; everything is dark in Goyaworld.

All the predictable grotesques are on hand: the hunchback, the prostitutes, the hanged man. And, yes, there’s a kind of toreador and a kind of toro. And, yes, there’s the obligatory gang rape.

The 11 dancers mutter, they cry out, they clap their hands, they stamp their feet, and most of all, they swirl their cloaks. Actual dancing is limited to women leaping into men’s arms and being whirled around and around, hair flying. This Garden of Earthly Horrors is all effects, some of them effective, but where’s the beef? Clarke has ignored the fact that Graham is about dramatic expressivity through dance. It may make sense for the company to expand its repertory with new choreography, but dancers need steps more than they need cloaks.

Deaths and Entrances makes it obvious at once what Clarke lacks. This is one of Graham’s longest, most highly charged, most difficult works, and the one in which she gave herself what may well have been her greatest role. It is, she told us, “a drama of poetic experience, rather than a story of incident” centered on “three sisters, perhaps like the Brontë sisters.” There are direct suggestions of the Brontës, of course-certainly in the minimal 19th-century décor and the (new and handsome) costumes by Oscar de la Renta-but there are few if any explicit correspondences to the Brontë biography. If you keep trying to figure out which of the leading men is Bramwell and who the other one is, or even which sister is Charlotte and which is Anne (the principal sister is clearly Emily), you’re distracted from Graham’s real material-the anguish of memory, self-discovery and acceptance.

This is, indeed, the subject of many of her works-Jocasta, Judith, Herodiade, Medea, Clytemnestra are all shown confronting their deepest selves, their essential womanhood. Why the different narratives, then? Because they provide a framework, a context: Yes, these women are all Martha Graham, but they’re also these particular characters in this particular moment; they’re Martha Graham in a story.

The Deaths and Entrances story is a turbulent one, with its relentless rushes of movement and dramatic surges as the three grown women, their three child selves, and four men, who include the sexually driven “Dark Beloved” (Heathcliff?) and the more domestic “Poetic Beloved,” act out the central sister’s passage through suffering and madness to emotional resolution. The famous objects deployed on the stage-the large shell, the goblet, the two abstractly phallic chess pieces-are freighted with meaning, but what do they mean? (Patricia Birch, who once helped stage a revival and was invested in the notion that these objects are heavily symbolic, reported that at a rehearsal Graham told the dancers playing the child Brontës, “I only have one thing to say to any of you: All the grown-ups have just gone and these simply are objects that you are forbidden to touch.”)

So if the story is not literal biography and yet is not symbolic, in what does its power reside? It is the extraordinary intensity and variety of the dance invention that makes Deaths and Entrances so utterly gripping, even when not danced full-out (or danced too full-out). In the current cast, Miki Orihara takes the Graham role, but she’s a very different kind of dancer from Graham-cooler, more contained. But her elegance and delicacy work well for her when she finally convulses into madness and despair. Virginie Mécène and Katherine Crockett seemed to me to be overdoing things-they’re closer to Goneril and Regan or Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters than to Anne and Charlotte Brontë. (Arlene Croce was complaining of the exact same tendency more than 30 years ago.) Crockett, in fact, has been leaning in this direction all season-she’s beginning to push and exaggerate, hardly necessary given her already formidable stage presence.

The men are a problem. This season there are only two male principals and one male soloist dancing. Martin Lofsnes is a supple and subtle dancer who enters deeply into his roles-among them the Minotaur (in Errand into the Maze) and Jason (in Cave of the Heart); Tadej Brdnik and Christophe Jeannot are also highly capable (they were, respectively, Emily’s Poetic and Dark Beloveds), but none of them is the quintessential Graham male: big, beefy, handsome, easily projecting either arrogance or stupidity. Think back to Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Glen Tetley, Paul Taylor, Bertram Ross, Robert Cohan. (Taylor in his memoirs remarked, “Sometimes I think she views us men onstage as giant dildos.”) Without such a potent male force for the Graham woman to confront and eventually dominate, she herself is diminished.

Among the revivals this season was El Penitente, which, despite its simple, almost stark American Southwest ambience and iconography, is a surprisingly sprightly piece involving self-flagellation (the Penitent), a Christ figure and Mary (as Virgin, Magdalene and Mother). It was pleasingly performed, but it came across less as light-hearted than as lightweight. Embattled Garden, on the other hand, which back in the late 50’s, when it was made, was a witty and sensual comedy about the horny yet innocent Adam and Eve being tempted by the experienced, seductive Lilith and The Stranger (read Snake), is currently being played for steamy passion and heavy drama. Wit? Innocence? David Zurak, Mécène and Crockett were more like Stanley, Stella and Blanche than the original inhabitants of the Garden of Eden.

Another major revival was of Graham’s breakthrough Primitive Mysteries, from 1931, again a work with Southwest connections. Graham was the pivotal figure, in white, among a solemn chorus of postulants or celebrants in blue. She tells us, “Literally, it is a celebration of the coming of age of a young girl; spiritually, it is the Madonna returned to Earth, blessed and blessing her followers, and then returning to Heaven to comfort her soul.” (Practically, it was Martha Graham being worshipped by her dancers.) Christine Dakin made no attempt to be girlish, but she projected an imposing stillness that powered the entire effort. Although Primitive Mysteries has a slightly dated quality to it, it still carries.

Apart from the significant revivals, the major excitement of the season was the increasing and astonishing mastery of Fang-Yi Sheu. This beautiful Taiwanese woman, who joined the company 10 years ago, is so profoundly expressive that she can make you stop regretting her great predecessors. Not even Graham, I’m convinced, can have been more chilling, more terrifying and ultimately more moving as Medea in Cave of the Heart. Not only is Sheu a superb dramatic artist, but she dances magnificently-who else combines such emotional intensity with such powerful yet lyrical technique? Seeing her as Medea, as Ariadne (in Errand into the Maze), in Sketches from Chronicle brings us the special joy of being ravished by a tremendous talent.

To criticize certain aspects of its current season is not to dismiss the company’s achievement. It’s proved itself. Now we must hope that as it continues to expand its repertory-not with the specious products of Graham’s later years but with major works like Letter to the World and even Clytemnestra-it will grow even stronger and surer of itself. Major choreographers like Doris Humphrey who didn’t leave behind settled institutions can slip away from us. That mustn’t happen to Martha Graham-and it won’t, if the Martha Graham Dance Company holds its course.