Can Martha Graham Be Kept Alive?

THERE WERE UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCES this season. Most serious was the absence of Fang-Yi Sheu, an extraordinarily talented and beautiful dancer who illuminated the repertory these past few years. There’s no one in the current company at her level. Miki Orihara is an elegant, lovely dancer, but her Medea, in Cave of the Heart, doesn’t sear you. (Sheu ripped your heart out.) Two of the five women listed in the program as principals aren’t on view at all, and there’s only one principal male listed, the exemplary Tadej Brdnik. He’s a persuasive Oedipus in Night Journey, the kind of hunky guy Graham liked to cast opposite her. (“Me Martha, you Tarzan.”) The Jocastas of both Crockett and Elizabeth Auclair were subpar, the power of the chorus of seven has been diluted, and with the departure of the company’s senior men, the blind seer Tiresias pounding across the stage with his heavy staff has been reduced to a boy with a pogo stick.

As a result, no doubt, of all these absences, the entire season’s casting looks thin, dominated as it seems to be by Jennifer DePalo, a soloist who is certainly competent but who lacks sufficient inner life to ignite Graham’s highly personal art. In sum: This is a repertory that demands stars being performed by a company that lacks them.

Much is being made of this being the Graham company’s 80th anniversary. There’s a series of special events, beginning with a single performance on opening night of Lamentation Variations, an effective tribute by three current choreographers (Aszure Barton, Richard Move and Larry Keigwin) to Martha’s most famous solo. Saturday afternoon we were amused, charmed, moved and irritated by a 90-minute tightly choreographed speakathon called From the Horse’s Mouth, featuring a roster of almost 30 Grahamites, old and young, telling anecdotes about her, doing some modest steps, parading her spectacular costumes. Most welcome were a few famous old-timers: Pearl Lang, Mary Hinkson, Stuart Hodes. Most missed were other famous old-timers who have to go nameless because there were so many of them. As I write, a gala is upcoming. In other words, the season has been cleverly orchestrated by the company’s new artistic director, the estimable Janet Eilber.

But what was she doing exhuming Acts of Light, a totally meretricious piece of work from 1981? How shamelessly Graham pieced together bits and pieces of her past, demeaning them in the process! Worst is the endless Part III (“Ritual to the Sun”), with 18 or so dancers in Halston’s clinging faux-nude body-stockings doing floor exercises and other gymlike things before massing for a faux-ecstatic faux-climax. Some works deserve to die the death, and this one should be buried once and for all with a wooden stake through its heart.

Luckily, two Graham masterpieces will be added to the repertory in the season’s second week: Errand Into the Maze and Appalachian Spring. Will they serve as an antidote to Acts of Light? Hope springs eternal. …