Mythologies: Despite Admirable Effort, the Martha Graham Company Just Can’t Measure Up to Its Founder

And, at the Met, the very busy Benjamin Millepied bores

95 Mythologies: Despite Admirable Effort, the Martha Graham Company Just Can’t Measure Up to Its Founder

Abdiel Jacobsen and Diana Vishneva in 'Errand into the Maze.'

This has been Martha Graham week in New York. Every year or two the Graham company bravely flings itself at us, living out its dream that things can be again as they once were. Alas, they can’t. To begin with, Graham as a creative force was a thing of the past long before she herself was a thing of the past. And then, in total fury mode, she expelled from her company the magnificent dancers who should have been the keepers of the flame. Today, the dancers are not on this level—they’re highly capable, but they’re not larger than life the way Graham’s own dancers seemed to be. The only real exception has been Fang-Yi Sheu, and apart from special appearances, she’s now a thing of the past too.

The most telling event of the week was the guest appearance of the superb classical ballerina Diana Vishneva in a gala performance at the City Center of Errand into the Maze, one of the many works in which Graham used myth—in this case, the story of Ariadne and the Minotaur—to express her sense of her own violent clashes with, and victory over, the demons who beset her; three times she confronts the “Creature of Fear” before prevailing over him and emerging into the light. Vishneva is a dancer of extraordinary range and accomplishment—and dance intelligence. She’s also a prodigious worker. I watched her in St. Petersburg years ago attending a master class Merrill Ashley was giving on Balanchine technique to the principal dancers of the Kirov. Almost all the others seemed impatient and bored; she was hungrily soaking up everything Ashley was offering. No wonder she became the best Rubies girl since Patricia McBride.

Vishneva brought the same focus and determination to Errand into the Maze and gave an honorable performance. But Graham isn’t Balanchine—that is, a classicist. No amount of intelligence or diligence or talent can substitute for the primal power of Graham’s movement: She could slowly raise her arm and the heavens trembled. At every moment she expressed the utmost intensity; everything was a matter of life and death. Vishneva gave it her all, and bravo, but her all is not, finally, Graham’s all. When later in the program Sheu returned to the company to give a passionate performance of Chronicle, we saw the real thing—the surge of untrammeled feeling that was natural to Graham and those she had raised.

Today’s company is filled with beautifully trained dancers—they move splendidly and with devotion. You could see them at their best as the powerfully charged chorus in Night Journey, Graham’s version of Oedipus and Jocasta. Led by an anguished Blakeley White-McGuire, they succeeded in evoking the horror of the dreadful catastrophe they know is coming and cannot prevent. The blind seer Tiresias, wielding the terrifying staff that helps propel him back and forth across the stage, is a non-fail role, and Samuel Pott did it justice. Miki Orihara’s Jocasta is less convincing—she’s a lovely and experienced dancer (she’s been with the company for 25 years)—but I find her more vulnerable and sad than doomed; there’s a certain blandness. Tadej Brdnik always excels as Graham’s studly (and not very bright) Greek heroes, like Jason in Cave of the Heart and here as Oedipus. You can admire all these performances, but if you check out the film of Night Journey or the YouTube sample of it, even with the seriously over-the-hill Graham, you see the difference between Graham dancers then and now. The fierceness of Helen McGehee as the Leader of the Chorus is almost feral, and the Tiresias of Paul Taylor is simply astonishing; most people today just have no idea of what a great dancer he was. The potency and the magnitude of his movement are the qualities Graham demanded of her dancers, and that is what she got from them. And they are the qualities we miss today.

It was not a good idea to bring back one of Graham’s few “comic” works, Every Soul is a Circus (1939). “The Empress of the Arena”—guess who that was—is daydreaming about herself in various avatars under the discipline of “The Ring Master” and with her sidekick “The Acrobat.” Graham was obviously having a great time lolling around, acting out, demonstrating what a great sport she was about her art, her troupe and herself. Alas, humor was not her strongest point, and today this faux-romp looks strained and moribund. The most interesting thing about it is trying to infer how she saw her two male dancers: Erick Hawkins—strong, masculine, dominating—and the light and mercurial Merce Cunningham. Their qualities come through; Graham understood other dancers as well as she understood herself. Too bad the piece is interesting only historically. (An odd note: Every Soul is a Circus premiered only 13 months before the famous Gertrude Lawrence-Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical Lady in the Dark, about another fractured and confused personality whose fantasies run riot—the third and climactic one set in a circus! Clearly, something was in the air.)

On a sad note: Last week also brought the death of Ethel Winter, one of the most ravishing of all Graham dancers. The first Graham work I ever saw was Clytemnestra in its original season, and the stunningly beautiful and regal Winter was, needless to say, Helen of Troy. No wonder Paris made off with her. Ten years of war, yes, but what a woman!

In the early 1920s Diaghilev had the very young George Balanchine making ballets for the opera in Monaco—someone had to do it. Very rarely has anyone of comparable stature been assigned to this thankless task, but in recent years Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon and Doug Varone have acquitted themselves well at the Met, and someone there decided that Benjamin Millepied, that busy bee of a choreographer, could do the same for the current production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. The result is a disaster, if you can assign such a loaded word to something so inconsequential. In the final act, at a boyar’s feast, six lithe girls in long black skirts with slits (so they can thrust their legs through them) weave around while the lord’s male attendants turn tactfully away. They needn’t have bothered. This lazy dance has no allure as well as no point. It made me nostalgic for the bad old days of slave-girl spectacles in Aida. A pity, because everything else about the production was terrific.

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