Preserving a Master of Dance: The Martha Graham Company’s Raison d’être Is the Graham Repertory

The question is what they do with it

Katherine Crockett as The Pioneering Woman in Martha Graham’s 'Appalachian Spring.'
Katherine Crockett as The Pioneering Woman in Martha Graham’s ‘Appalachian Spring.’

Merce Cunningham decided that the company he founded should be shut down after his death, and so it happened. Paul Taylor, happily still with us, is making arrangements to preserve his own works plus those of other important choreographers after he’s gone. José Limon’s company is still with us, though it’s really more interesting historically than artistically. The early giants of modern dance—Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis—barely left traces of their art. And that leaves Martha Graham: the central figure, the great genius, along with Balanchine one of the two most significant dance-makers of 20th-century America. Is she too going to vanish? If not, how will she survive? And what can contemporary audiences make of her art?

Graham died in 1991, 96 years old, recovered from severe alcoholism, extended hospitalization and attempted suicide. Her implacable will brought her back, to decades of new dancers and new works, but not to the artistic heights of her early and middle years. Late Graham was a shadow, if not a travesty, of her days of greatness. Her decline was painful to observe, and I, along with many others, just stopped going. But the company that evolved from those sad days is with us still, led by the fine Graham dancer Janet Eilber, who is trying to preserve and reinvigorate much of the repertory while adding to it work by current choreographers. It’s a noble endeavor, and a crucial one—because to lose the masterpieces of Martha Graham would be an artistic tragedy. But as of now, it’s not wholly successful.

Last week at the City Center, we were offered one undisputed masterpiece, Appalachian Spring, with its compelling score by Aaron Copland and its brilliantly simple décor by Isamu Noguchi. From the moment of its premiere, in 1944, with Graham as The Bride, her husband, Erick Hawkins as The Bridegroom, May O’Donnell as The Pioneering Woman and Merce Cunningham as The Revivalist (now called The Preacher), it is has been acclaimed as a major work. The current company—well-rehearsed, dancing full out—succeeded in at least suggesting the power of the piece. No, not every detail was there, and no, these very good dancers simply don’t dance with the same emotive power earlier generations of Graham dancers displayed, but they were strong enough—and the work is strong enough—so that the young woman with me, who had never seen a Graham dance before, was moved to tears. That alone justifies the endeavor.

But after that the law of diminishing returns set in. The other major work on offer was a curiously condensed version of Graham’s full-evening Clytemnestra from 1958—as it happens, the first work of hers I ever saw, in the week of its premiere. Back then, it was overwhelming in its ambition, its authority and in the amazing talent of the entire cast. Graham herself, as the doomed Queen, was, of course, the center of attention, and she was riveting (she was always riveting), but Bertram Ross, the company’s leading man, was deeply moving as he progressed in anguish toward the inevitable murder of his mother; Helen McGehee, as Electra, was a coil of hatred and fury as she urged him on; Ethel Winter was a ravishingly beautiful Helen; Paul Taylor was a coarse and dominatingly sensual Aegisthus; and on and on. Graham’s complexity of vision, even though there were longueurs and confusions, honored the intentions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy.

The new truncated Clytemnestra (“arrangement by Janet Eilber and Linda Hodes”) is far more linear than the original, and although it has effective passages, it isn’t just a shorter work, it’s a diluted one. Again, the performances were tame in comparison with the originals. It’s not that these are inferior dancers, it’s that they’re outside their comfort zone with Graham’s fervent embrace of the highest passions; they don’t know how to transcend the mortal to reach the level of myth. The present company has only recently managed to present the entire Clytemnestra in its two long acts, but perhaps that’s no longer possible, for practical or financial reasons, and in the future, it’s this or nothing. I’ll take this, then, since it does at least remind us of Graham’s achievement. But it’s not the real thing.

The other Graham works on showwere two late ones, both inconsequential and one distressing. TheRite of Spring (1984) is a tawdry tip of the hat to this work so central to the history of 20th-century art. At this point, Graham was deep into her trendy period—the notorious Blackglama fur ads and collaborations with Nureyev and Fonteyn (so much for the High Priestess of Modern!)—and she conscripted Halston to design what turned out to be hideous costumes. Eilber has done the world a service by dropping most of them. But she can’t disguise the fact that by now Graham was cannibalizing and vulgarizing her powerful early tropes, and that just about every passage was shallow and exploitative.

As for Maple Leaf Rag, her final work, rumored to have been concocted by many hands in addition to hers, it’s a kind of self-parody set to Scott Joplin rags, in which she (or they) make affectionate fun of some of her more obvious motifs. The large-scale Katherine Crockett, for instance, keeps wheeling across the stage swirling her huge white skirt—an instant joke about Graham’s lifelong love affair with cloth. Here the dancers can have some fun, and it’s good to see how really talented they are when they’re not under pressure to embody myths. Lloyd Knight, acceptable but unremarkable as the Preacher in Appalachian Spring, is liberated to just dance, and he does it with joy and bounce. The hard truth is that today’s American dancers aren’t naturally dramatic, and so their Graham can’t be fully effective.

Or else their natural dramatic instincts are of a different kind from hers—they’re narcissistic. Graham’s dramas were always projections of her own experience, but she was using her dramatic imagination to tell us what Clytemnestra or The Bride or Medea or Emily Dickinson or the Brontës were feeling, not to expose her own pain. In the two new commissioned works Eilber gave us, we have something else: the self-dramatizations of Eurotrash. A new piece by Nacho Duato, called Depak Ine, proceeded TheRite of Spring on one program. Bizarrely, both works feature bunches of young, semi-naked guys zeroing in on a female victim, who in both cases is garbed in a flesh-colored unitard and in both cases ends up dead. And they’re both performed in the semi-dark. The difference is that Depak Ine is set to the music of Arsenije Jovanovic and John Talabot, whereas The Rite of Spring is Stravinsky. You can tell the difference.

The Duato piece is endlessly propulsive and convulsive, the dancers whipping themselves into a frenzy and the audience into whoops of applause. The Girl lies unmoving downstage for most of the ballet until she’s roused to hysterical thrashings, her long black hair spiraling around, before falling back into her comatose condition. The opening passages are repeated, and for a terrible moment I thought the entire thing was going to be repeated, but fortune smiled.

The other new work, Echo, by a up-and-coming Greek choreographer named Andonis Foniadakis, was marginally more bearable, because it seemed to be about something. Poor Echo is in love with Narcissus, but Narcissus is in love with himself, or at least with his reflection in the pool. Girl loves boy, boy loves self—a very contemporary phenomenon. They make a sad threesome until the two Narcissi find each other more irresistible than they find Echo and vanish together into the waters. The music, by Julien Tarride, occasionally channels Philip Glass, which perks it up. The two guys were superbly danced by Lloyd Mayor (Narcissus) and Lorenzo Pagano (Reflection), and they make a strong case for auto-eroticism. Or is it gay love? Or the most radical kind of incest: self-incest? The forlorn Echo was danced by a lovely young woman named PeiJu Chien-Pott, who was also the moribund heroine of Depak Ine. At least she wasn’t condemned to be the slaughtered “Chosen One” in TheRite of Spring.

What can we hope for from Eilber’s Martha Graham company? Apparently, she feels they must do new work to survive, but anyone can do this kind of new work, and in fact everyone does. Their raison d’être is the Graham repertory, but we see the problems they face with it. My guess is that they’ll go on improvising, giving the world half-baked Graham, pleasing some but bewildering others who must be asking themselves, “What was all the fuss about?” But it’s not Eilber’s fault alone that this is the case. Today’s audience is no more conditioned to high dance-drama than today’s young dancers are.

Preserving a Master of Dance: The Martha Graham Company’s Raison d’être Is the Graham Repertory