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If a tree falls in the forest . . . : Richard Move as Martha Graham.

The Marthaland
By Mae G. Banner

Martha @ the Pillow
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass.

A tall woman in a regal black and silver kimono takes the stage. Her hair is done in a lacquered bun, Geisha style. Her lips are painted a theatrical red that matches her silken underskirt. In a soft, but supremely confidant voice, she intones, “I am the mother of contemporary dance.” She lowers her eyes modestly, fluttering her 3-inch-long eyelashes, and asks, rhetorically, “How long will I remain on stage? As long as I have the audience.”

By this time, Richard Move, drag diva and honest worshipper of the legendary Martha Graham, holds the Jacob’s Pillow audience in the palm of his well-manicured hand. He is Martha, and she is about to host an evening of excerpts from her dances, demonstrations of her codified technique, and several works by guest artists of her choosing, all woven together with Graham’s pithy comments on art and life.

First, she offers a few well-chosen words about the universe of dance styles. Then she turns her head sharply and walks deliberately to one side of the stage, to the back, to the corner. She is always in the spotlight. She says, “I was searching for the center of the stage. Now, I realize that wherever I am is the center.”

Move has been doing Graham since 1996. He satirizes Graham’s self-aggrandizement, often in her own words from her memoir, Blood Memory. The satire works because Move truly admires Graham and because he has studied her work as well as her mannerisms.

In Martha @ the Pillow, Move worked with six Graham dancers, who performed distillations of Night Journey (the Oedipus myth from Queen Jocasta’s point of view), Cave of the Heart (Medea’s tortured story), Appalachian Spring and Frontier, among other dances from Graham’s rich legacy. The choreography was accurate, filled with Graham’s extreme gut-centered contractions, sudden falls, heel-walking, and sexually fraught writhing. Graham dances never needed words or mime. The body spoke, limb by limb, of passion, jealousy, grief or joy.

Move’s demonstrations, too, were a short course in Graham’s technique in which every movement is pregnant with emotional meaning. For Cave of the Heart, Move/Graham recited from her choreographical notes, while a costumed dancer enacted Medea’s battle with her desire for revenge on the unfaithful Jason. As the dancer struggles with a symbolic snake, Graham commands: “Churn up the earth. Churn, churn. Devour the snake. Expel it. Turn. Devour.”

Whether you know Graham’s work, as Move does, or whether this is your first experience with her larger-than-life choreography, you get the point, full force.

Earlier, another dancer demonstrated the workout sequence of contractions and body-propelling impulses to Graham’s recitation of images: “A contraction is not a position, but a movement into something. Think you are Joan of Arc as your body arches to accept the sword. When you raise your head, imagine there are diamonds on your collarbone, catching the light.”

All this information coexisted with lovely parodic touches. Dancers rushed on and offstage to give Martha a microphone, a book, a chair. They offered these objects adoringly, with abject bows, as if they were making sacrifices to a goddess, which, indeed, they were. Martha, secure in her great ego and high assessment of her world-changing influence on dance, accepted the dancers’ obeisance as her due.

A male dancer, the impossibly blond, unbelievably buff Reid Hutchins, who, in fact, has been a Playgirl centerfold, portrayed Oedipus. Clad, accurately, in loincloth and silver phallus, he was an object lesson for Graham’s injunction: “In my ballets, we dress the women and undress the men.”

In a debate with postmodern rebel Yvonne Rainer (portrayed by a nameless Asian man), Graham insisted that her aesthetic—theatricality, big subjects, the drama of the soul—is intrinsically superior to the no-frills, democratic, postmodern choreography that arose in the early 1960s as an antithesis to her work. Nevertheless, the diva introduced several guest choreographers and dancers, who filled out the concert with their startling, sometimes disturbing works.

Stacy Dawson in pinafore and Mary Janes, and holding a stuffed deer carcass, danced a shuddering Host. Stuart Hodes, who performed in the Graham company after World War II, danced the role of a dying old man in his emotionally affecting White Knight, Black Night, with Jennifer Conley as the daughter who is both drawn to him and repelled by him.

Patricia Hoffbauer danced a reconstruction of Rainer’s ferociously minimalist Three Seascapes (1962) in which her pedestrian moves to a horribly shrieking soundscape as strange and inevitable as the repetitions in a Beckett play.

Move/Graham closed the concert with a moving excerpt from Lamentation (1930). The dancer, enveloped in a tube of purple jersey, clasps her hands in mourning. The movement is spare. The effect is huge.


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