a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Can Dance if We Want To
Mae G. Banner
Graham Dance Company
12, the Egg
than a concert, last Fridayís performance by the Martha Graham
Dance Company could have been called Life Imitates Art
The nearly full house at the Egg in Albany understood we were
part of a momentous event even before the companyís executive
director (Marvin Preston) took the stage to announce that
this was the troupeís first performance outside New York City
since mid-2000 and the first stop on its projected world tour.
This flowering follows a three-year court battle with Grahamís
sole heir (Graham died in 1991 at age 96) over who holds the
rights to perform the divaís 181 dances, many of which pit
a lone heroine against a harshly disapproving world.
In real life, Grahamís dancers won, and their every performance
is a celebration.
Artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, both
longtime Graham dancers, chose a program that worked backward
from Grahamís last dance, the self-mocking Maple Leaf Rag
(1990), to a reconstruction of Sketches from Chronicle
(1936), a still-powerful work of socialist realism.
Leaf Rag is a big ensemble dance set to Scott Joplinís
piano rags, which were wittily performed by Pat Dougherty.
An insiderís treat for those familiar with Grahamís repertory,
it also functioned on Friday as a primer for the serious works
to come. Watching this collage of signature Graham moves was
like looking at a silent movie that patched together all we
would need to know about the characters capering or sailing
across the stage.
Here were the bare-chested muscle men stepping in squared-off
rigor that delineated a thigh, a knee, a foot. Here were the
women in their coiled hair buns, springing about like a set
of Martha clones. Here was the back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead
gesture from Letter to the World made famous in the
Barbara Morgan photograph, the Appalachian Spring prance,
the Jocasta lift with legs wide apart.
Through it all, like a running joke in a burlesque show, swept
the tall woman in yards of white jersey, wheeling her skirt
above her head like a ship in full sail as she cruised the
stage with goofy gravitas.
The 26-member company is composed of dancers from many countries,
most of whom joined the troupe after Grahamís death, so itís
thrilling to see them performing her work with the strength
and clarity Graham intended. Errand into the Maze (1947),
a duet that unpacks the myth of the Minotaur from Ariadneís
point of view, cast soloist Alessandra Prosperi and corps
member Christophe Jeannot as erotic antagonists.
is one of Grahamís ferociously theatrical works in which costume,
makeup, music, lighting and set are essential elements in
the unmasking of deep emotions. Ariadneís white dress with
a tracery of black rickrack echoes the twisting rope that
lies on the floor in Isamu Noguchiís set, leading the way
to two elongated Picasso-like forms that are the gateway to
the maze. Gian Carlo Menottiís strings and drums underscore
the tension. We go through this journey with the dancer.
In contrast to the drama of Errand, Grahamís Diversion
of Angels (1948) is a lyrical, almost balletic dance for
three couples and a corps of five. Graham, who designed most
of her own costumes, presents a mirthful woman in yellow (Erica
Dankmeyer), a stinging woman in red (Virginie Mecene), and
the Martha figure in white, powerfully danced by principal
Katherine Crockett, a goddess who appears statuesque even
when she falls and rolls.
Grahamís men are usually minimally clad foils for the more
complex women. In Diversion, the men leapt and jumped
all around the central woman in white, or sank to the floor
to worship her. Sometimes, they sat in couples with the corps
women to frame the yellow or red coupleís brief duets.
These sculptural frames, the full-scale runs with crescent
arms, and the menís adoration of their partners all foreshadow
Paul Taylorís lyrical choreographyóno surprise, since Taylor
danced in Grahamís company almost 50 years ago. Diversion
is a delightful key to the genesis of his style.
In Spectre-1914, the first sketch, principal Elizabeth
Auclair is doom itself. Draped in a voluminous black skirt
edged in red, she sits, larger than life, on a monument of
circular slabs. Her costume is part of the architecture. As
she strains upward or moves her torso severely from the waist,
she flails her skirt, revealing the full red underskirt that
becomes a cloak, a flag, the revolution itself.
The sky turns darkest red, the music fades, and we are led
to Steps in the Street. An ensemble of women in black
pass this way and that, gesturing with open arms or fists,
crossing their wrists in front, moving like the gears of an
all-consuming machine. Yet, any one of them may show a distinct
movement motif at any time. Graham is showing us the power
of the pattern, countered by the uniqueness of each individual
in the crowd.
Graham, of course, is the consummate individual. Even when
she was being ďcorrectĒ for the 1930s, her own character was
striding in the opposite direction from the mass. This lone
woman takes backward steps that, because of their insistence,
seem to move forward. She exits alone to reveal the white-gowned
figure of Prelude to Action, who, the program says,
represents unity and a pledge to the future.
Now the dance becomes a call to action. The dancers gather
at the central figureís open-armed command. The human machine
uncoils to form a phalanx. A spirit of inspired fervor whips
them into fast runs and cartwheels, till they revolve around
the central figure like atoms around a nucleus.
Finally, they come forward to the edge of the stage and extend
their right arms, palms out, to us. I wanted to yell, ďStrike!Ē
In each of her many incarnations, Graham made a lasting mark
that, praise the goddess, has not been erased.