writers on dancing


Back to the Forties

“Appalachian Spring,” “Cave of the Heart”, “Diversion of Angels”, “Errand Into the Maze ” and “El Penitente.” plus “Satyric Festival Song” and “Deep Song”
Martha Graham Dance Company
Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
UC Davis
Davis, California
October 22 and 23, 2004

By Rita Felciano
copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano

It’s been well over ten years since I saw the Martha Graham Dance Company perform live. And I have not seen them more than two or three times. Not growing up in this country and living on the West Coast leaves holes in one’s dance knowledge; holes which tapes, photographs and history books can but imperfectly fill. So to watch two consecutive evenings of Graham rep live was an opportunity not to be missed. From overheard conversations in the Mondavi’s airy lobby on both nights, it was clear that for many in this large audience theirs was a first-time exposure to Graham. They were here to see what the legend was all about.

The two evenings provided thrilling experiences, full of surprises both in what they revealed and in what they dispelled.

The programs emphasized work from the forties: “Appalachian Spring, (1944)” “Cave of the Heart (1946”, “Diversion of Angels (1948)”, “Errand Into the Maze (1947)” and “El Penitente (1940).” Also included were the two solos” “Satyric Festival Song” (1932) and “Deep Song” (1937).

Choosing the repertoire from a relatively narrow time frame—less than a decade—in Graham’s immense output, focused the attention on one of her most fertile periods of dance making. The choreographies were superb, and they were superbly realized. No doubt, the Graham dancers were in part inspired by the live music, more than ably provided by the UCDavis Symphony Orchestra. (The orchestra was conducted by Graham company musical director Aaron Sherber, and prepared by D. Kern Holoman and David Amrein).

Rarely has having a performing arts series at a university made more sense. To play scores by major mid-century American composers—Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, Norman Dello Joio and Carlo Menotti—who maybe out of fashion today just as Graham’s work is, must have been an eye opener for these young musicians.

Both programs opened and closed with works I have seen live, “Appalachian Spring” and “Diversion of Angels.”

“Appalachian” opens new vistas every time one sees it. For the first time I could actually imagine a tall and lanky Merce Cunningham as the Revivalist. Before I always wondered whether Mr. Cunningham was not secretly considering bolting for the door while performing the part. Maurizio Nardi infused the Revivalist with a kind of wit when he allowed himself to be swooned over by the Followers (Jennifer DePaolo-Rivers, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Yuko Suzuki and Blakeley White-McGuire). It didn’t take anything away from the fulminating intensity of his raving solo though he did inflect it with a touch of having delivered it before. This was sermon as performance. So it made perfectly good sense that his exit had a note of self-satisfaction about it. He didn’t just release the fists crossed on his back, he actually wiggled his fingers as if in an aside to the audience.

On the first night Christophe Jeannot had pulled himself a little bit more tightly into the role’s framing concept. This preacher’s relationship with the young women was more ambiguous. Where Mr. Nardi almost wallowed in their attention, Mr. Jeannot was flattered, but at the same not quite sure that this adulation was appropriate. When he planted himself on the rock, he nearly screwed his heel into the ground as if to assure his grounding. Later on, when walking over to the waiting young couple, he placed himself next to the Pioneering Woman with a tiny, perfectly executed rond de jambe a terre. “This is who I am and this is where I stand,” it seemed to say.

Miki Orihara and Virgine Mécène performed the Bride to Tadej Brdnik’s Husbandman. It was illuminating to see how Mr. Brdnik’s interpretation changed in response to his brides. Compared to Ms. Mécène, Ms. Orihara’s perspective was more buoyant; in her crisis of faith, her franticness had trembling intensity about it. Her her faith in her husband was like a relief. Ms. Mécène seemed to have lived more; she could draw on some internal resources but at the same time her fears were deeper, more of a general dread beyond the fairly specific ones of the loss of children and natural calamities.

Mr. Brdnik’s response to her was a little earthier, he could push his dynamics—the exuberance, the pride, the touch of recklessness—just a little bit more. Heidi Stoeckley’s Pioneering Woman had some technical difficulties the first but not the second night. Also interesting was the first night’s hint that maybe she and the Husbandman had known each other before. That inflection had evaporated during the econd performance.

Coached by former Graham dancer and head of UC Berkeley’s Dance Department, the now retired Marni Wood, “Diversion of Angels” received an impressively detailed student interpretation a few years ago. While that performance was technically less accomplished, the piece seemed tailor-made for young dancers.

The Graham company’s performance of this quietly lyrical piece was beautifully shaded with the second Couple in White’s (Katherine Crockett and Martin Lofsnes)’s stillness having a particularly rich sensuality about it. (First night’s couple was Catherine Lutton and Mr.Nardi). There was such tender delicacy in the way she positioned herself into a sitting position on her prone partner’s upturned feet or progressed through a line of men as if finding her way down a hallway.

Alessandra Prosperi impressively danced the woman in red, her body unfurling like a sail into rock solid balances, only to fold it up and repeating the process of proclaiming her assertive sexuality. Yuko Suzuki was the flighty, jeteing woman in yellow.But maybe these two concerts’ most eye-opening appeal came from a recognition of Graham’s extraordinary use of space, not only in the way she controls it but in the manner with which she guides the viewer through it almost the way a film editor does. No filmed record can even approach the vistas which unfolded on the Mondavi stage.

Much has been written about the drama inherent in these works from the years when psychoanalysis was Manhattan’s religion. Yet the turbulence, the conflict, the soul-searching, the agony in Graham’s characters is balanced by stillness, by abstraction, by being frozen in the moment. This transports them into becoming part of the set not unlike the megaliths placed into ancient landscapes. These are monumental pieces yet “Cave” has a cast of four, “Errand” and “Penitente” three. The economy of means, the way Graham set off character with abstraction is simply astounding. Despite contemporary perspectives on Graham, there is nothing overwrought in these pieces.

Fang-Yi Sheu, a tiny, delicate-looking dancer of enormous strength, particularly in her legs, danced both Medea and the Ariadne figure. Rich portrayals, her Medea was particularly impressive in the moments of conflict and uncertainty—that almost forelorn figure eight leg swing, the trembling that threatens her balance and in the way she pulled that “belt” tighter and tighter around her waist. A stony and yet ultimately defeated Mr Lofnes (Jason) treated the innocent, ever so young Princess (Erica Dankmeyer) like the original trophy wife. You are mine said that hand on her crotch, and she frozeinto his pose. It was chilling. But maybe most moving of all—and what a stroke of genius on Graham’s part—was Ms. Crockett’s Chorus. Monumental in the way she presided, she was positively Aeschylean. Sitting stage-center, knowing what will happen, she only ccould cover herself up in Graham’s brilliantly designed, kaftan-like costume. And yet when entreating Medea, not to do this horrendous act, she spoke woman to woman. In that moment, their roles were reversed.

There was a wonderful, almost youthful eagerness to the beginning of “Errand” when Ms. Sheu’s quick little steps cross-stitched the rope to the ground. Rapidly weaving the ribbon across Isamu Noguchi’s dated-looking piece of anatomy, it felt like she was slamming the door to the outside world. Somewhat, however, I thought that Mr. Lofnes’ Fear figure was not quite threatening enough. His eroticism, the threat it poses, might be more imposing if danced by a dancer with a more imposing physique. The pole across his shoulders, which restricts his motion but not his aggression, did not make him more threatening, but less so. Maybe the role should be danced by a physically more imposing figure. Maybe this was also the most of its time work.

“El Penitente’s” trio of itinerant players looked marvelous on the large Mondavi stage. Mr. Menotti’s sweetly melodious score could not have been more appropriate as was Mr. Noguchi’s simple yet ingenuous—covered wagon, altar cloth, stage curtain—set. As performed by Mr. Jeannot (Penitent), Mr. Nardi (debuting as Christ) and Elizabeth Auclair (the Mary figures), the individual scenes looked as if painted on “retablos.” The dramatic trajectory—from the flagellation to the final celebration—suggested catholicism’s eternal cycle of sin, confession, penance, forgiveness. The pared down language, the short, ballad-like, fluidly strung together episodes captured a folk song’s naivete without in any way making this evocation of folk customs superficial or condescending. “Penitente” is a wonderful piece. However, I could have done without the apple in Mary Magdalene’s seduction. But then, a folk play, just might have used such a corny prop.

“Deep Song” (Ms. Auclair) probably looks better on a smaller stage. As it was, Cowell’s 1932 textured harmonies for “Sinister Resonance,” written when he was imprisoned in San Francisco, and fabulously played in part inside the piano, by Lara Downs, distracted me from the well known choreography. The quick-witted, fleet-footed, toe-tapping and butt-wiggling “Satyric Festival Song” was excellently realized by a hair-swinging Blakeley White-McGuire. She wore one of those long woolens, however, in lively stripes. It showed the choreographer in a rarity: with a sense of humor.
Volume 2, No. 41
November 1, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano


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