writers on dancing


Rickrack and Nocturnes

“Errand into the Maze,” "Il Penitente," “Sueño,” “Sketches from ‘Chronicle.’"
The Martha Graham Dance Company
City Center Theater
New York City
April 6, 2005

by Mindy Aloff
copyright ©2005 by Mindy Aloff

In keeping with company tradition, the gala opening of Graham was a glittering affair, with fancy, diaphanous frocks circulating on several levels and a liberal helping, on the orchestra level, of celebrities from the worlds of art and commerce, among them Maria Tucci, Mikhail Baryshnikov, The Donald Trumps, and, pursued by a pack of paparazzi with blistering flashes, Woody Allen. The gala patrons got a very good show, too. It opened with the company’s de facto prima, Fang-Yi Sheu, confronting and overcoming the sinewy, tormented Minotaur of Martin Lofsnes in Graham’s 1947 “Errand into the Maze”; continued with a vivid and deeply affecting account of the 1940 “El Penitente”—with Christophe Jeannot as the masked Christ Figure, Maurizio Nardi as the Everyman Penitent, and Alessandra Prosperi playing Mary as Virgin, Magdalen, and Mother; swung into the world première of Martha Clarke’s “Sueño,” a dance-theater work inspired by imagery from Goya; and closed with the company’s popular reconstruction of Graham’s rousing work for soloist and large female ensemble from 1936, “Sketches from ‘Chronicle.’”

In the Graham works—which are, to my mind, among her very best—the dancing by the soloists was always technically faithful and, for the most part, theatrically persuasive. Sheu’s Ariadne figure, changing her temperament with every change of visual focus, is a gorgeous character, although it was slightly disappointing to see that in the passages where she was asked effectively to embroider invisible cross-stitches with tiny, needling steps from side to side of the rickrack that represents Theseus’s thread—air-stitches that never touch the thread, itself—she stepped on the rick-rack twice. Graham’s choreography that incorporates props and/or scenic elements is very demanding; however, it’s an important part of how she gets us to suspend disbelief. So, on this occasion, Sheu was a heroine as a performer yet not quite a heroine from pure myth. Also, Elizabeth Auclair, as the invigorating leader of the chorus in “Sketches,” was both slightly slower in her reflexes and slightly more even in her phrasing than Sheu is in this role. On this occasion, though, the chorus was at fever pitch, positively thrilling, so Auclair must have been doing something right. Lofsnes’s Minotaur in “Errand” has been considerably refined from last year: the character now projects almost as many shades of emotion as the heroine, and his partnering (which includes difficult lifts, accomplished while the Minotaur’s arms are pinioned by a wooden staff) seemed a remarkable achievement in itself. And all the dancers in “El Penitente” were glorious, each one twisting through a panoply of dramatic moods entirely through movement, without mugging. I single out Jeannot’s Christ Figure, which goes from stomach-piercing sorrow to wrath, as a special performance, because the character’s head is entirely encased in a mask and his body is shrouded in a black robe. To project emotion through that Noguchi costume is quite a challenge. It was also a treat to see, in performance once again, the fantastical, semi-Surreal architectural set that Noguchi devised for “Errand” and the delicate costumes and props he designed for “El Penitente.”

What a collaboration that was between Graham and Noguchi, and how lucky we are that the Graham company continues to present it so faithfully and with such pure dance excitement, too.

Clarke’s “Sueño”—a Graham company commission on which the choreographer and cast worked for well over a year during its gestation—wasn’t popular with most of my colleagues; however, I found it fascinating and original, although perhaps not the best gala offering. Clarke’s immediate inspiration, according to press materials, was primarily the set of Goya etchings from 1799 called “Los Caprichos,” enigmatic (and enigmatically captioned) scenes of relationships mysterious and/or carnal among various characters in late-18th-century Spanish society. The etchings are full of secrets, infused with this or that moral poison: think Nathaniel Hawthorne of the Mediterranean, and even the ones that suggest daylight hours are dark in their effect. Clarke, with her sensitive lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and her obliging and theatrical composer Franco Piersanti (whose score is a motley of Spanish-tinged motifs, interrupted by such musique concrete interludes as whisperings), have put a 20-minute nocturne on stage—a street scene, defined by a zigzagging wall on which the light reads now as molten silver, now as dank sewage—in which 11 dancers, brilliantly costumed by Donna Zakowksa in allusions to period clothing—enact boisterous or tragic or violent events whose import is unclear yet teasingly suggestive that there is some meaning, just out of reach. The climax of the work is a rather mind-blowing “undo” of a hanging, with the cast trailing off, like spiders, at the end. (The lack of a firmly cadential ending, especially, is a problem for a gala.) Clarke is a happily transgressive artist, and here she breaks boundaries by giving no Graham steps whatsoever. Instead, the cast must produce characterizations through other kinds of movement. And it seems to have been very good for them: the company’s dramatic strengths are much improved overall from last year. However, in choosing Goya as a theme, I do think that Clarke may be pointing to another level of the Graham repertory, the Hispanic dances, such as “El Penitente,” or the Hispanic-tinged dances, such as “Errand into the Maze,” or the Spanish-themed dances, such as “Sketches from ‘Chronicle,’” which was, at least in part, a response to the Spanish Civil War.

First:  "Errand into the Maze" with Elizabeth Auclair and Whitney Hunter. Photo by John Deane.
Second: Katherine Crockett, Whitney V. Hunter and Company in Martha Clarke's Sueño. Photo by Kimberlee Hewitt

Volume 3, No. 14
April 11, 2005

copyright ©2005 Mindy Aloff


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last updated on April 11, 2005