writers on dancing


Greatness, Second Night

Martha Graham Dance Company
"Appalachian Spring," "Errand into the Maze," "El Penitente," "Deep Song," "Satyric Song Festival," "Lamentation," "Diversion of Angels"
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
February 18, 2005

By George Jackson
Copyright 2005 George Jackson

The impact was tremendous. Dancing, dedication, delivery of choreography and the presentation of ideas were, overall, more than even optimists could have hoped for. There was no whiff of "after Martha Graham" in the 7 dances on the program. This was Graham with blood coursing through the veins, skin stretching sensually, muscle contracting forcefully. Over the years the company's view of the world has always been larger than life, but there were times when the vision started to ossify. Now reborn, let it stay fresh!

Only the midportion of this program's repertory differed from opening night and from the closing performance (3d night), yet there was some alternate casting throughout, and individuals can make a difference even in work as deliberate as Graham's. Mauricio Nardi, not listed as a principal dancer or even as soloist, was both The Revivalist in "Appalachian Spring" and the partner of the Woman in White in "Diversion of Angels". At first glance he seemed wrong as the preacher—too thin in his black suit and wearing a hat so big it hid his face. What showed of his features looked adolescent. Not a trace of the Michelangelo anatomy one usually senses under Graham dancers' sheer costuming and supple skin was discernible. In "Diversion", however, Nardi wore only a thin epidermis of golden tights and showed all the anatomy needed. As partner to the supremely assured Woman in White, he looked eminently willing and yet his own master.

When, in "Appalachian", Nardi began The Revivalist's dark solo, one saw why - contrary to ones first impression - company directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin had given him this role. We witnessed the preacher being revealed. He moved with instant energy, as if hit by lightning bolts from God's wrathful hand. This is the one part in Graham's peculiarly wholesome work that taps the demonic, and a dancer of Nardi's ability so able to transform from role to role is certainly worth watching.

Virginie Mecene as The Bride, David Zurak as The Husbandman and especially Katherine Crockett's The Pioneering Woman in "Appalachian" looked like Graham dancers ought to. Mecene took Graham's exceptional optimism in this work quite literally. She worked hard at being so nice a bride that the DAR would have approved.

Zurak was on the right track as new husband, new settler but his gaze hasn't yet penetrated beyond the horizon. Crockett as the most abstract character was both grand and individual. She let the audience know what she thought of The Revivalist while giving him his due, and she refrained from patronizing the newlyweds. Crockett's profile, an American Pallas Athena's, was something to behold.

A few years ago, during the Ron Protas regime at Graham, "Appalachian Spring" was performed again on the stage for which it had been made, the tiny one at the Library of Congress. Everyone in the cast was in close proximity all the time in that restricted space. The characters not dancing didn't sit aside but hovered over those in high action. It was an exceptional experience that can't be duplicated at the Eisenhower or other bigger theaters used for major dance companies today. I'll always be grateful for that experience and for the live performance of Aaron Copland's memorable music in its chamber orchestration.

"Diversion of Angels" is an example of how wicked Martha Graham could be. It isn't that she made a dance about young lovers with so much relish, but that she titled it theologically. If they thought about it, the DAR and Congressional appropriation committees wouldn't approve. Graham's principal women in this work vary radically. Catherine Lutton (in White) was the aristocrat in love, Alessandra Prosperi (in Red) the personification of appetite and passion, Erica Dankmeyer the guileless but not bland one. Graham's men are more interchangeable although Nardi, with subtle harmonics, echoed Lutton's nobility.

Between "Appalachian" and "Diversion" with their larger casts came a duo, a trio and three solos. The Graham woman in the duo "Errand Into The Maze" and the one in the solo "Deep Song" is complex. Can one sympathize, though, with the female hysteria shown in "Errand"? Doesn't one have to smile at the image of masculinity the woman fears? Isn't the suffering in "Deep Song" monochromatic? The answers are no because Elizabeth Auclair's intense and musically integrated interpretations allowed strength and vulnerability, sorrow and love to emerge as marvelously multifaceted states of being. The solid, straightforward maleness of Whitney V. Hunter's Creature of Fear in "Errand" was the apt contrast to Auclair's performance.

"Lamentation", like "Deep Song" is a bench solo, but how different. The latter (to Henry Cowell music) was full of nuance, the former (to a Zoltan Kodaly piano piece) was all striking expression as Dakin rendered it whitefaced, almost on a single breath in the German Ausdruckstanz manner. The other solo,"Satyric Festival Song" (to Fernando Palacios music), isn't in the masterpiece class but Miki Orihara's bounce and timing made it a delectable morsel.

"El Penitente" is Graham being simple and direct as one seldom sees her elsewhere. With no irony but eyes wide open, she shows the sincerity of submitting to a religious purification ritual and the joy of having survived it. Tadej Brdnik's Penitent was as pristine and luminous as the most potent of primitive sculptures. Prosperi as Virgin, Magdalen and Mother was totally at home in each character, and Martin Lofsnes assisted ably.

This Graham program's richness was due also to Isamu Noguchi's buoyant set designs for three of the pieces ("Appalachian", "Errand", "Penitente"), Graham's costumes, the highlighting (by Jean Rosenthal, David Finley and Graham) which gave dancers and objects the look of sculptures, and, yes, the music. Graham's taste for American classical music of the middle decades of the 20th Century has often been shrugged off. The compositions on this program by Louis Horst ("El Penitente"), Gian Carlo Menotti ("Errand") and Norman Dello Joio ("Diversion") were diverse and not all that minor. Horst's, especially, sounded vivid. Henry Cowell's "Sinister Resonance" (for "Deep Song) and Graham's intertwined choreography made me wonder whether this solo had been an influence on Mark Morris, whose intertwined but more casual "Mosaic and United" to Cowell scores was being shown down the road at George Mason University. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if the Graham performances could have had live music like Morris's.

Volume 3, No. 8
February 21, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by George Jackson


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last updated on February 21, 2005