DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Following Martha Graham’s death in 1991 and throughout the 1990’s, the Martha Graham Dance Company put on programs of high vulgarity, with three soloists simultaneously performing three Lamentations on three benches; Donna Karan redesigning Graham’s pristine original costumes as palazzowear for the Amazonian Celebration (which was also recast so that half the ensemble was male); and the company registering more motion in their faces than their limbs during Appalachian Spring. If you had told me then that, less than a decade later, Graham’s work would live again with dignity, energy, virtuosity, and rigor, outside the extraordinary productions that Yuriko Kikuchi was staging for ballet companies and student groups, I’d have burst into laughter. But, this season, at City Center, it was true. The Graham company, itself, rose like a phoenix. Even The Owl and the Pussycat, a G-rated glam staging of Edward Lear’s already perfect epithalamium to light-hearted fantasy, was so curried and combed that we might have been attending the nuptials of Osiris and Isis.
Everyone involved with the company seems to have caught a second wind, following the court’s decision that Graham’s dancers have the right to perform her dances. (Ralph Lauren designed a four-piece suit for the Owl’s narrator, André Leon Talley, which sported a cape so generous it could have served as a sail for the couple’s pea-green boat.) The three performances I saw weren’t always technically perfect; however, there wasn’t a single dance where the cast evinced any qualms or misunderstandings of where the center of their energies was supposed to be or why, dramaturgically, they were on stage. Both the men and the women seemed to have approached their parts without preconceptions. They looked as if they believed that the choreography had been made yesterday, that it was relevant to our time and place, and that to try to perform it well was the most wonderful thing in the world. There was nothing jaded or fraudulent about anything they danced. A child could understand it on the literal level of playacting—and, in fact, a few children did. At one performance, I stood beside a mother and her daughter, who couldn’t have been older than seven, as another dancegoer pointed to the girl and said, “SHE went to see Martha Graham?!” The mother, who was helping the girl to put on her coat, said, “She loved it. We’re going again tomorrow.”
To some extent, that little girl was the litmus test of the company’s theatrical success this season. Graham’s dances from the 1940’s on are nearly all examples of playacting—on a very highbrow level, of course—and none of their famous psychological insights can be perceived, much less felt, if one doesn’t believe that the characters are alive in the performers who serve as their incarnations. Fang-Yi Sheu, whom Grahamgoers first noticed during a 1990’s company season at the Joyce, where she was the Bride in Appalachian Spring—the only dancer in that performance who maintained a still face, a calm center, and the element of remoteness that can make Graham’s theater as mysterious and gripping as Kabuki—has become the company’s diva. To those earlier virtues, she has added an immensely forceful projection and an intensity of focus so exact it’s almost scarey. Sheu is a small dancer, with a wide-eyed stage face and moon-pale skin. The combination of physical bravura, personal intensity, strange calm, and charismatic beauty she offers sets her apart from every other dancer in the company—indeed, from most other dancers in New York. She also appears to be blessed with a body that is both very strong and yet capable of incredible isolations. At the start of Sketches from ‘Chronicle,’ the reconstruction of excerpts from the 1936 Chronicle, an Expressionist rumination on war that serves up a banquet of grief, resolution, and blazingly asymmetrical and rhythmic choreographic design, Sheu, seated in profile, brings up her arms with a wheeling motion and describes a great arc that takes them far behind her. Since the 90’s, I’ve seen several dancers in this part, and only Sheu is able to turn her arms into double wheels (or wings) without in any obvious way displacing her shoulder blades or ribs. The utterly dispassionate effect, coupled with her perfectly composed face, was eerie beyond description. By the end of Chronicle, when she was dancing with an out-of-body incisiveness while maintaining a focus so keen that it could have sliced apples, there was no question that a Graham superstar had been born.
However, even when Sheu isn’t in sight, there are other great dancers to watch at Graham these days. Miki Orihara’s Hérodiade had slightly less forceful projection, yet the texture and range of her dance effects were similarly phenomenal. She gave us a Woman (in Graham’s words, “a dedicated being, whether it be a religious person or a creative artist”) of orchidaceous nuance—a truly paradoxical characterization of Graham’s “doom-eager” heroine preparing herself to take an action the audience never sees; and she was absolutely comprehensible from beginning to end. Elizabeth Auclair does not offer Orihara’s beautiful stage face, or the liquefaction of Sheu’s phrasing, but her Ariadne figure in Errand into the Maze was entirely legible and affecting; she was also excellent as Her Attendant in Hérodiade. Heidi Stoeckley, making her debut this season as The Chorus in Cave of the Heart, was simply magnificent: I haven’t seen that figure performed with such nobility, grandeur, and purity of heart in at least 25 years. Indeed, Stoeckley—one of the tallest women in the Graham company—was outstanding in everything I saw her do, most of which was in ensembles. And Christine Dakin’s Medea was both laudable and brave. Dakin has taken some hits in print for not being able to put over the “Cave turns”—the sequence of off-center, pitched revolutions that are challenging for even young Medeas. However, Dakin’s interpretation of the role was deeply committed and well worth seeing. Graham’s Medea, a creature with fantastical qualities who seems to owe a debt to the Kabuki repertoire as much as to Greek drama, must be one of the most difficult and selfless roles for a woman in Western theatrical dancing. It is technically daunting and dramatically scorching; the character transforms herself into an insectile monster in front of the audience, yet must still retain an element of glamour to keep the audience watching. Dakin’s Medea of 2004 is physically weaker than her Medea of a decade ago; however, her characterization is more nuanced than ever. Among the men—many of whom were very fine—I’d like to single out Martin Lofsnes, who, as the Minotaur figure in Errand for both Sheu and Auclair, played that backbreaking role, with its hideously binding costume and its precipitous back falls, as a figure of nobility in a dream rather than as a literal maniac, and, in doing so, contributed a welcome extra level of depth to the entire work.
Every coach and teacher for the company should be congratulated individually.
Among the works I saw, the curiosity was the 1963 Circe, for one woman and a throng of six nearly naked men (Ulysses, his Helmsman, and four animals—none of them, curiously, a Homeric pig). Graham did not make this work for herself; indeed, at one of the two performances I saw of it, the original Circe, the aristocratic Mary Hinkson, was in the audience, looking very pleased. I’ve seen Circe, which Graham dedicated to her London patron, Robin Howard, a handful of times over the decades, yet it was at this second City Center performance that I noticed a moment I’d never recognized before: where Circe, seated downstage center, takes one of the male animals momentarily into her lap and presses down his head with one hand while lifting her free arm. It was the moment in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son where the Siren, on completing the adagio with the Prodigal, presses him to her bosom while snaking her free hand up over her crown. And suddenly, it occurred to me that Graham’s Circe had other things in common with that scene: the one snake-woman, dominant over a group of male creatures, who seduces a youthful, unknowing hero; the physical elevation of the woman through both choreography and scenic elements; the roistering, orgiastic music (which, in the Alan Hovhaness score for Graham’s dance, sounds Middle Eastern). Could Graham have been thinking of Balanchine’s ballet in 1963? It was certainly in NYCB’s repertory at that time.
One of the theoretical pleasures of the Graham season at City Center was the live music in the orchestra pit, a pick-up group of musicians, conducted by company music director Aaron Sherber. I say “theoretical” because, although I’m the first in line to endorse live music, some of the tempi were unbearably lugubrious.
Upcoming: performances by the Martha Graham Ensemble, 3-6 June, at Marymount Manhattan College, 221 East 71st Street. For information: call 212-838-5886. Also, Yuriko Kikuchi (“Yuriko I”), the illustrious Graham dancer, teacher, stager, and, among many other things, founder of the Martha Graham Ensemble, will be honored in an evening dedicated to her at Japan Society on Monday, 17 May. The Graham company’s Miki Orihara will perform Yuriko’s own choreography, the solo The Cry, and Yuriko’s career will be the subject of a discussion among Yuriko, Anna Kisselgoff, and Paul Taylor, who danced for Graham when Yuriko was performing. For further information: call 212-752-3015.
Photo: Miki Orihara in Errand into the Maze. Photo by John Deane
It was a joy to see Frederick Ashton’s early Capriol Suite performed this past weekend by the New York Theatre Ballet at Florence Gould Hall. The delicacy of its manners, the wonderful intricacy of its choreographic figures and tableaux, and the highly inventive use of the upper body reminded one of how influenced Ashton was by Bronislava Nijinska. NYTB also gave a very careful and caring performance of George Balanchine’s witty 1951 vehicle for André Eglevsky, À La Françaix. Never having seen the ballet but being familiar with photographs showing a sportsman in tennis whites and a Romantic Sylph, I didn’t know what to expect. The Sylph’s transformation into Esther Williams certainly cast a new light on Balanchine’s sense of humor.
The costumes for Capriol Suite, borrowed from the Rambert Ballet Company, were by Anne Guyon. Those for the Balanchine ballet were adapted from the originals by NYTB’s costume designer extraordinaire, Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, one of the great, unsung heroines of costume design for dance in New York.
Note: A Balanchine stamp ($.37) will be issued in May by the U.S. post office. It will feature a photograph by David Lindner, whom dance fans may remember from the lovely magazine he once edited, called Dance Life.
Graham Dance Company
into the Maze (1947)
from “Chronicle” (1936)
in the Street
to Action (Unity—Pledge to the Future)
“The Martha Graham Dance Company dedicates this season’s revival
of The Owl and the Pussycat to the memory of these men who, working
with Martha, played an integral part in the creation of this work:
of the Heart
April 2004 matinee
into the Maze
Leaf Rag (1990)
York Theatre Ballet
La Françaix (1951)
last updated on March 22, 2004