DanceView Times, New York edition
Women and Fashion
Festival Song/The Owl and the Pussycat/Cave of the Heart/Sketches from
It was certainly a night when the women held the stage. During the program that opened the Martha Graham Dance Company's most important New York season in many years, men were either pompous and buffoonish, irrelevant, or absent altogether. By adding the 1932 solo Satyric Festival Song to the top of Program A (which at other performances will open with The Owl and the Pussycat), the company ensured that the program opened and closed with the powerful, head-clearing images of the strong, serious, purposeful women of Graham's ground-breaking 1930s explorations.
This programming also struck a blow for contrast, since the purported main attraction, the 1976 Owl and the Pussycat, is cute, shallow, at some moments witty and self-parodying—in other words, a remnant of Graham's Halston period, which was as far removed as possible from her Long Woolens period. Its lead female character, the Pussycat, is a sly, savvy, manipulative creature —not warm and fuzzy but admirably self-aware and determined to get what she wants. She often appears impatient with the oafish, hesitant bobbings and lurchings of the Owl. Men portray the other two named characters—a pompous, preening Turkey who apparently thinks he is more important than he actually is, and a nimble Pig, who makes a brief, deft appearance as ring-bearer. Graham presents these male characters/animals in gently mocking fashion, and their mock-Edwardian costumes (by Halston) accentuate their silliness.
When the work premiered, as part of the company's glamorous first engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House, it fit in with the Graham persona of the era: glamorous and a bit shallow, in comparison with the weighty significance of what had come earlier in her career. At the premiere, the Storyteller who welcomed the audience into the tale and narrated the Edward Lear was Liza Minnelli, then at the apex of her talent and fame. This time around, Vogue Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley took on the role. He may be a well-known and popular figure in fashion and social circles, but he is a stage neophyte. His line readings were sweet in their sincerity and hardly projected the kind of performance authority that a showbiz regular like Liza would convey. He is not helped by having to open and close with lame statements before actually reading the poem, several lines at a time. Things really conclude with a thud when he states "and that's the end of the story." Talley was dressed by Ralph Lauren in pearl grey tweed—a three piece suit, voluminous cape and fedora, plus spats. He did make an eye-catching figure.
The work itself is extremely lightweight, and its stop-and-go momentum doesn't help. The sets by Mind Cho Lee—a sloping divan where the Pussycat reclines and slides around deftly, a ladder over and around which the Owl clambers (with Talley providing counterweight for the more gymnastic moves), and a charming pea-green boat—are hardly on the sophisticated level of Noguchi designs, but they do provide a storybook context.
Cave of the Heart, Graham narrative work of a much different vintage—from the height of her powerful Greek period - provided the program's centerpiece. This fierce, impassioned study of Medea's jealousy and the deadly actions it provokes received an uneven performance. Returning to the stage from maternity leave, company co-artistic director Terese Capucilli was a proud, driven Medea, her nerve endings practically bursting through as she contemplated her husband Jason's cavorting with the young Princess and conjured her revenge. Capucilli radiates the feral intensity the role requires and commands the stage, making her Medea very much a sorceress with capacities beyond those of the lesser mortals caught in her wrath.
The role of Jason is almost a parody in itself: a muscular, ponderous guy in oddly designed briefs who moves bombastically with flexed legs. He's like an athlete pumped up on steroids. Kenneth Topping has the right build and solidity, and conveyed Jason's obliviousness to the potential consequences of his actions. Erica Dankmeyer was generic and bland as the Princess, who usually comes across as more of a vixen or nymphet. Also disappointing was Katherine Crockett in the potentially magisterial role of the Chorus. Tall and model-beautiful, she fluttered ineffectually, moving without the powerful central core strength this Cassandra-like character should convey.
The real thrills of the evening, and the essence of what made Graham such a pioneering, visionary choreographer, came in the performances of the works from the 1930s. Re-staged decades later, and representing sections of larger works, they still, even in this form, reveal how Graham truly found new ways to shape and present the human form. The intensely focused Fang-Yi Sheu made Satyric Festival Song (1932) less of a lighthearted romp than it seemed when first reconstructed ten years ago, drawing attention more to the jagged shapes and forceful impetus of Graham's sharp movements. The thrilling moment when she hinged deeply and swiveled around was particularly memorable, but she made the entire strange, unpredictable solo embody all the freshness of discovery that Graham was about at that time.
The three excerpts from the 1936 work Chronicle that are now performed together present the female form as a source of conviction, fervor, dedication and commitment. Elizabeth Auclair eschews any histrionics in "Spectre 1914," in which the red underskirt of her black costume suggests deadly flames as she envisions the inferno of warfare. The brilliance of Graham as costume visionary—the way a small two-level pedestal and what seems like acres of black material create an all-seeing giantess whose conscience is on fire. In "Steps in the Street." The severe, angled women in their simple black dresses who skitter backwards and move in and out of asymmetric formations create a wonderful dynamic momentum through their committed unified intensity. And with Auclair, now in stark white, as their leader, they create such a riveting force field that one believes anything is possible, that their fervor will cleanse the world.
The company, after the long difficult period of financial and legal problems it endured, is clearly a mix of veterans and relative neophytes. Here and there, one sees a slackness, and lack of convincing core strength impelling the movement. Graham roles have always been well served by more mature performers, and when one sees Capucilli, Sheu or Miki Orihara in action, it is clear what the newer company members are working towards.
The fashionistas were out in force for this gala opening. Talley recieved a huge cheer when the first appeared, so he clearly served his function by drawing in a particular crowd that might otherwise not have ventured to City Center. The audience includes the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren, Russell Simmons, as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Clarke, Rob Besserer and many Graham dancers from the recent past.
Photo: Virginie Mécène, Tadej Brdnik, & André Leon Talley in The Owl & the Pussycat (1978). Photo by John Deane