writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Graham's Maze

Satyric Festival Song/Deep Song/Errand into the Maze/Circe/Sketches from Chronicle
Martha Graham Dance Company
City Center
New York, NY
April 21, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published 26 April 2004

The third repertory program by the Martha Graham Dance Company introduced two contrasting solos, Satyric Festival Song and Deep Song. One can sense Graham’s vaudeville training in the dimensions and practicality of the solos. They’re of simple means, easily toured and short. Satyric is from 1932, and if there is such a thing, it’s light Martha. Dressed in a long knit dress with happy green stripes, Blakely White-McGuire began with her back to us and turned around quizzically. The dance is said to be inspired by Pueblo Indian clowns who mock sacred rituals, but to me White-McGuire was a naughty but endearing child; what Eloise might have been like if her parents had gotten her out of the suite at the Plaza Hotel and into classes at the Graham studio.

In Deep Song, from December 1937, Graham is reacting to the suffering of the Spanish Civil War. On a stage empty but for a long white bench, Alessandra Proserpi worries her way through the litany of Graham contractions and spirals. The bench transforms as the dance continues; it pillories her in the market square and finally becomes a hiding place as she crawls to lie beneath it. One could sense the bombs raining down on Guernica. For those familiar with Graham technique class, what’s interesting is the contrast between the regimentation of the technique and the choreography itself. Contrasted to Balanchine, the technique is not an end to itself. It’s in service to character development.

Errand into the Maze retells the myth of the labyrinth and the Minotaur, but Ariadne herself heads into the maze with her cord rather than Theseus. Elizabeth Auclair begins at the back of the stage contracted with her hands crossed protectively over her solar plexus. The music by Gian Carlo Menotti has a repeating motif and Graham repeats her choreography—throw right, throw left, throw back, convulse to center—as well. Graham’s repertory is marked by her championing of contemporary music. Every score was by an uncommon composer (Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness, Wallingford Riegger, Menotti) and worth hearing. It was never musique dansante, but her dances don’t need that sort of rhythmical underpinning.

Martin Lofsnes towers over Auclair as the yoked and horned Minotaur, bouncing in like a pogo stick as Auclair ravels up the rope to tie it to the set piece by Isamu Noguchi as protective netting. Graham’s own quote on the work, There is an errand into the maze of the heart’s darkness in order to face and do battle with the Creature of Fear expresses the ambivalence of the struggle in the work. The Minotaur is never vanquished; there isn’t a need. In this simple, taut Jungian allegory he can be pacified for a time at best.

In the same way one might think about why Balanchine made Kammermusik No. 2, watching Circe makes you think Graham made “something for the boys”, but in this case it feels like it was made for the boys in the audience as well as those on the stage. The dance opens with Ulysses and his helmsman steering their little Noguchi skiff and doing slow swimming motions to indicate their travel. Circe’s enchanted men turned animals appear with Circe herself. All the men are wearing next to nothing, but it’s next to nothing with lots of gold trim. They slither about her while she remains impassive.

For all the writhing and the sexuality of the tale, it’s odd how asexual Circe is. She spends far less time dancing with Ulysses than do any of the men. Fully covered while the men are nearly naked (for those who make the distinction they’re more “nekkid” than naked), she wears a gold body stocking and dons a red cape. Not only is she covered, she’s closed off. Like Ariadne, her usual posture is contracted. A contraction pulls the dancer into herself. It’s an interesting and paradoxical contrast to the turned out poses of ballet. The subject matter here is sexual, but the body language isn’t.

Ulysses is given Circe’s cape, but it’s snatched from him by one of the animals. Fittingly, I believe it was the deer who then updates Afternoon of a Faun, rubbing his crotch with the cape until you’ve gotten the point. Actually, you got it about four repetitions back. Ulysses (Tadej Brdnik) and Circe (Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch) did better reconciling the problems with the work than another cast I saw; Brdnik’s moment of near-transformation into a beast was very convincing. It was the closest anyone came to making an argument for preserving the work in repertory.

Sketches from ‘Chronicle’ (1936) was the largest piece both in size and sweep. Like in Deep Song or her contemporary Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, Graham tackles the troubles and wars of the time, but the focus is on the crowd as well as the individual. A solo figure leads the two outer sections “Spectre-1914” and “Prelude to Action”. The central movement, “Steps in the Street” is a massed corps of women who lurch on in lockstep and perform repeated jumps in unison. The power of the section recalls Le Sacre du Printemps, perhaps no surprise. Graham danced The Chosen One in the first American production of the work, rechoreographed in 1930 by Léonide Massine. No dance is dancer-proof, but the Graham repertory more than others seems to hinge on the quality of the performers. Fang-Yi Sheu led Chronicle and like Graham, has a larger than life intensity that makes the dance work.

Graham’s dances were choreographed to be contemporary, but time and the breaks in active performance the company has been beset by threaten to make them period pieces. The weakest dances were not always the weakest choreographed, but the weakest performed. How much of what we saw in the program was Graham? The first two solos and Chronicle were all reconstructed; Graham participated only in the reconstruction of Deep Song. Satyric even used a completely different score in the 1994 reconstruction than the 1932 original. Reconstructions can be like visiting a mausoleum: impressive but dead. If we are already at a remove from the original work, perhaps one could think the unthinkable. The company might consider subtly updating some of the production elements, even things as basic as hairstyle and makeup, to keep the audience from thinking “1936” or “1963” and to be able to look at the dance the same way the audience at its premiere might have.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
April 26, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel



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last updated on April 26, 2004