Raw Emotion, Fresh as New
Graham Dance Company
As the curtain rose on the Graham Company’s opening night in Washington, I felt like a kid at her first Nutcracker. I got a tingle as the opening strains of "Appalachian Spring" filled the theater, the regal Katherine Crockett in the role of the Pioneer Woman standing beneath Noguchi’s famously sparse set. I never thought watching a dance performance would make me appreciate lawyers, but the end of the legal battles that began in the late nineties have returned to us a company and a body of work that is a historical landmark.
Graham’s company appeared in D.C. as part of the Kennedy Center’s much maligned 1940s festival, and it’s one of the few companies on the festival roster that I found interesting within that context. “Appalachian Spring’s” obsession with sex—sex that various characters cannot get, want, need, fear—overwhelmed me in 2005; its impact in the forties must have been astounding. When the Bride (Miki Orihara) rolled up and down the steps, her contracted torso expressing her physical yearning for Husbandsman Tadej Brdnik, the ballet reaches out and grabs the audience. All of Graham’s emotional content derives so directly from the body, rarely did an external mode of acting come into play. Through simple physical differences, she sets up juxtapositions among the characters. The Followers and Revivalist (Christopher Jeannot) dance with cupped hands, palms facing outward, either to receive divine guidance or to exhibit their innocence. The Bride and Husbandman often turn their palms toward their bodies, pressed against their chests as the ballet progresses. They cannot be open about what they want.
Graham’s connection with Copland’s music also yields some interesting observations. Many contemporary choreographers, both in ballet and modern, approach classical music with an eye towards music visualization, each note of the music corresponding with the choreography, often producing an oversimplified, uninteresting parallel. Whenever I have been dissatisfied with this approach, I ponder that in dance history I learned that Graham worked with music visualization early in her career and I could not imagine the tactic working, though of course she became one of the twentieth century’s most prolific choreographers. Thursday solved this conundrum: Graham carefully tied much of “Appalachian Spring’s” choreography to the music, but, first, she understood syncopation and, second, the Graham dancers utilize the space between notes to create a sense of dynamism. The syncopation of the Husbandman’s gallops and the Revivalist’s skips changes the rhythm of the choreography and develops the characters. Brdnik bounces with the Husbandsman’s youth; Jeannot lands on the downbeat, reinforcing the Revivalist’s weight in the community and his repressive role. All the dancers, but particularly Orihara and Crockett, employ the spaces between, notes mainly in their port de bras. Every time Crockett moves her arms, she envelops space, hugging it, and then pressing it away.
Throughout the evening, the strength of the dancers arose again and again. Orihara careens through the Bride’s turns in penche, her leg and torso looking like helicopter blades steadying her spiral. In “Cave of the Heart,” Artistic Director Therese Capucilli made her Medea frighteningly strong, every movement springing from her central core. As she stomped around the tree from which Medea derives her evil power, she turned each corner with her abs.
Beyond Capucilli’s athleticism, “Cave of the Heart” left me a bit cold, looking a little too much like a cartoon to be considered seriously. Where sex ties “Appalachian Spring” together, it overpowers “Cave of the Heart.” As Capucilli pulls a long red string from her dress, then devours it shaking with orgasmic furor, the performance went over the top, making me want to turn my eyes away. I can only compare the sensation with that of watching a movie’s sex scene with my mother in the room.
Three short solos, “Deep Song,” “Satyric Festival Song” and “Lamentation” made the program feel a bit long, but on their own were quite beautiful. Elizabeth Auclair’s “Lamentation” was stunning. Her abstract, yet utterly human portrayal was moving, particularly at the solo’s close as she stood, arms raised over head, the purple sheath slowly covering her face. There was an openness to her performance that made the lament so raw, but her beautiful movement gave the work a sense of grandness.
“Deep Song” runs in a similar vein to “Lamentation,” featuring Alessandra Prosperi as a tortured woman. Dancing, and then moving around and under a white bench, Prosperi looked like a taut string, plucked just like the instruments of Henry Cowell’s accompanying “Sinister Resonance.” On the absolute other end of the emotional spectrum, Blakely White-McGuire in “Satyric Festival Song” looked like a happy sprite in a green and black striped costume, offset by her long red mane of hair. She bounced and squirted through the solo, making the audience laugh to Fernando Palacios's “Minnuta Perversa.”
“Diversion of Angels” featured another strong performance by Crockett as the Woman in White. The dance reached its apex as Crockett stood center stage, the men entering to the in arcing barrel turns with Yuko Suzuki as the Woman in Yellow. The beautiful work finished off a spectacular evening, although live music, particularly for “Diversion of Angels” and “Appalachian Spring” would have elevated the experience. The effect of the lighting and the remnants of the dancers’ kinetic energy at the end of “Appalachian Spring” begged for the strings’ soft echo to linger as well, but the canned music just cut off. Apparently, some of the scores will be re-recorded soon, hopefully partially rectifying such moments.