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Martha Graham Dance Company - Dance is a Weapon

by Robert Abrams
March 19, 2011
Frederick P. Rose Hall
Time/Warner Center
Columbus Circle
33 West 60th Lobby (entrance)
5th Floor (Theater)
New York, NY 10023
(212) 258-9500
www.MarthaGraham.org
Can dance really be a weapon? I went to the Martha Graham Dance Company's show to find out. The first act of the afternoon I attended was titled "Dance is a Weapon" and consisted of five political dances by five of modern dance's choreographer-pioneers: "The Revolutionary" by Isadora Duncan, "Tenant of the Street" by Eve Gentry, "I Ain't Got No Home" by Sophie Maslow, "Time is Money" by Jane Dudley, and "PANORAMA" by Martha Graham.

I was expecting dances that were overtly about the political issues of the 1930s (give or take a few years). The dances were definitely political, especially given the way they were each introduced by a video-montage-commentary, but in a more subtle way than I had expected. As a general rule, the dances, especially the first four, appeared to be political in the sense that they represented individuals (they were solos) from parts of society that are not normally represented in art. The dances gave voice to people who normally have none. The last dance seemed to represent a protest march, with 30+ student dancers. As a group work, it was somewhat different from the previous four dances, but it also could be seen to fit the theme in some ways: how often is a protest march depicted in classical ballet?

"The Revolutionary" opened with a lone woman in a red dress. She performed sharp, grounded movements. She reached her arms up and pushed down while on one bended knee. Sometimes she used protesting fists. Sometimes she yelled in pantomime. It felt like I was watching a silent movie. The dance ended with a repetition of the earlier phrases, but performed faster. The dance was performed by Katherine Crockett.

In "Tenant of the Street" Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch entered the stage walking slowly, hunched over. The way she used her arms, held straight, suggested that her character might be crippled. The dance was performed to what sounded like car noises. At one point, in an image I particularly liked, she moved her arms very slowly, haltingly, on a downward diagonal line, reaching for something. Over the course of the dance, sharp movements were interspersed with fluid movements. Struggle resolved in the occasional beautiful hold. Sometimes she was sad: on the ground holding her head. Sometimes she was angry: pounding the ground. In a few moments she was erect, but eventually returned to her hunched posture. I had the impression that the dancer's character was aware that the audience existed: she stared at the audience for an extended period several times.

"I Ain't Got No Home" was introduced as a work about the Midwest dustbowls. Oliver Tobin danced to the folk music of Woody Guthrie. Whereas the previous two dances were clearly "Modern" dance (with a capital M), this dance could have fit in a country fair. Mr. Tobin showed his talent as a dancer, such as when he danced a nice hold with a reversal. This dance sent a mixed message (as life often does): the text of the music said "I ain't got no home", but the man seemed happy.

In "Time is Money" Maurizio Nardi danced repetitious movements. It felt to me that this dance took everyday factory movements and amplified them. There were both large circles and small circles in the dance, and such movements seemed to be abstractions of industrial production. One passage that showed off Mr. Nardi's skill involved several marked moments in a prolonged stomping step. The "time is money" and "tick tock" text gave this work a message that was more direct than the others on the program.

"PANORAMA" used 29 dancers (counting dancers listed in the program – an announcement during the show indicated 30 and the film that preceded the dance said 33) to simulate a march of hundreds or thousands. Wearing red, they came on stage marching in three grouped ranks. The way the groups were positioned at angles to each other did a good job of suggesting a much larger parade than a single group would have. The music was ominous and insistent. The large unison movement could suggest solidarity, but it is an open question as to whether it was the movement itself that suggested this concept, or whether the concept was plausible because the idea of solidarity was discussed in the introduction before the dance began. As with the other works, some movements suggested more "dance" than "protest" such as the section where the dancers ran with their hands and forearms extended parallel to the floor, palms up. There were times when the configuration of dancers on stage felt "Greek" as in the chorus in an ancient Greek drama, which makes sense given Ms. Graham's other works that deal with ancient Greek stories. Some elements were both good choreography and suggestive of the essence of protest, such as the way the dance used constant motion followed by stillness. And again, some of the arm movements felt like they belonged in a protest, such as "mechanical" up and down arm movements with perpendicular wrists, but some movements, particularly a head movement to the side, felt incongruous. Certainly the mass of dancers gave the impression that they were here for a serious purpose.

After having seen "Dance is a Weapon" I am still left with the question of how and how well these dances work as persuasion. Do they convince someone of a position, or do they make a person more likely to be convinced simply by exposing them to a part of society he or she wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to or consider? Can these dances convince the opponents or the undecided, or do they primarily reinforce the commitment of the already convinced? Do the dances work as persuasion on their own, or does the persuasion require a framing before or after the dance, and if the latter, is the kind of video-montage-commentary presented this afternoon enough, or would more direct instruction/discussion with the audience produce better results? Does the message of these dances work as well today in an environment where the modern dance pioneers are now the establishment to some extent, compared to the late 1920s to early 1940s when the style was as much a radical rebellion as the message? As confirmed by a representative of the Martha Graham Dance Company, the dances on this afternoon's program were originally danced by professional dancers (the choreographers in the case of the first four dances, and students in "PANORAMA"), but as noted by my guest at the show, Jeff Friedman, a professor in the Department of Dance at Rutgers University, at the time these dances were created there was a schism in the dance community between those who produced political dances intended to be danced by dance professionals versus those who created political dances to be performed by workers (and therefore, amateur dancers): which approach would be more persuasive (for instance, if a dance company created a dance about collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, what would be the trade-offs in art and persuasion if the work was created for professional dancers versus union members)? Does the change in the total media landscape, comparing the 1930s to today, change the impact of these dances? While all of these questions deserve further study, one thing was clear: the dances of "Dance is a Weapon" succeeded as art.

The second act of the afternoon consisted of "Appalachian Spring" – also a political work, if in a celebratory rather than a protest mode. Sometimes to fully appreciate a choreographer's work as a dance critic you need to enjoy the work, absorbing it without taking notes. Since "Dance is a Weapon" was the main reason I was attending the show, and since it had given me plenty to think about, I chose to enjoy "Appalachian Spring" – the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it too.
Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch in Eve Gentry's 'Tenant of the Street'

Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch in Eve Gentry's "Tenant of the Street"

Photo © & courtesy of Kerville Cosmos Jack


Lloyd Knight in Sophie Maslow's 'I Ain't Got No Home'

Lloyd Knight in Sophie Maslow's "I Ain't Got No Home"

Photo © & courtesy of Kerville Cosmos Jack

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