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Martha Graham Dance Company - Reflections of a Post-Modern Dancer

by Anne Zuerner
February 3, 2003
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800

Martha Graham Dance Company - Reflections of a Post-Modern Dancer

(www.marthagrahamdance.org)

(See previous reviews, photo essays and interviews about the Martha Graham Dance Company)

By Anne Zuerner
February 3, 2002

On Tuesday night I saw the Martha Graham Dance Company for the first time. What can I say? I am a dancer who has lived under the image of Martha Graham since the moment I took off my pointe shoes and did my first contraction. In college dance departments, Graham is ubiquitous. In the two departments with which I am most familiar, the University of Michigan and Barnard College, her legacy dominated technique classes, dance history class, and reviews in dance criticism class. Her image even plastered the walls of the student lounge. We watched videos of her dances. We imitated her style, exaggerated it, joked about it the way sisters laugh at their mother's idiosyncrasies. Yet, at the same time that we were fed contractions intravenously for four years, her choreographic legacy was more absent than one would assume. Although we saw the occasional video of her dances, her particular brand of theatricality and composition were never successfully translated to us. Part of this problem lies in the way Graham held onto her dances, the same way she held onto her youth; she would not let them slide from her steel grip. Therefore, not many companies have Graham works in their repertory. Herein also lies the problem with dance in college. I can study Martha Graham all I want, but where the film student can see the original Potemkin, I will never see Graham dance Lamentation and I will rarely get to see her company in its current post-Graham era. So when I finally laid eyes on those muscle bound, grief stricken bodies, I was swelling with anticipation. What I saw was everything I had hoped for, but I was also incredulous; So this is what the fuss is all about?

Although I was raised on Graham, the choreography that has inspired me is the new cutting edge, which continues to reject what Graham stood for. I in no way deny that Graham was one of the major artists of the twentieth century. I am simply noting what happens to a student when the good part of her education is predicated on the work of one woman, while the work itself, because of the nature of dance, remains almost entirely absent from her study.

What struck me about seeing Graham's dances through the prism of the new millennium, is their extreme theatricality, down to the way she tells a story or expresses a point. She is literal and linear, two qualities which have mostly vanished from the postmodern stage. It seems that after she established her style, and the sixties rolled around with the Judson Church leading the way, or even before that with Cunningham's rebellion against the expressionism that gave him his start, the pendulum certainly swung back in the opposite direction and it is still on the same swing. The cutting edge dancers of today stay far away from the appearance of labor and pain that Graham loved so much. Today's dancers are entirely cool; they barely sweat, flex their muscles, or raise an eyebrow. In their compositions, the choreographers of today see literal dancing as the kiss of death, and eroticism as making love to the Grim Reaper. Melodramatic characters are far too passé by today's arbitrary standards, let alone heroines. In this way, seeing Graham's work was a breath of fresh air because it stands so entirely apart from anything I have seen lately.

Phaedra was the most traditionally theatrical of the four works on the program. The program notes declare that the piece is about "unbridled desire", and no one does desire like Graham. Although I do not identify with its characters the way I might in a film or play, its depiction of exaggerated egos entangling themselves with their archetypal emotions is almost comic at the same time that it is tragic. Christine Dakin portrays the tormented heroine with as much expertise as one could hope for. Miki Orihara is a charismatic and evil Aphrodite. I wanted her to fall off her circular flat, from which she suspends herself, while at the same time I could not take my eyes off of her delightful scheming.

In true diva fashion, Graham's style is sexy, at the same time that it is dark. Aphrodite writhes as she suspends herself on her circular flat. She is the Vanna White of Mount Olympus, revealing her pawn, Hippolytus, body part by body part from behind the doors of the Isamu Noguchi cabinet-like structure. Phaedra repeatedly lays herself down and peels herself up in sensual agony from her tilted table. When she gets a hold of the knife with which she will take her own life, she certainly does not get right to the point and stab herself. She dances with it instead, flirting with its phallic potential, running it down her inner thigh and poking it into her stomach.

Lamentation did not get me in the gut the way I expected it to. Danced competently by Elizabeth Auclair, I enjoyed the symbolism of the stretched cloak as it swallows the dancer in the way that Grief really does. Once again, Graham's work does not make me feel the emotions she portrays, rather, I see them from a distance, laid out like a definition, like a diagram of the human psyche.

Katherine Crockett stole my heart in Diversion of Angels. I never expected that anyone could dance Graham technique with such a luscious quality, softening those sharp edges into smooth angelic waves. She is a statuesque dancer with rare grace and clarity. Appropriately cast as the woman in white depicting "mature love," she is a mature dancer that summons attention with her subtlety.

Sketches from Chronicle was the most choreographically interesting piece on the program. Here, Graham focuses less on linear narrative and character development, and fleshes out the ambiance of militarism and devastation of war instead. The solo in Spectre -1914 and Prelude to Action was danced breathtakingly by Feng Yi Sheu. Her dancing is confident, and emotionally rich. In Steps in the Street we see the complete transformation of Miki Orihara from the conniving Aphrodite in Phaedra to a valiant leader of the people. I barely recognized her as the same dancer, her character had changed so. The ensemble also danced with great unity throughout this work. Their timing was solid and their unison perfect.

Despite the ephemeral nature of dance, we are lucky to have companies that are determined to survive their founders and artistic visionaries. No matter how far the Graham Company may stray from her original vision, this company is worth seeing, even for a postmodern dancer.

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