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Martha Graham’s “Circe” is Beauty and the Beasts

by Bonnie Rosenstock
March 2, 2020
Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 229-9200
The Martha Graham Dance Company Studio Series recently presented Graham/Deconstructed (February 25-26), a rehearsal run-through of “Circe” at the company’s intimate studio theater. The series offers a small audience an up close look at a work before it hits the main stage. The newly reconstructed “Circe” was choreographed by Graham in 1963, with a set by her long-time collaborator, Isamu Noguchi, one of the 20th century’s most important sculptors and designers, with music by American composer Alan Hovhaness. Artistic Director Janet Eilber discussed the fascinating back story of Graham’s choreography and collaboration with Noguchi, the performers talked about the challenges of their roles, and then they danced. Brilliantly.

“Circe” hasn’t been seen onstage for more than 15 years. It has been brought back as part of the EVE Project, the company’s New York season at New York City Center in April, marking the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. “The program will feature multi-faceted women that Martha created for the stage, so they’re not all swans, flowers and princesses,” said Eilber.

Circe, the Greek mythology sorceress/goddess of magic, was known for her knowledge of potions and herbs which she used to transform her enemies into animals. It is adapted from Homer’s “Odyssey,” the 8th-century BCE sequel to his epic “Iliad,” which is an account of the Trojan War. Ulysses (the English name for Odysseus) visits her island on his way back from the war. “This is where Martha Graham picks up the story,” related Eilber. Besides Circe (So Young An), the work consists of all the six men in the 17-member Company: Ulysses (Lloyd Knight), his helmsman (Ben Schultz) and four former sailors who she turned into animals—Snake (Lorenzo Pagano), Lion (Lloyd Mayor), Deer (Alessio Crognale) and Goat (Jacob Larsen).

Graham and Noguchi collaborated for almost five decades and created over 20 unique works together, noted Eilber. “Both were searching for an elemental shape whether in sculpture or in movement that would provide the viewer with what they liked to call ‘the shock of recognition,’” a term attributed to Buckminster Fuller.

The effective Noguchi set was repurposed from the 1953 “Voyage,” which was based on a poem, an Arabian allegory, explained Eilber. “Why I did a boat and a sail for a desert caravan I do not know,” Eilber said, quoting from Noguchi’s writings. It was performed by Graham and three men and based on her personal life and short-lived marriage to dancer Erick Hawkins (1948-1954). It was performed just a handful of times, and there’s no record of it, but the reviews I read weren’t favorable.

The original set was quite erotic in which the portal lit up with naked lightbulbs resembling the female genitals, recounted Eilber. “It was consequently toned down,” she said. When Graham was working on “Circe,” she remembered the boat in storage. The sail resembles a portal. “It’s after the same basic theme, that all men are beasts,” said Eilber.

The reconstructed “Circe” drew on the black and white film of the original cast and archival materials. “We looked at certain versions that Martha directed over the years, and the choreography is basically the same,” said Eilber. She also noted that the present dancers are much more athletic and polished than the dancers from that era. “These dancers were able to borrow from different interpretations and use what suited them.”

Each animal has its own unique challenging movement motif for the dancers, including having to hold their arms in the same shape throughout the piece. It was fun to deduce the slitheriness of the snake, the swiftness of the deer, the toe walking of the goat as they conspire with Circe to convince Ulysses to stay and be turned into an animal. In the full production, the dancers will be wearing elaborate masks and make up, which will take almost two hours per performer to put on, and “the rest is left to the imagination,” joked Eilber.

To channel the spirit of their animal, the dancers researched how animals react in nature, including movement based on National Geographic. Mayor commented that for him the movement was “fairly comfortable” and he could relate to it, but that he had a “pretty heavy relationship” with the sail. “What I couldn’t relate to was you have to go on and off the sail so quickly. A lot of the action was happening behind it, so it was nerve wracking. Lorenzo is so close to me that If I move my foot one more inch or my thumb, he will fall off the set. So there was a lot of choreographing to work that out.”

Knight and Schultz perform many of their movements on the small boat, which is very slippery. “It slopes up and changes where the feet and balance are,” said Schultz, who also mentioned torso chaffing. For An, the challenge was not the movement but character development. “I should be above the men so I could control them. I should be more powerful than them,” said the diminutive South Korean-born An. Her dancing and acting were flawless. Her facial expressions and gestures embodied Circe’s seductiveness and inner strength.

Martha Graham Dance Company, The EVE Project, featuring classic Graham works including Circe, Appalachian Spring, Every Soul is a Circus and Chronicle, plus new works by Pam Tanowitz, Troy Schumacher and a world premiere by Andrea Miller. Live music performed by The Mannes Orchestra. April 22-26, 2020. New York City Center. For tickets, go to NYCityCenter.org, or call (212) 581-1212.

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood

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