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Heir Craft

Martha Graham's company revisits her work for one thrilling night; postmodernism fails an Israeli choreographer.

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Martha Stewards: Miki Orihara and Tadej Brdnik in Graham's Embattled Garden.  

While the courts deliberate on the tangled web that is the ownership of Martha Graham's dances, the late great choreographer's company gave a heartening one-night-only show at the City Center that demonstrated its moral -- if not legal -- right to this heritage. It proved -- does the issue really need proving once again? -- that a distinctive dance technique and the works created with it must be passed, without significant lapses in time, from body to body, from one generation of performing artists to the next, if the material is to retain its vitality and authenticity.

Cannily titled Indisputably Martha Graham, the program of landmark Graham works dating from 1936 to 1981 was performed by the present company, the junior company, and advanced students from the company's thriving academy. The choreography was staged and coached by a bevy of artists intrinsic to the evolution of Graham's achievement. The seniors, onstage and behind the scenes, had danced under Graham herself, several at the height of Graham's powers. The youngest participants -- ferociously schooled and ardent, as the great lady would have wished -- were mere children when she died in 1991.

The works on view were stunning illustrations of the world according to Graham. Night Journey puts a powerful woman at the center of events conventionally recounted from the male perspective. Graham -- who created leading roles for herself so that she "would have something to dance" -- makes it the tragedy of Jocasta, with Oedipus not even an equal partner but more of a necessary instrument in her fate. Seraphic Dialogue embodies Joan of Arc as a multifaceted female hero: maiden, warrior, martyr, and, most important, all three in one. (An added attraction of this work is the most brilliant set ever created for a dance -- a skeletal cathedral constructed from slender, gleaming brass rods by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who often put his genius in the service of Graham's.)

Embattled Garden revealed the choreographer's rarely displayed wicked wit, with Adam, Eve, the siren Lilith, and a Stranger with a snakelike air deploying themselves variously in a ménage à quatre. "Conversation of Lovers," from Acts of Light, admittedly a weaker piece, served as a reminder that Graham's delight in physical passion remained undiminished in the course of her long physical and creative decline. The early "Steps in the Street" segment of Chronicle made it clear that this artist's singular gifts were evident from the start. Predating Graham's admission of the curve into her revolutionary ideas about the body in space, it uses unremittingly flat, angular architecture to make you feel you've been shot through the heart.

The performing style on display came as a surprise. The over-the-top emoting that had increasingly characterized the company's approach in the past several decades -- until it looked like self-parody -- had been wiped away. The dancing and acting were measured, tempered, almost calm. True, some dramatic impact was sacrificed, but there was a compensating gain: a clearer view of the choreography. (It wasn't, after all, mere anguished writhing, as veteran viewers had come to fear, even about works they had once greatly admired and thrilled to.) This less emphatic, more thoughtful manner is a wise choice at a time when the company no longer commands stars of genuine diva power. If it survives this difficult period in its history -- the concert was certainly a positive omen -- it may once again breed performers made for that Graham specialty, ecstatic expression.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the troupe's planned engagement at the Joyce in January, where I hope to see the remarkable Elizabeth Auclair (a member of the middle generation) as the immolated Joan melt from the stake into St. Michael's arms and, twenty minutes later, play a Lilith who's the epitome of sardonic, conniving glamour.

For publicity purposes, much has been made of the fact that Naharin's Virus, created by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin for his Batsheva Dance Company, uses music by the Arab-Israeli composer Habib Alla Jamal. Actually, the 75-minute dance, seen recently at BAM, co-opts only a bit of this engaging material, which is rooted in Arabic folk melodies -- along with gleanings from Samuel Barber et al. And although Naharin speaks out publicly for détente in the Arab-Israeli conflict, opposing the current stance of his government, the suggestions of political comment in Virus lie largely in the imagination of the beholder.

Naharin's piece looks to me like an attempt to make a grand-scale artistic impression, capitalizing on the taste prevalent in European dance for chic, highly theatrical portrayals of the ostensible social malaise of our time -- personal, rather than political, alienation and hostility. His production, a cousin to work by Pina Bausch and William Forsythe (who contributes to the Batsheva repertoire), is stunning, in both senses of the word. Like most work in the genre, it is also fairly hollow.

Virus is peopled by sixteen bodies sheathed in second-skin costumes and ghostly makeup that suggest the resurrected dead. Their main prop is a black wall that looms way over their heads and stretches horizontally across the void of the stage. Intermittently, they use it as a chalkboard, crash into it full-tilt, and hang limp from it, as if murdered in flight. The movement Naharin has designed for them alternates between aimless-looking slow motion and percussive, even convulsive attacks on space, between tiny solo ventures and near-robotic communal engagement. From time to time, the dancers utter unintelligible cries or "share" with us tales from their childhood (see Bausch). At other moments, their activities are portentously formalistic (see Forsythe). Lurking behind these pointless borrowings is the burly, fluid movement that once made Naharin's choreography pleasurable and distinctive.

Central to the piece is a dancer's reciting from atop the wall a chunk of Peter Handke's Offending the Audience. This absurdist play was in its day (the mid-sixties) an earnest, perhaps neo-Pirandellian attempt to subvert traditional theatrical conventions. Today, its original purpose seems merely quaint, as does the string of epithets by which the audience is addressed at its climax. Nothing in Naharin's choreography reveals why he fixed on this text, and at the height of the insults, he has his dancers droning something unintelligible, as if to obscure any particular insult that still might contain a personal sting -- for instance, "dirty Jew." I suspect Naharin's heart -- that of a humanist, to judge from his earlier work -- is not in the numbed worldview postmodernism requires. Pretending to this fashionable attitude certainly hasn't served his art.

Indisputably Martha Graham
At the City Center.
Batsheva Dance Company
Naharin's Virus, choreographed by Ohad Naharin; at BAM.


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