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Pyrrhic Victory

Martha Graham’s dancers won the right to present her work, but with few exceptions, the young company seems timid, the work dated; Peter Martins delivers a really big shoe.

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Legacy: The Martha Graham Dance Company performing "Steps in the Street" from Graham's Chronicle (1926).  

I get the feeling sometimes that there’s a beached whale in the middle of the dance world, gasping and floundering while we all stand around wondering what to do. Let it expire? Too cruel. Keep prodding it back to consciousness? Crueler yet. Some even claim the poor creature isn’t dying at all, just looking a bit unwell these days. They trumpet its former splendor as if memory alone could substitute for the ocean now so far away. The rest of us just take our seats in the theater night after night, helplessly scribbling notes while we watch the whole sorry spectacle.

Yes, I’m talking about the Graham company. Or more precisely, about that unwieldy burden known as Martha Graham’s “legacy”—dozens of dances left by a creative genius regularly classed with Picasso and Balanchine for the way she reimagined and rebuilt an art form. Many of her legendary works have been on display at the Joyce for the past two weeks, ranging from Steps in the Street and Heretic, made in the thirties, through the Greek period that produced Errand Into the Maze (1947) and Phaedra (1962), right up to the last piece she completed before her death in 1991, Maple Leaf Rag. So there it was, the Graham legacy. And what did we see? A guy in little black briefs marching stiffly across the stage with a pole across his shoulders to suggest a yoke, and a kind of bone perched on his forehead as horns. He’s the Minotaur. I really think it’s over.

The company’s current artistic directors, Graham veterans Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, have worked heroically to resurrect the troupe after a bitter legal battle over the rights to Graham’s dances. Just getting the curtain up after decades of deterioration and a two-year shutdown was a triumph. But the company is packed with tentative new dancers now, on whom Graham’s wringing, gut-driven choreography looks pale and undernourished. As for the more experienced performers, they seem to hardly dance at all but approach each work as if it were a shrine, stepping reverently from one famous position to the next. Women clench their torsos, throw a leg high in the air, pound their fists on their thighs. Men loom and intimidate. A few of the dancers are standouts, including the tiny and ravishing Fang Yi Sheu, who has Graham fire sizzling right through her, and Christophe Jeannot, who brings a rare and welcome sense of humanity to Graham’s often puppetlike male roles. But even they can’t save a body of work that looks as antiquated today as a wind-up Victrola.

Some of the early, simpler works are still arresting, especially the excerpts from Chronicle (1936), made for battalions of quiet, menacing women in black. And El Penitente (1940), a sweet-tempered mystery play set in the Southwest, retains much of its sunlit charm. But compare these museum pieces with, say, Balanchine’s Serenade, choreographed in 1934. It remains as fresh and provocative as if he premiered it yesterday.

Dance survives by being handed down from performer to performer, inevitably changing with each new artist. If it’s a great dance, it continues to grow as different performers contribute to it. That’s not what happened with Graham. Her radical innovations in movement opened up infinite creative possibilities for all the choreographers who came after her, but her own work was a closed shop. She choreographed at the absolute center of her psyche; her dances might have emanated from her dreams—they were that vivid and commanding. But there was no margin for error in Graham’s choreography, no margin for any interpretation less intimate and articulate than hers. The dances retained their credibility only as long as she or her closest heirs—Mary Hinkson, Helen McGehee, a few others—were performing them. Later, as she declined into alcoholism, old age, and general battiness, her genius itself rusted over. By the seventies, the older works were losing their impact, and by the eighties, the new works were heartbreaking—garish, awful parodies of her long-ago brilliance.

What’s genuinely immortal in Graham’s work is her sense of theater. Those immense skirts cartwheeling around a dancer as her leg soars high, the bare feet rising ominously to tiptoe and thudding down like a death sentence, the four pious girls bobbing like baby chicks in Appalachian Spring, the bench that becomes a coffin in Deep Song—nobody could fill a stage like Graham, often with nothing more than a body and a bolt of cloth. But are such images enough to keep the entire Graham enterprise afloat? Would audiences sit through this work if any other name were attached to it?

Maybe it’s time to hand over the whole Graham legacy to its rightful heir. I mean, of course, Richard Move, whose full-dress impersonations of Graham are more true to life than Graham herself was. His send-ups of her dances are hilarious, but they also evoke Graham as she would have loved being remembered—a towering force of art who had the audience gripped in her teeth. When he stages a “Martha” evening, his performers often include dancers from the Graham school or company. They look grateful to be there.

The chatter on the subway platform after Peter Martins unveiled his new work at City Ballet was all about the Manolo Blahniks. “Did you see them? Did you see them?” The extravagant heels show up only briefly, when each ballerina makes her glamour-girl entrance; but this was one cameo appearance that clearly proves there are no small parts, only small shoes.

Thou Swell is mostly about luxury. Robin Wagner’s sumptuous set, a silver-and-white nightclub reflected in a huge mirror angled overhead, is the frame for an array of Oscar-night fashions by Julius Lumsden. As for the dancing, four couples swoon the evening away to songs by Richard Rodgers; but Martins sets the choreographic bar pretty high with those gorgeous trappings, and the duets don’t measure up. A little jazz, a little Broadway, some romantic partnering, and a lot of running at one another from opposite sides of the dance floor keep the dancers busy but not engaged. Everyone looks uncomfortable—except Darci Kistler, silky and flirtatious, displayed in continuous lifts by an ardent Jock Soto as if he and I and all of us were gathered simply to admire her lovely self. So we did just that.

Martha Graham Dance Company
Repertory season at the Joyce Theater.

New York City Ballet
Peter Martins’s Thou Swell.


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