Outsider Art

Actor, dancer, choreographer, and reveler in high-camp travesti, Richard Move is making every effort to reduce the 1991 death of Martha Graham, diva of modern dance, to a mere blip on the screen. Since 1996, he has been reincarnating the great lady by means of a vaudeville show in which he impersonates her, starring in his own pastiche-Graham dances and acting as mistress of ceremonies to ten-minute stints by dance celebs as well as up-and-comers. Brimming with vitality, chutzpa, and a kind of veneration run wild, his show enjoyed a cult following as Martha @ Mother in a now-defunct meatpacking-district cabaret. Recently, playing a one-night stand as Martha @ Town Hall, it packed the huge house. This was the first time I’d seen it, and I certainly had a good time, though I can’t join wholeheartedly in the unqualified praise it’s received.

As a dancer and choreographer, Move is no more than mediocre; his mini-accounts of Graham’s landmark works are only mildly (and briefly) amusing. Graham’s unique gut-sprung vocabulary is used randomly, and the pieces are unfocused theatrically. They’re also insufficiently piercing as commentary on a body of work that, for all its glorious genius, too often marched straight over the edge into unconscious self-parody. Move’s strong point is his evocation of the talking Martha. Pathologically self-involved, blessed with high-voltage charisma, Graham was a stunning talker – onstage, in preambles to her concerts when she could no longer dance in them, and offstage (though one might well observe that Martha was never offstage). Move has the unlikely voice down pat: girlish, genteel – that disarming foil to a psyche obsessed with psychology, mythology, anthropology, and sex, sex, sex. And our man has done his homework. His observations are gleaned from the vast storehouse of texts and images recording the acts and passions of his hero(ine). Acolytes have come to him bearing anecdotes. He’s absorbed all this information avidly and he redeploys it smartly. This in itself constitutes an admirable act of love.

The Town Hall show included two former members of Graham’s company. Paul Taylor was represented by Sharon Kinney, a founding member of Taylor’s own troupe (there was life after Martha, though she herself hardly thought it possible). Kinney, one of Move’s early instructors, danced Taylor’s early, iconoclastic Epic – four minutes of discrete foursquare postures assumed by an expressionless figure in a business suit, with the telephone time signal as accompaniment. No mythological, erotic, or Freudian reverberations; just as at the moment of its creation, it was enormously refreshing. Merce Cunningham was represented by the man himself, in the flesh, doing a solo seated on a chair, since he doesn’t get around so well on foot anymore. Cunningham capped his tour de force of a dance formed from arm movements, grotesque facial expressions, and stillness by more than holding his own in an interview with the travesti Martha on the subject of his (Cunningham’s) adventures with the real Martha. The multiple ironies were delicious.

Evolving in the anti-establishment political climate of the sixties and early seventies, postmodern dance rejected the heavy-duty artifice of theatrical convention and proposed that the most pedestrian activities could be called dance, too. (Andy Warhol was making a similar proposition when he co-opted cans of Campbell’s and tabloid images of popular icons like Jackie and Marilyn for the realm of fine art.) Once pioneer postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown had aestheticized the ordinary, dance observers, in the same inclusive spirit, began to give a new kind of attention to highly wrought skills – ice skating, for instance, and circus and martial arts – that were clearly not dance but seemed somehow, undeniably, connected to it. The skating champion John Curry, distinguished for his sublime lyricism on ice, had even summoned established classical- and modern-dance choreographers to create works for his troupe. Performed by athletes in heavy lace-up boots with fierce metal blades on a surface that was utterly foreign to conventional dancing (being all glide, no traction), several of these pieces were astonishingly affecting.

In the circus arena, it’s the aerialists who appeal most powerfully to dance fans. Their attraction lies partly in the svelte line they must maintain for aerodynamic effectiveness, partly in their precise timing, partly in their ardent courtship of danger, but chiefly in their deeply satisfying relationship to gravity, one of nature’s incontrovertible laws, which they both defy and exploit. I was thrilled by the men on the flying trapeze recently at Circus Oz, a wacky Australian show playing a return engagement at the New Victory.

The New Victory is a small stage, and Circus Oz is distinguished for its ramshackle comedy rather than for advanced technical skills. The aerialists, Sebastian Dickins and the singularly named Mozes, are good but hardly of Flying Wallenda caliber or range. The excitement they generated arose from a commodity now tragically rare in theatrical and personal life – intimacy. They operated so close to the lookers-on, we responded viscerally to their feats. Perched on parallel swings, they flew out over our heads and then, upended, soared so high their feet grazed the top of the old-fashioned gilded proscenium. Close enough to see their sweat, we could feel the exertion and coordination of their muscles. We were hypnotized into breathing in tandem with their outward and upward arc as they freed themselves from Earth and their inevitable backward swoop as they were sucked back into the planet’s orbit.

Circus Oz is designed, as are all New Victory attractions, for “family audiences.” I had duly equipped myself with a 7-year-old relative who greeted most of the show with lusty delight, remarking afterward that the only act he didn’t enjoy was the aerialists’. “Too scary,” young Will pronounced, “but it was okay; I just covered my eyes.” He hadn’t, though. He’d covered his ears. His eyes were wide open throughout those extraordinary flights – rapt, astonished.

Martha @ Town Hall
Choreographed by and starring Richard Move.
Circus Oz
At the New Victory Theater.

Outsider Art