Graham Redivivus

Stories That Make the Heart Quake

No one makes dances like Martha Graham anymore. That's as it should be; autres temps, autres moeurs. But thanks to a court decision we can see, at the Joyce through February 2, works too long absent from New York stages, sensitively rehearsed by artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin and a slew of guest coaches, and superbly performed.

The Joyce is small. Half of the chamber orchestra expertly conducted by Aaron Sherber sits on one side of the house, half on the other, resulting in some unusual acoustic balances. The size of the theater and/or wise artistic decisions have yielded a performing style less melodramatic than that dictated by large houses and the failing eyesight of Graham in her last years. By and large, the dancers don't make faces; they let their faces reflect what their bodies are undergoing.

What they are undergoing is often fearsome. In her prime, Graham made big works that journeyed through myth and Jungian psychology to the recesses of her own soul—dissecting narrative and rearranging it in time and space with the skill of a film editor. They are not pretty. Watch Elizabeth Auclair or Fang Yi-Sheu—both wonderfully nuanced in the 1947 duet Errand Into the Maze; the heroine has temporarily routed the horned "Creature of Fear," and is dancing her relief, when panic again takes over her body. The symbolic creature isn't even on stage at that point, but she senses his nearness and gives herself to a shuddering so convulsive that you think she'll break in two. The protagonist of Dark Meadow, "One Who Seeks," experiences hope, terror, grief, temptation, joy, and fulfillment as she traverses a field of phallic symbols by Isamu Noguchi that alters with the seasons in a woman artist's life. (This difficult dance, as performed by Dakin, Martin Lofsnes, Katherine Crockett, and the ensemble, still needs a smidgen of fine-tuning).

Kitchen table dance: Sara Pearson
photo: Richard Termine
Kitchen table dance: Sara Pearson

In dances made prior to the 1950s, Graham relied less on the vocabulary she was creating in her teaching. The six fierce women and four men who come together in Dark Meadow, thumping the floor with their feet and whacking the air with their hips, show none of the tortured ambivalence of the heroine. Each character in her masterpiece Appalachian Spring—with its miraculous Aaron Copland score and spare Noguchi decor—moves differently. The Bride is all fluttery happiness and sudden fears; the Husbandman is bluff and homespun—as awed by the great frontier spaces as by his new wife. The Revivalist bounces like a somber jumping jack between the possibilities of heaven and hell, while the Pioneer Woman's steps spread out horizontally, as if she were smoothing his dire predictions away. Miki Orihara and Tadej Brdnik bring out the couple's differences in wonderful, loving performances—she very much the excited city girl, he vigorous, yet a bit of a dreamer. Crockett, who has gained much in depth and strength, is a soft but expansive Pioneer Woman. Gary Galbraith occasionally crosses the line between being the Revivalist and making him a cartoon figure of harsh religiosity.

The season is long on solos—maybe to show off the stable of dancers, some of whom are new to the public. These range from classics like Frontier (1935) and Lamentation (1930) to Deep Song (1937) and Satyric Festival Song (1932), reimagined from photographs. Auclair is, for the most part, splendid in Frontier—bold, earthy, intoxicated with the freedom of her domain. Crockett—also for the most part—avoids the literal images of sobbing that have often marred the stark power of Lamentation's jersey-shrouded embodiment of grief. Alessandra Prosperi is eloquent in Deep Song (and even finer as the peasant Virgin in El Penitente), and Erica Dankmeyer is charming in the sly and ladylike comedy of Satyric. Martin Lofsnes has emerged as a powerful dancer and convincing actor—gravely commanding in Dark Meadow and Errand, witty in Graham's 1990 spoof of herself, Maple Leaf Rag.

I have a few quibbles. Sometimes they're with a mistimed gesture: Galbraith, otherwise fine as the Christ figure in El Penitente, muffs the charmingly naive little slap with which he chastises the Penitent (the engaging Christophe Jeannot). Sometimes I'm stopped by a mannerism, like the way Jeannot holds his head tilted slightly up and forward. Sometimes a prop looks awkward, like the skimpy piece of gray cloth in Dark Meadow or the headpiece Galbraith wears in Errand that makes him look as if he were grinning. The fierce, monolithic women in Heretic drag this elementary and elemental 1929 work down by not re-grouping quickly enough, especially after the heroine's quietly despondent reactions to their uncompromising statements.

This week's program offers other dances from Graham's repertory. Thanks to the devotion of her company, Martha lives!

I have loved Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig's recent ragouts of dance and text, and I had a good time watching The Return of Lot's Wife at the Joyce, but there's something askew about this work, which premiered at the Altogether Different Festival. Kouross Esmaeli, sitting with the musicians who perform Carter Burwell's score, from time to time recites words by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz, which deal (the program offers translations) with forgiveness and the knowledge of God. It's tricky to fasten these texts to Pearson, who, with immense skill and humor, is playing Lot's Wife as Molly Goldberg. With the help of Widrig—perhaps not Lot, definitely a furniture mover and a dancer—she tells the Old Testament story of the man deemed by God the only one worth saving in Sodom, and his spouse, who disobeys God, looks back at the city's destruction, and is turned into a pillar of salt. (In her bathrobe, Pearson dials up Moses Maimonides, the exegete of Judaism; can he offer a rationale?)

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