By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
When Fang-Yi Sheu first saw Martha Graham's Clytemnestra, she was transported by the performance, though she couldn't entirely follow the story. Her Taiwanese education hadn't exposed her to Aeschylus' Oresteia, and Graham's modernist telling of the ancient Greek saga was far from straightforward. Sheu's Taiwanese dance education, however, had exposed her to Martha Graham technique. She joined the Graham troupe in 1995, and these days, if America's oldest dance company can been said to have a star apart from its late founder, Fang-Yi Sheu is it. From May 12 to 16 at NYU's Skirball Center, she takes on Clytemnestra.
Clytemnestra, which debuted in 1958, is the only evening-length dance Graham ever made, and it hasn't been performed in New York for 15 years. For the company to cast Sheu in the title role is a show of faith in her, but for the company to cast anyone at all is a show of faith in itself. The years since Graham's death in 1991 have been rough: a long legal battle over repertory rights, soaring debt. In 2006, when new management took over, it instituted belt-tightening measures and celebrated the organization's 80th anniversary with a single New York performance. In this context, restoring Clytemnestra was bold—a premiere in Athens, a tryout in D.C., and now home.
Artistic director Janet Eilber sees her goal as not just keeping Graham's works alive, but keeping them relevant to contemporary audiences. And so, in anticipation of the performances, the company is sponsoring an online contest called the "Clytemnestra Remash Challenge." Participants are invited to download footage of solos from the ballet (from clytemnestraproject.com), then use the clips to create a four-minute video relating one of the characters to a current newsmaker. As a publicity stunt, the contest seems to have already borne fruit, and as part of the company's newly inviting presence on the Web, it's welcome. So are the unobtrusive surtitles that Eilber has added to the production itself. You don't have to have grown up in Taiwan to appreciate a little refresher on the plot and some guidance through Graham's fractured chronology, the fitful memories of the murderous queen justifying herself in the underworld.
But the only relevance that really counts, of course, is the kind generated on stage. Sheu learned the steps for Clytemnestra from videos of past performances (her first exposure to the dance had come in the form of a 1978 recording for PBS). She read Graham's notes and took direction from Eilber and guest coaches like Linda Hodes, whose knowledge of the ballet stretches back to its premiere. Graham was 64 then, and while the role she made for herself calls for arduous struggle and punishing repetition, psychological and emotional effort rendered physically, it also involves much sitting. Citing this fact, Eilber reassured Sheu, now 37, that the role wasn't a hard one. "If this isn't a hard role," Sheu remembers thinking, "I don't know what is."
She found the stillnesses, the transitions, more challenging than the dancing, for which she could rely on practice and hard-won technique. Most challenging of all was imagining herself into the character, making the audience understand, if not empathize. "Could I be that evil? I think, yes," she says, laughing. She enjoys being at once so pitiless and so proud. "Not in my real life. But onstage, I can be a queen and rule like a man. How great is that?" The glee, along with wounded vanity and a mother's grief, comes across in her performance, but it doesn't come easy: "Like eating your own heart," Sheu says, sounding like Graham.
Being compared to the incomparable Graham comes with the territory. Onstage, Sheu has the intensity of presence that keeps such comparisons from being cruel. She never met the mother of modern dance, whose ballets were all, in some sense, self-portraits. Instead of futilely trying to copy Graham, Sheu works from the inside out, convincing herself to convince us. Lately, she's found herself empathizing with another of Graham's roles: company founder. LAFA & Artists, the Taiwan-based outfit Sheu co-founded in 2007, debuts at Jacob's Pillow in July. Someday, she'd like to bring Clytemnestra to Taiwan. "Even if they couldn't understand the story, they could still enjoy it. For me, that is a good performance."
May 12–16, NYU's Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, skirballcenter.nyu.edu
Spring Dance Picks
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