Theater archives

Apply Polish Sparingly


A matriarch dies, and an incomparable collection of silver and china passes to her devoted heirs. Some pieces are kept in exquisite order. Others somehow develop hairline cracks. A saucer goes missing. Harsh new polish destroys a spoon’s patina. Additions don’t quite match or are of questionable provenance.

The analogy is imperfect, but not inappropriate to a discussion of Martha Graham’s great legacy, parts of which are on view at the Joyce through February 21. The intimate setting doesn’t quite recapture the days when Graham gave her seasons in Broadway theaters. There’s no pit to provide reassuring distance or prevent us from speculating whether it’s the weight of false eyelashes that render the Revivalist’s four perky followers in Appalachian Spring unable to lift their gazes to heaven.

To augment the repertory, a few of Graham’s 1930s works—excerpts from Chronicle and Panorama, the solos Deep Song and Satyric Festival Song—have been rebuilt from film clips, photographs, and memories. Small wonder that Satyric so often repeats the antic, hair-flying salute captured by Barbara Morgan’s sublime camera; her photos are just about all artistic director Ron Protas and his associates Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli had to go on. The solos succeed when the performances are as arresting as Dakin’s in Deep Song and impish Fang-Yi Sheu’s in Satyric. And a new-old work for augmented group like Panorama, while not on a par with the 1931 masterpiece Primitive Mysteries (scrupulously remounted by Yuriko), can thrill you with its blunt modernist power: contrapuntal phalanxes of women leaping and leaping, a group spinning as it peels offstage gathering tornado force. Although cheering spectators may take this piece as a feminist statement, Graham didn’t try to empower women; she just let them represent the world.

Successful commissions like Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa (represented in this season’s Duets for Martha by the engaging excerpt “Shaker Interior”) build on aspects of Graham’s vision. Histoire, Lucinda Childs’s new duet for the same anthology, reflects the simplicity and drive of Graham’s early work in its patterns and rhythms, although the movement, even in a biting tango (music by Krzysztof Knittel), has a way-post-Graham fluidity. A powerful, occasionally hokey male duet from Maurice Bejart’s Nôtre Faust recasts Graham’s struggle against temptation as a homoerotic bout between Faust and the Devil. Susan Stroman’s 1998 But Not for Me, subtitled Gershwin/Graham, succeeds least when Stroman throws in Grahamish attitudes. This competently made piece investigates the mild sleep disorders and lonely dreams of beautiful people, in chic white sleepwear by William Ivey Long, clutching black pillows. Juxtaposed to Graham’s harrowing Jungian dream journey Errand Into the Maze (1947), it seems slight.

Juxtaposition counts. It’s a pleasure to see Appalachian Spring and Hérodiade on the same program, as they were at their 1944 premiere. Spring, like its magnificent Aaron Copland score, is full of light and space and optimism. Hérodiade, set to knotty Hindemith music, explores dark, twisty interior terrain. Graham at 50 cast herself as a bride in one, and the unknown fate the heroine agonizes over in the other—tense with anticipation, swatting away her gentle nursemaid, stripping off her gown to reveal a snow-white shift—could as well be marriage as age or death. Whatever it is, her burst of jumps in front of the Noguchi structure she treats as a mirror signals her acceptance of a formidable challenge.

The superb Capucilli has sometimes seemed unwilling to let her dancing breathe. Here, the heroine’s brooding, circumscribed forays around the stage constrict our own breathing. Denise Vale, whose lushness also graces the solo Frontier, is a fine foil for her. Miki Orihara gives another of the season’s great performances in Appalachian Spring. Her young bride is practically a child—impulsive, frightened, playful, and so in love. Tadej Brdnik’s somewhat clunky Husbandman rises to endearingly boisterous heights in his duet with her. Katherine Crockett, a tall serene blond with a movie star face, gives the Pioneer Woman’s sweeping movements a rapt, suspended quality. Peter Roël, excellent in Childs’s duet, makes the Revivalist snotty rather than simply severe and fanatic.

Amid the inspired performing and finely polished masterpieces, the inevitable questions arise. Have the Revivalist’s jumps in a squat down the aisle formed by his followers disappeared forever, replaced by far less interesting pose-y strides? Is the sharp way the betrothed couple execute the first gesture of their duet to be passed along, becoming more wooden over the years? Where did the Husbandman find tights on the frontier? In the Bride’s final solo statement of individual strength, she comes up in back of the others who are kneeling in prayer, then deliberately folds her hands behind her. Graham made this into a sly refusal to conform; Orihara presents it simply as the culmination of a big gesture. Will her interpretation be come the norm? How is it possible to dread the horned Creature of Fear in Errand as much as the quaking heroine does when the current version of Noguchi’s mask makes him appear to be showing white teeth in a foolish grin? Is Graham smiling down, or is she in a bit of a snit?

What do Last Year at Marienbad and the New York subways have in common? I wouldn’t have thought anything until I saw hindsight. Both have been mentioned as sources for this collaboration between choreographer-dancer Vicky Shick and visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick. Although Alain Resnais’s elegant, bleak film builds silences you could drown in and a subway ride is a cluttered, clattering affair, they both deliver enigmas. We will never know whether the man on the E train with his head on his neighbor’s shoulder is her son or her lover, what those two girls are whispering, why that woman has dressed her child (if it is her child) in yellow ruffles this winter day.

Wearing black and delicately lit by Carol Mullins, Shick, Juliette Mapp, and Meg Wolfe stand scribbling on the air with their hands, making sharp gestures, and looking like calligraphy stroked onto the white, stitched panels Kilpatrick has hung in Danspace St. Mark’s. Yasuko Yakoshi sits on a black stool, jiggling parts of her body. Shick pensively lifts her arms. In the distance, Rocky Bornstein begins to jiggle. When she sits, Wendy Perron enters and slowly rubs her face down Bornstein’s back, then sits on her lap.

We see these incidents again. And others. See two women nuzzle each other or whisper together. See Yakoshi pick something up and slip it into her pocket. Seated, Shick and Perron immerse their arms in glass bowls of water. At times, the women don Kilpatrick’s strange carapaces or hard, white hats tall as medieval hennens.

The dancing—full and supple, yet quiet—also seems unknowable, but it’s so clear, so beautifully modeled and performed, that we simply drink it in, mysteries and all.

I first saw Indrani perform at Jacob’s Pillow in 1960. Tall, slender, radiantly beautiful, she presented not only Bharata Natyam that summer, but dances in India’s Kuchipudi and Orissi styles. Back then, many of us had never even heard of these. Like her mother, Ragini Devi, a moving force in the renascence of Indian classical dance, Indrani was a pioneer.

Later, based in New York for much of every year, she danced, lectured, taught, and sponsored other performers. Indian dancers tend to be territorial. Not Indrani. I’d pick up the phone and hear her lilting voice explain that a splendid exponent of the such-and-such style was in town for a while, and she’d just arranged a little showing in someone’s studio. Many Asian dancers owe their New York reputations to her.

When we met, she was often on the run, slightly out of breath, always merry, always gracious. She was so full of life that to have that life suddenly ended by stroke is shocking. Luckily, spirits like hers don’t disappear; they linger in our memories and fortify us.