Theater archives

Coming Through the Skin


“I wonder what Peter Stuyvesant would have thought of it,” said a newcomer to Downtown dance, struck by the incongruity between RoseAnne Spradlin’s concert and historic St. Mark’s Church. The church’s shell encloses a space for spirituality to take wing. The skins of Spradlin’s dancers cover inchoate desires that rock their entire beings. It’s hard to know exactly what they crave—sex, peace of mind, attention,understanding—but their need for it is unswerving and terrible.

To see Justine Lynch dance Desire is to see a woman out to devour the world. Every move is so large that she can’t fully control it, but she never gives in, never relaxes her lurching precision. When she drops to the floor, it is to cross the room like a rolling pin in the hands of a mad baker. She thrusts and swings her legs into big, splatty steps that twist her clothing—a white hospital gown over panties.

In Theory of Mind, Paige Martin begins standing on one leg, heaving. To music by James Lo that sounds like the contents of her stomach (or her nightmares), she spins to the floor; over and over she balances in a skewed and tilted arabesque, falls to her hands, gets up, turns, balances, falls. She pulls imaginary threads out of herself or into herself. Her desperate attempts to master improbable tasks have an almost histrionic quality, as if she hoped we might scream, “Stop!”

The new Empathy feels unnecessarily long, and if the subject (in part) is death, a dizzying video voyage through a graveyard by way of interlude doesn’t do it justice; whizzing over green grass and past headstones undercuts the work’s often stunning force. Pity Trisha Bauman, Walter Dundervill, and Tasha Taylor, who wear translucent rubber tunics tied bunchily behind them. When Bauman grabs her garment at the hem and lashes it around, the sound is fully as punitive as Diamanda Galas’s recorded snarls and screeches. These people seem constantly to be trying things they don’t know how to do, or finding themselves in baffling situations with no clear outlet for their sexual turmoil. Taylor hoists a leg and presses her foot against Dundervill’s forehead. Bauman lies facedown athwart Dundervill’s lap; he stares at her butt. Dundervill walks Taylor on her hands, her tunic inverted to encase her head and bare her breasts. There’s a lot of inept mounting behavior, but no violence; the three respect one another’s needs, even as they get hotter and moister and more frayed.

Spradlin takes risks. Her choreography and the demeanor of her wonderful performers suggest a troubling discrepancy between inner sensations and the outside world. Shudder though I may, I feel the performers’ dislocations and can’t wrench my eyes away.

**Over the years, Martha Graham crafted a face for the history books. I don’t mean her forays to the plastic surgeon. When she was in her teens and early twenties, her face looked broad. The famous cheekbones were muted by a softness around the jaw line. By the 1940s, she had perfected the face we know best, the one celebrated in the great pictures by Barbara Morgan and other infatuated photographers. Cartoonists could turn that stunning face into a skull, long and lean, with a wide scarlet bow of a mouth akin to the one Joan Crawford painted on. When Graham opened her lips slightly, she looked like a lioness scenting meat. In a lecture she once gave at Jacob’s Pillow, she told the dancers in the audience that they needed to develop a mental image of how they wanted to look and dance, and strive toward it. That, clearly, is what she did.

The gorgeous platinum prints by Imogen Cunningham—some never exhibited before—on view at the John Stevenson Gallery show another Martha, a Martha in transition from girl to icon. Cunningham, a friend of Graham’s, photographed the choreographer one day in 1931 (when she was about 38), against a dark barn at the Graham family home in Santa Barbara. Sunlight models her features. These are not pictures of dance, but pictures that dance. In some, Graham wears a white practice dress, low cut with shoulder straps, that looks carelessly homemade. In others, she’s bare-breasted, draped in some kind of loose, knitted tube. Carefully designed though the poses are, she looks free, with an animal’s power in repose, and more vulnerable than we are accustomed to seeing her. A tiny scar, barely visible on one breast (a recent cyst removal, I believe), only adds to her beauty. One remarkable double exposure shows her face in close-up, framed and partly shaded by a soft, bent arm. Within this image kneels a tiny Graham in a boldly striped tunic, head slightly lowered, arms spread. The large face appears to regard the small figure tenderly, protectively—as if to acknowledge, and perhaps to wonder at, the courage and sacrifice the pose implies. The beautiful exhibit can be visited at, but nothing compares with seeing the glowing platinum prints in the flesh, with seeing an artist’s flesh, and spirit, so knowingly revealed.

**Those planning to support New York City Ballet’s opening fundraising gala and enjoy a tribute to the company’s marvelous dancers had to turn around and go home. An hour and a half before curtain time, after an additional day of talks with NYCB management, the New York City Ballet orchestra musicians and their union voted to strike.

My sympathies tend to go with labor. Not this time. The gala makes a critical difference to the company’s finances; so does the upcoming holiday run of Nutcrackers. Union president Bill Moriarty told dance writer Paul Ben-Itzak, “You try to schedule these kinds of events so they give you the best leverage.”

The musicians wanted a 4.5 percent raise; management offered 3.3 percent (reportedly more than the dancers’ last contract provided). But among the issues that couldn’t apparently be resolved was this startling one: NYCB management wanted to “obtain increased commitment from our orchestra members by introducing standards of attendance, designed to assure that our musicians appear at performances, and that they [and presumably their subs] first rehearse the music they perform.” Imagine! Eventually management even conceded that these rules would apply only to new musicians; veterans could go on not showing up (they don’t get paid for rehearsals they don’t attend).

In the best of all possible worlds, members of the ballet’s orchestra would consider themselves part of a team. That management decided to insert the attendance provision into a contract suggests that musicians’ no-shows have increased to a danger level. Maybe that’s why the sound coming out of the pit has deteriorated so significantly since the orchestra’s glory days under conductor Robert Irving.