Theater archives

Terrifying Transformation


Martha Graham once wrote Jerome Robbins that he, like her, could surely liken artistic creation to the plight of Odin in the Icelandic sagas, who hung for nine nights upon a tree and then began to thrive. In two superb duets, Hérodiade (1944) and Errand into the Maze (1947), that grace her company’s program B, a woman artist struggles to conquer her fears.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s Herodias is a cloistered princess contemplating desires that may change her life. Graham made her dance at 50; the bone-white “mirror” by Isamu Noguchi that she stares into suggests the fraught, memory-laden passage into age. In a stupendous performance, Fang-Yi Sheu haltingly approaches the mirror, willing blindness. All the heroine’s actions—twists and recoils, sudden capering, stiff rocking, jumps like little shrieks, brave salutations to destiny—reflect thoughts. Katherine Crockett beautifully depicts the smaller tensions of an attendant. With her deep sinkings and curved, inviting arms, she’s a comforter, but also fearful, impatient, at times a figure of fate. Graham’s works lend themselves to overwrought performing; Yi in particular has the striking ability Graham herself possessed: to be utterly simple and make the subtlest shifts without any loss of power.

In Errand‘s Jungian labyrinth, the dark places of the heroine’s soul are embodied by a crude bull-man—horned, but hampered by a yoke that immobilizes his arms. Elizabeth Auclair gives a fascinating reading of the quester—seeming to hear or scent the presence of her oppressor (the excellent Martin Lofsnes), almost melting when she thinks she may have vanquished him. Auclair doesn’t yet fully realize those moments before an inner change occurs, but she is a greatly gifted performer. Graham hoarded her own roles and often discarded those she could no longer dance. Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, the two splendid dancers who direct the company, wisely share the wealth.

Circe doesn’t involve a role Graham made for herself. The 1963 piece showed off Mary Hinkson, Bertram Ross, and some splendid young men. The choreography for them is the most exciting thing about this less than major work, and Lofsnes, Whitney Hunter, Christophe Jeannot, and Maurizio Nardi are terrific as Circe’s erotic zoo of men-into-beasts (snake, lion, deer, and goat). Graham’s Ulysses (Kenneth Topping) doesn’t stoically resist the lure of Virginie Mécène’s sorceress-as-autocratic-kitten; he wants to explore being a reveling beast. His conscience, as well as his stalwart helmsman (David Zurak—fine performances by both men), draw him back on course.

Program B ends with a minor charmer, the 1990 Maple Leaf Rag, and a chance for all the charged-up dancers in this resurrected treasure of a company to shine. There are occasional lapses (like the misguided costumes for Hérodiade), but it’s a special joy to have live music (Aaron Sherber conducting), and all concerned do Graham proud.

Sometimes you see a work so uniquely itself and so perfect in itself that you hope you’ll never forget it. Like Donna Uchizono’s Butterflies From My Hand. Stan Pressner’s lighting, Wendy Winters’s costumes, Guy Yarden’s score—all major contributions—vibrate with Uchizono’s choreography to create a curious landscape in which her sensitive performers (Andrew Clark, Levi Gonzalez, Hristoula Harakas, and Carla Rudiger) struggle to control, to let free, to transform.

Uchizono’s opening vision encapsulates what follows: The curtain parts to reveal Harakas halfway up a hanging red fabric swag. Laboriously, she cuts through it with scissors, and falls. In human terms, Uchizono creates images that suggest the stillness of hibernation, the effort to break from a chrysalis, the tentative expansion into a kind of stubborn flight. The wave of a hand evolves before our eyes into a fluttering wing. People inch along on their bellies, occasionally raising their heads to look around. Clark cuts large pieces from Gonzalez’s shirt, and Gonzalez wrenches his body in vain to get rid of the rest.

As always, with originality and wit, Uchizono celebrates the beauty in awkwardness, in temporary loss of control. And she does this meticulously, whether she shows a person leaving the stage backward as if pulled by unknown forces, or scrubbing the floor with one forearm—brow glued to hand, torso swinging side to side—or sets her two women, arms interlaced, yanking and tumbling across the stage. Wise to the resonance of repetition, she knows how to make actions escalate or dwindle. And how to engage our minds and hearts.

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