Through Sunday Aglow with excitement during an opening-night intermission of the Graham company’s current season, onetime Graham dancer Stuart Hodes asked if I could remember ever seeing a better performance of Errand Into the Maze. I couldn’t, nor could he, and he’d seen the duet with its original 1947 cast: Graham and Mark Ryder.
Kudos to artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin for stripping away the generalized, overwrought performing that has marred Graham’s masterpieces in recent years. And Fang-Yi Sheu’s miraculous dancing in Errand reveals subtle layers of awareness, struggle, and triumph in the heroine’s battle with the man-bull who dwells at the heart of the labyrinth. Or within the labyrinth of her own heart: The horned man (Martin Lofsnes), his arms hampered by a yoke, represents whatever fears Graham as an artist determined to conquer. Sheu is responsive not only to each moment but to changes within that moment—whether she’s convulsing with terror; searching the darkness around her; softening her movements when she thinks, for the second time, that she has routed her nemesis; or stiffening as she senses his presence again. At the end when, victorious, she steps through Isamu Noguchi’s bony V-shaped portal and opens her arms to the light, we understand that she is greeting a world of infinite promise.
The Creature of Fear is a cardboard bully, and Lofsnes performs the role excellently, the scale of his long-limbed reach making up for his lack of weightiness. Beverly Emmons has elegantly adapted Jean Rosenthal’s original lighting, and what a pleasure to hear Gian Carlo Menotti’s score played live by an orchestra conducted by the company’s scrupulous music director, Aaron Sherber.
Marvelous performing also enhanced the sweet and pungent 1940 trio El Penitente—Christ’s story re-enacted by folk performers at a festival in the American Southwest. Christophe Jeannot as the Penitent looks like a new man. Gone are the mannerisms that have marred his dancing. His devout peasant is uncomplicated and direct, and all the more moving for that. Dynamic nuances emerge that have in the past been blurred, e.g., the apple with which charming Alessandra Prosperi (as Virgin, Magdalen, and Mater Dolorosa) tempts Jeannot almost runs away with her.
The program calls Martha Clarke, who created Sueño for the company, a “direct artistic descendant” of Martha Graham, which may be stretching it. I can understand why Capucilli and Dakin put the company at her disposal, but Clarke’s interest in a theater of movement and her reverence for Graham unite them only loosely. Graham was an innovator in structuring movement and drama, while Sueño —where dancing is almost nonexistent—reveals Clarke as primarily a brilliant creator of atmosphere and imagery.
Sueño‘s events and character—inspired by Francisco Goya’s caustic sketches of human depravity, misery, greed, and hypocrisy —emerge only fugitively as snippets flitting in and out of Christopher Akerlind’s chiaroscuro lighting to Franco Piersanti’s ominous commissioned score. As people lust and fight and prey on the weak, they change identities, and not just because of changes to Donna Zakowska’s voluptuously ragged 18th-century costumes—like the winging veils that turn women into grubby birds, or the masks that briefly make ladies out of whores. It’s hard to tell what any of the 11 performers wants or is. For mere seconds, Tadej Brdnik craves only Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch. Briefly Maurizio Nardi and Whitney V. Hunter play torero and bull. Men viciously strip Blakeley White-McGuire to the waist; soon she’s back carousing with one of them.
The images you can actually grasp in this hellish panorama are compelling, and the performers terrific at hurling themselves into the fray. Shouting and snarling in their diverse native languages, they contribute to the musical score as well as to the visual clamor of etchings come to life.
Program A ends with excerpts from Graham’s 1936 Chronicle. “Steps in the Street,” with its parades of striding, jumping superwomen, is the most thrilling section, and “Spectre-1914,” reconstructed from photos and minimal film clips, the weakest (Elizabeth Auclair performs splendidly in a solo that’s mainly about the fierce manipulation of a very long skirt). It’s wonderful to see Graham’s masterpieces burnished to something like their original luster.
Read Elizabeth Zimmer’s preview of Trisha Brown’s new high-tech collaboration, plus Jowitt on Neil Greenberg, National Ballet of Canada, and college dance concerts at villagevoice.com/dance.