Theater archives

So Long, Martha


A few years back, my children, when they still packed meat in the meat packing district of downtown Manhattan, a towering figure appeared there and made people laugh and marvel. On a small red stage in a shabby cave of a night club called Mother, he taught us about what was old and sacred in dance and what was new and edgy. This good wizard, Richard Move—six-foot-five and round-faced—channeled to perfection modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, who stood at least a foot-and-a-half shorter, with monumental cheekbones.

Playing Martha as both genius and diva, Move also made her the hostess of a postmodern dance cabaret that the real Martha wouldn’t have been caught dead at. Art-minded citizens of New York lined up along Washington Street for every “Martha @ Mother” show. Members of Graham’s company came. Mikhail Baryshnikov came. Merce Cunningham agreed to be interviewed onstage by “Martha.” It was the best of times.

Evil realtors, always sniffing out the next hot neighborhood, didn’t single-handedly end those magical evenings. The magician himself felt empowered to move on (no pun intended). His skillful Graham parodies suggested budding choreographic talent. In 2002, he staged The Show (Achilles Heels), originally featuring Baryshnikov as a cross-dressing Achilles, and at Danspace last spring, Deborah Harry played Athena and Chorus (the latter job also entailed emceeing a game-show titled “It’s All Greek to Me.”). Those of us who missed this felt very, very bad.

Now—I want to prepare you, kids—the screen has fallen down, just as it did in the Emerald City of Oz, but with less sobering results. Richard Move has fully come out as a “serious” choreographer. You won’t be disappointed, but you may not yet be thrilled. Move, preceding with caution and excellent taste, hasn’t quite hit his stride in the area of contemporary concert dance, but he’s certainly stepping out.

The most compelling pieces shown at DTW by his company, MoveOpolis!, are solos. Lust premiered in 2001 at Jacob’s Pillow as part of The Seven Deadly Sins (dreamed up by Robert la Fosse). Catherine Cabeen is stunning in the role Move created for New York City Ballet principal Heléne Alexopolis. If Uma Thurman could dance, this is how she might look. Wearing an elegantly cut unitard by Pilar Limosnes, with a faux-nude upper part, Cabeen slowly twists and arches her tall slim body to a pounding beat by DJ Savage. Repressed erotic hunger molds her into improbable positions. Her feet claw the air like those of a butoh dancer. She stands on tiptoe, knees bent, hovering forward, and reaches her long, winging arms so far behind her that you imagine them straining at their shoulder sockets. Golden, almost translucent in Donalee Katz’s lighting, she crumples to the floor from a long balance in arabesque. Shuddering, she opens her mouth in a silent howl and instantly covers it with one hand.

Dilemma, created for Miguel Anaya, is adapted from a solo Move choreographed in 2003 for the opera Arjuna’s Dilemma. Katz’s lighting defines a square that grows as Anaya prows its perimenters. Cheleb Khaled’s music pits a raw ululating male voice against a rock beat. Whether leaping, falling repeatedly, or gesturing (he too covers his mouth), Anaya, a powerful performer, also gives the impression of tormented sensuality.

These solos show that Move can create compelling images from an expressive base and that he has a fine sense of dynamic contrast. Like Graham, whose choreographic sensibility seems to have influenced him, he tends toward very clear, linear shapes in space; nothing is blurred or thrown away.

The Graham influence, in terms of this almost hieratic approach to movement, is more evident in three well-wrought pieces titled Verdi Divertimento that stud the program and in Toward the Delights of the Exquisite Corpse. Too often, however, the choreographer presents moves—not necessarily Grahamesque—that we’ve seen before, without adding a distinctive touch to them. The short Verdi pieces are all performed by the excellent Blakeley White McGuire (a member of the Graham company and a veteran of the Martha @ Mother parodies), Kristen Joseph Irby, and Kevin Scarpin. Verdi Divertimento 1, created for Paradigm in 2004, has, for some reason, been purged of the delicately operatic dynamics that Carmen De Lavallade, Dudley Williams, and Gus Solomons, Jr., brought to this aria from Don Carlos.

Toward the Delights is the program’s most ambitious work. Video artist Charles Atlas mans an array of equipment that projects onto the backdrop visions that range from green swirls to a pale, supine woman whose face is being stroked by hands not her own. The writer Hilton Als put together a sound score featuring the intriguing music and occasional voice of the late composer Julius Eastman (once a part of Meredith Monk’s group of musicians). Wearing glossy red and gray costumes by Patricia Field (with David Dalrymple) that look as if they’re imprisoning the dancers in their own sweat, Cabeen, Irby, Scarpin, and McGuire come and go, brace themselves against one another, and carve their bodies energetically into positions so clean that they look almost two-dimensional. One performer manipulates another who’s blindfolded, not long after we hear, “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.” For a long time, the four work variations on circling and clustering, tracing floor patterns like the spokes of a small wheel, spinning around its perimeter.

The piece, for all its theatrical elements, has the air of a neat sketch for something richer, deeper, and stranger. Given Move’s talent and drive, we can expect him to mature rapidly in this new persona as a choreographer to reckon with. And maybe live happily ever after.