Theater archives

Spring Guide: Fang-Yi Sheu Tackles A Martha Graham Classic


When Fang-Yi Sheu first saw Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra, she was transported by the performance, though she couldn’t entirely follow the story. Her Taiwanese education hadn’t exposed her to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and Graham’s modernist telling of the ancient Greek saga was far from straightforward. Sheu’s Taiwanese dance education, however, had exposed her to Martha Graham technique. She joined the Graham troupe in 1995, and these days, if America’s oldest dance company can been said to have a star apart from its late founder, Fang-Yi Sheu is it. From May 12 to 16 at NYU’s Skirball Center, she takes on Clytemnestra.

Clytemnestra, which debuted in 1958, is the only evening-length dance Graham ever made, and it hasn’t been performed in New York for 15 years. For the company to cast Sheu in the title role is a show of faith in her, but for the company to cast anyone at all is a show of faith in itself. The years since Graham’s death in 1991 have been rough: a long legal battle over repertory rights, soaring debt. In 2006, when new management took over, it instituted belt-tightening measures and celebrated the organization’s 80th anniversary with a single New York performance. In this context, restoring Clytemnestra was bold—a premiere in Athens, a tryout in D.C., and now home.

Artistic director Janet Eilber sees her goal as not just keeping Graham’s works alive, but keeping them relevant to contemporary audiences. And so, in anticipation of the performances, the company is sponsoring an online contest called the “Clytemnestra Remash Challenge.” Participants are invited to download footage of solos from the ballet (from, then use the clips to create a four-minute video relating one of the characters to a current newsmaker. As a publicity stunt, the contest seems to have already borne fruit, and as part of the company’s newly inviting presence on the Web, it’s welcome. So are the unobtrusive surtitles that Eilber has added to the production itself. You don’t have to have grown up in Taiwan to appreciate a little refresher on the plot and some guidance through Graham’s fractured chronology, the fitful memories of the murderous queen justifying herself in the underworld.

But the only relevance that really counts, of course, is the kind generated on stage. Sheu learned the steps for Clytemnestra from videos of past performances (her first exposure to the dance had come in the form of a 1978 recording for PBS). She read Graham’s notes and took direction from Eilber and guest coaches like Linda Hodes, whose knowledge of the ballet stretches back to its premiere. Graham was 64 then, and while the role she made for herself calls for arduous struggle and punishing repetition, psychological and emotional effort rendered physically, it also involves much sitting. Citing this fact, Eilber reassured Sheu, now 37, that the role wasn’t a hard one. “If this isn’t a hard role,” Sheu remembers thinking, “I don’t know what is.”

She found the stillnesses, the transitions, more challenging than the dancing, for which she could rely on practice and hard-won technique. Most challenging of all was imagining herself into the character, making the audience understand, if not empathize. “Could I be that evil? I think, yes,” she says, laughing. She enjoys being at once so pitiless and so proud. “Not in my real life. But onstage, I can be a queen and rule like a man. How great is that?” The glee, along with wounded vanity and a mother’s grief, comes across in her performance, but it doesn’t come easy: “Like eating your own heart,” Sheu says, sounding like Graham.

Being compared to the incomparable Graham comes with the territory. Onstage, Sheu has the intensity of presence that keeps such comparisons from being cruel. She never met the mother of modern dance, whose ballets were all, in some sense, self-portraits. Instead of futilely trying to copy Graham, Sheu works from the inside out, convincing herself to convince us. Lately, she’s found herself empathizing with another of Graham’s roles: company founder. LAFA & Artists, the Taiwan-based outfit Sheu co-founded in 2007, debuts at Jacob’s Pillow in July. Someday, she’d like to bring Clytemnestra to Taiwan. “Even if they couldn’t understand the story, they could still enjoy it. For me, that is a good performance.”

May 12–16, NYU’s Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place,

Spring Dance Picks

Sally Silvers & Dancers
March 22–29

The twin products of Silvers’s radical brain—her purposely awkward dances and her rarefied discourse about them—are seldom easy to reconcile. Her new group dance, Yessified, is ostensibly about whiteness, that sad and empty racial category. What it might look like is impossible to foretell, except to say that in works of this downtown veteran, unexpected twists can sneak up on wit and sometimes on wisdom. P.S.122, 150 First Avenue,

Keely Garfield Dance
March 26–28

The portions of Garfield’s “dance cycle,” so far shown in progress, suggest that she’s hit a rich vein of darkly humorous, unnerving, subconscious stuff. Limerence is a power play for three, all hurt and succor, falling and crawling. In Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9, the trio is a dysfunctional family that includes the choreographer’s eight-year-old daughter. The improbable aim of First Attempt is to save the planet from suicide. St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street,

Jazz, Tap & Theater
April 16­–18

As a tap duo, DeWitt Fleming Jr. and Jared Grimes are low-comedy and high-technique. The roles aren’t fixed, though Grimes is the one always squeezing off stunts that make regular tap wizards incredulous. Their combination of showmanship and skill has attracted the royal attention of Wynton Marsalis, who has been inviting the boys as guests with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and has now composed for them a five-part ballet called Spaces. Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street,

Merce Cunningham at 90
April 16–19

Recently, the best way for New Yorkers to catch the Cunningham gang has been to head up the Hudson to Dia:Beacon. The penultimate opportunities for one of those revelatory, close-study excursions come May 16 and 17. But before then, a birthday bash on an altogether larger scale: Joining Takehisa Kosugi in the BAM pit for “Nearly Ninety” will be Sonic Youth and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. When Radiohead and Sigur Rós inhabited that spot in 2003, they tried their best to channel John Cage, something Sonic Youth has been doing for decades. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn,

Joe Goode Performance Group
April 23–26

The charismatic protagonist of the San Francisco choreographer’s Wonderboy is a tender, hypersensitive soul, fashioned out of wood and cloth by master puppeteer Basil Twist. His outsider thoughts voiced in the words of Sam Shepard and Thom Gunn and his feelings floating on the backs of an exuberant cast, the boy braves the world and his own confusing desires in Goode’s most guilelessly joyful and dancerly piece in years. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Stephen Petronio Company
April 28–May 3

Of late, the most freshly exciting aspect of Petronio’s work has been the scores he commissions. I Drink the Air Before Me boasts music by the young iconoclast Nico Muhly, sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The excitement of the dance’s theme—extreme weather—is standard fare for the choreographer, who returns to the stage for his company’s 25th glamour-garbed by Cindy Sherman. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Trisha Brown Dance Company
April 29–May 2

Dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet get a chance to show New York audiences the cool-bodied release and overlapping continuity they had to learn for Brown’s 2004 commission O Zozony/O Composite. Dancers from the grande dame’s own troupe, to whom such things are second nature, demonstrate how it’s done in the 1979 classic Glacial Decoy and climb a wall in the 1968 Planes. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn,

Christopher Williams
May 12–16

Medieval-minded and more than a little medieval-looking, Williams builds cabinets of curiosities, strange and admirable. His relics, such as the 17 male saints he draws here from the pages of the 13th-century Golden Legend, aren’t dry. Live early music helps, as do the puppets, the worth-the-price-of-admission costumes, and the multi-generational casting. But the principal animating force is Williams’s imagination, a modern one movingly nourished by parts of the European past once central and now arcane. Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street,