Theater archives

Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra Lives to Kill Again


In 1958, Martha Graham turned 65 and choreographed Clytemnestra. Anger over the first event may well have fueled the latter. What better antidote to the prospect of a downhill slide than to create an ambitious evening-long work (her first and only one), and what better source to channel rage than the murderous goings-on in the House of Atreus?

Clytemnestra, revived for the first time since 1994, doesn’t have the particular passion of her earlier “Greek” dances like Night Journey and Errand Into the Maze; it’s a monumental parade of a work—an installation made with living figures. Despite its turbulent subject matter, its pace is ceremonious: The dancers’ movements etch patterns on the space as clear as those that travel around ancient vases. Greek soldiers rape Trojan women in a neat line of couples, each pair conveying the violence in a short explosion. Design contains the characters’ gut-ripping savagery, making them more terrifying than tragic. The instruments and voices in Halim El-Dabh’s score scream their fury, while Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural white set pieces, silver cage of ribbons, and symbolic objects help ritualize it.

In almost all of Graham’s dramatic dances made after 1944, memory is the structuring device, but never did she use it in more complicated ways than in Clytemnestra. Not only does the Mycenaean queen recall and re-enter her past as she wends her way to the Underworld, but dreams also surface within the recollections. Twice, she envisions (in different ways) the scene in which her husband, Agamemnon, sacrifices their daughter, Iphigenia (he needs a wind so he can set sail for Troy and retrieve his wife’s sister, Helen). Clytemnestra (a role Graham designed for herself) spends almost the entire dance onstage, quivering with grief and rage, as she watches the memories she conjures up (you could almost learn the whole terrible story just by watching the magnificent Fang-Yi Sheu’s reactions). Clytemnestra’s children, Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra; her paramour, Aegisthus; Helen and Paris; Agamemnon and his war trophy, Cassandra; and her own younger self appear onstage less in response to events than because she wants to brood about them. Cassandra adds to the time shifts by dancing her fear of the death she foresees for herself and Agamemnon.

Noguchi’s set enhances this flexibility of time and space. The outsize, phallic wooden spears—brandished, stroked, and clung to—join to form the litter on which the triumphant Agamemnon is borne into the city, as well as Ismene’s pyre and Agamemnon and Cassandra’s bier. Props enhance Graham’s brilliant sense of the dramatic moment. When Aegisthus bends Clytemnestra backward over the throne to urge her to take up the ax and kill Agamemnon, the large, gold weapon on the floor seems to mold to her grasp. And it cleaves more than just Agamemnon when Clytemnestra thrusts it repeatedly through the two halves of the crimson cloth that attendants part and close, part and close; sexual allusions aside, it slashes the fabric of this family’s lives.

This reconstruction varies in a few places from earlier productions that I remember. Thank heaven it restores the superb costumes that Graham and Helen McGehee (the original Electra) designed. Intricately cut, mostly black and white, with vividly patterned panels, they move with the choreography and reveal character (never trust a woman whose long, swirling skirt is lined in red). The gold outfits by Halston that replaced them at some point revealed little beyond male buttocks. The company has also decided that today’s audiences weren’t brought up on classical literature, so supertitles are projected. Some are apt, some misleading, some awful (“generational homicide”? Please!). But at least they’re high enough overhead that they’re not distracting.

Graham created few movement innovations for Clytemnestra. The frieze-like processions, bent-legged jumps, slow back falls, twisting contractions, and wheeling, pitched-over turns are familiar. But the dances of the six Furies are magnificent, and often a step or a gesture is wrenched into immediate pertinence. There’s a stunning moment when Iphigenia, trying to escape her fate, is caught in the midst of a scrunched-up jump and snatched backward. The characters Graham defined and the performers who embody them also can give old steps new slants. Sheu is wonderfully sly, fawning over her husband and walking on her knees beside him as she leads him to the slaughter. But when she lashes her legs and arms around her convulsing torso, she unleashes boundless ferocity. Maurizio Nardi brings a louche enjoyment to the lascivious, whip-cracking Aegisthus. Blakeley White-McGuire endows Cassandra’s movements with subtle changes of thought; Tadej Brdnik does the same with the troubled Orestes. Miki Orihara is touching as the innocent Iphigenia. All perform Graham’s fierce investigation into killing what you love with skill and dedication.

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