One great theme haunts many of Martha Graham’s dances: The hero-artist must descend into the depths, struggle with demons, and experience a kind of death in order to emerge fully powerful and enlightened. A phrase in a John Donne sermon, “Our issue in death shall be an entrance into everlasting life,” gave Dylan Thomas the name of his wartime poem “Deaths and Entrances,” a title shared by Graham’s epochal 1943 dance.
The heroine of this rarely seen masterwork, revived for the company’s 85th-anniversary season last week, is one of three sisters (as was Graham). Graham found her surrogate in Emily Brontë and structured the events in Deaths and Entrances as fleeting dreams and memories that both invite and discourage conventional interpretation. The dark house conveyed by Arch Lauterer’s fragmentary set and Hunter Johnson’s haunting score is alive with comings and goings. Only the main character (Miki Orihara, in a stunningly eloquent performance) never leaves the stage.
Her encounters with her rivalrous sisters (Katherine Crockett and Blakeley White-McGuire) and with two men identified as the Dark Beloved (Maurizio Nardi) and the Poetic Beloved (Tadej Brdnik) seem ignited by the sight of various objects (two chess pieces, a vase, a shell, two white urns, a blue goblet) that are brought in and taken away by the dancers billed as “The Three Remembered Children.” Two other men pass through—at one point joining a ballroom dance of changing partners that makes the women’s long silk gowns swirl and subside.
Deaths and Entrances begins with the three sisters making challenging moves with the chessmen and ends with Orihara triumphantly placing the goblet on the board and the other women falling back, thunderstruck. The only plot is the simmering of the heroine’s mind; she may slide from Nardi’s domineering grip to nestle against Brdnik (both excellent), but she’s not choosing between them. All that she envisions drives her into a hair-raising solo in which she both skips like a child and wrenches herself into distortions that signal a descent into madness. Through that “death,” she assumes control of her life.
Ever since Graham died in 1991, her company, now directed by Janet Eilber, has had to commission new works that complement hers; it also strives to make her towering works user-friendly through devices like pre-performance speeches. Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s Chasing, a world premiere, might also be called Chaser, as if we needed a few gulps of happy frolicking to cleanse our palates of the deep taste of Deaths and Entrances. Chasing was intended to allude to elements of the 1943 work, but the main connection is a riot of entrances and exits by six jokey, sportily clad people. See Brdnik as a cigar-chomping comic! See Nardi get sunny! See White-McGuire get kissed! Deaths and Entrances was edited slightly to make room for this discouraging piece. The payoff? In the words of a man heading for the elevator after the show: “They seem like a fun group.”
The theme of referencing Martha ran through the first two nights and included Graham’s enjoyably silly comment on herself, Maple Leaf Rag (1990), and Robert Wilson’s 1995 Snow on the Mesa, a gorgeous and visually immaculate pageant of images drawn from Graham’s work and life. Musical selections by Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee allude to Asian theater influences on her work. Sound effects and Wilson’s always stunning interplay of light and color incite—or are incited by—the dancers’ movements. Watching Snow on the Mesa is like seeing Graham fragments in slow motion or as tableaux embedded in ice; afterward, you remember how they looked, not all that they once conveyed. Symbols abound. Coyote heads hint at Graham’s interest in the Southwest. Coyly seductive Xiaochuan Xie—wearing a slim, ankle-length white skirt and one of costume designer Donna Karan’s seminude tops—has to traverse a very long white bench to tempt or tangle decoratively with Brdnik in “Shaker Duet.”
There are arresting visions like “Ghost Walkers” with long, white, fabric beards. Wild-haired Carrie Ellmore Tallitsch performs a furiously sexy solo with a snake grasped between her teeth. In group passages, arms and legs angling in different directions create elegant designs. Red-gowned Crockett, channeling Graham, drains a long-stemmed glass and reclines to deliver a speech about her memory-crowded mind.
Speaking of snakes, one of the few flaws in White-McGuire’s virtuosic performance as the crazed Medea in Graham’s 1946 Cave of the Heart is her inability to make us believe that she is devouring the red cloth snake of jealousy that she draws from her bosom. And Xie’s smug smile robs Medea’s innocent, doomed rival of her innocence. Crockett, however, gives a wonderfully rich and complex performance as the Chorus who comments on the tragedy that Graham unfolds in Cave with such uncanny and imaginative theatricality. In fact, the whole company is dancing superbly. Me, I don’t give a damn whether they’re a “fun group” or not.