Set (Re)Design: Yve Laris Cohen Rebuilds Martha Graham Set at Company Gallery


When choreographers die, their sets and costumes grow exponentially in importance — they’re sometimes the only tangible link to a now-forgotten dance. But they too can be damaged, mishandled — or, in the case of some Martha Graham Dance Company sets, subject to bad luck. In 2012, mere months after the company relocated to a new studio in the West Village, Hurricane Sandy flooded the building’s basement and destroyed a large portion of their archive, including many original set pieces designed by sculptor and frequent Graham collaborator Isamu Noguchi.

It’s to point out such vulnerability — the ephemerality not just of live performance, but of its materials — that the artist Yve Laris Cohen is painstakingly reproducing the Noguchi-designed set for Graham’s 1958 work, Embattled Garden, in a new show at Company Gallery.

The show is half workshop, half installation. During gallery hours, Laris Cohen is stationed at a worktable, surrounded by power tools and fresh lumber; the original Noguchi set pieces sit around the gallery on padded moving blankets. He refers to them constantly, taking measurements and making tracings; the pieces double as an exhibit for visitors.

The title Embattled Garden refers to Eden, and the set suggests a lush but hostile landscape: Its red and green swooping pieces, studded with long poles, interlock (in classic Noguchi style) to create the shape of a giant apple sliced in two. Another of the set pieces is shaped like a gnarled tree. The pieces provide a playground for the performers, who lean dramatically against the tree one moment and away the next, making the poles quiver.

Rebuilding the sets is tricky work. Laris Cohen works as a hired hand for the Graham company, but he is not allowed to take the pieces apart to see how they’re constructed; he has to diagnose materials by looking. “It’s hard to do that without being able to cut them open or chip off paint,” he tells me. It’s actually the damaged areas — where the paint is chipping away already — that give him the most information.

The show is an intervention as much as it is a renovation: While he hopes the new set will be used by the Graham company for future performances, his work also highlights the complex webs of reliance between institutions like Graham’s and the workers who maintain her legacy. His emphasis is not the choreographer, but the wage earner whose toil keeps companies like Graham’s afloat.

Those challenges were all but invisible when the company marked its ninetieth anniversary last month at New York City Center. The company’s performance of Graham’s Appalachian Spring, from 1944, used a different Noguchi set. Spare and architectural, its thin wooden beams suggested a perspectivally drawn house. It looked as good as new. Laris Cohen, on the other hand, gently presents a more complicated view of artistic legacy, one in which loss and damage are made visible alongside what remains intact.

Yve Laris Cohen: ‘Embattled Garden’
Company Gallery
88 Eldridge Street, fifth floor
Through May 14