Theater archives

Retooling Tradition


Martha Graham is a hard act to follow. She taught her dancers that they were chosen people, vessels for rapture and revelation. Their bodies became sites for power struggles, their movements whiplashes into poses that seemed carved in resistant granite. Toward the end of her long career, in love with her own great idea, she lowered the ecstasy threshold almost to the point of self-parody.

Two local companies run by former Graham dancers try to balance a heritage they cherish while making works that reflect their own concerns and times. Monte/Brown Dance has been doing this to considerable acclaim for 20 years, Buglisi/Foreman only since 1994. Both had Joyce seasons this month, displaying elegantly theatrical pieces. (Elisa Monte’s Pigs and Fishes, made for Ailey’s company in 1982, remains an exemplary blend of minimalist repetition and full-heat dancing.) Marvelous performing is a given. Jacqulyn Buglisi and Donlin Foreman’s roster includes Graham stars Terese Capucilli, Christine Dakin, Miki Orihara, Rika Okamoto, and Kevin Predmore. Monte and David Brown boast eight passionate athletes, including the magnificent Marden Ramos. Clifton Taylor provides boldly dramatic lighting for both groups.

Occasionally, in both companies, the choreography is marred by an unquestioning acceptance of dance clichés, and by that I don’t mean Graham traditions. Brown’s new Respite has some wonderful moments, and his grasp of form and pattern is admirable. The stage looks spacious as Ramos, a kind of loner, galvanizes the others (Mucuy Bolles, Brian McGinnis, Caroline Nehr, Bradley Shelver, and Silvia Vrskova) into group twinings and individual activities. But as they dance to Marc Feldman’s music—thrusting legs high, exploding into the air, curling sensually around one another—I begin to notice the physical equivalent of overacting. A dancer laying his cheek against another’s torso first pulls his head back in order to accentuate the forward movement. In this work, as in the wrangling partnering of Brown’s A.PoP.To.SiS, the touch of a hand becomes a fraught event. The exaggeration increases legibility and the illusion of power, but adds a false importance.

Foreman’s new Lisa De (set to a Lisa DeSpain string quartet) shows some excellent dancing for three men (Walter Cinquinella, Stephen Pier, and Predmore) and a woman (Virginie Mécène) who’s sometimes a leader, sometimes a siren, and sometimes just one of the gang. The men enter together, and she falls briefly on each of them. But Foreman is not, I think, telling a mythic tale; the relations between these four are relaxed despite the tautness and drama of the movement. What’s curious is the many inexplicable entrances and exits. In a piece with this kind of edge, you’d expect them to seem justified. Why leave, if only to come right back?

Buglisi, a very interesting choreographer, has a gift for portraying women in ruin. Her premiere, Requiem, joins Against All Odds, a solo starring Capucilli as the aging Sarah Bernhardt, and her Suspended Women. The new piece, set to Gabriel Fauré’s magisterial Requiem, was originally inspired by trendy 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi; this fall’s events added another dimension. Capucilli, Dakin, Mécène, Okamoto, and Orihara sit on boxes (set by Debora Maché); their backs are bare, but A. Christina Giannini has draped the women in sumptuous silk gowns. The clothes and Taylor’s lighting evoke the golden glow of dusks and dawns and lamplit studios where baroque models pose, their bodices unlaced. Gleaming amid darkness, the women turn their gazes slowly toward us. Grief lends them austerity. When they stand on the boxes, their trailing skirts turn them into towering figures; sitting, heads on their stools, they become tomb effigies. To Fauré’s “Hosanna,” they lash their draperies like Furies. No fancy steps distract from this painterly vision of mourning women together in the privacy of grief.

Like Buglisi, Monte altered a work she’d made prior to September 11. The newer beginning of Lost Objects is quiet and pious. To music by Peter Zagar that’s like a call, the dancers pass some imaginary substance to one another. The movement is big and full—a fairly traditional vocabulary, idiosyncratically arranged—with prayerful hand gestures. The dancers tend to cluster, form friezes, lift one figure high.

But in the earlier second part—to David Lang’s eponymous recitation of lost objects, lost ideas, lost states of being—the dancers stagger and grope in flickering light, and there’s a solo, usually danced by Ramos but performed by Monte on opening night, that’s rawer and more powerfully expressive than anything in the first part. The others fasten onto her, almost dragging behind her as she walks, a living burden of grief. Graham would never have made works like these, but she would have understood them.

Ever thought horses and brides have much in common? No? Keely Garfield has. In the ongoing 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project at the Duke, the three women of her Sinister Slapstick (Rachel Lynch-John, Lisa Townsend, and Garfield) rampage through the crazy-smart new Free Drinks for Ladies With Nuts in wedding dresses. While singer Rachelle Garniez and a bluegrass group wail good ole songs, the women’s rage for their good ole days vies with their new status the way their bra straps peek out above their gowns. They blow at their veils; they ruck their skirts up to prance. Garniez’s novel voice, changing quality depending on pitch, accentuates the women’s dilemma: control vs. freedom, maturity vs. childhood. In all the superbly timed wildness, Garfield looks, as usual, like a woman beset: The baby needs changing, the postman’s at the door, what’s she doing next to me, and what was this step supposed to be?

The sweetest, strangest part involves some small plastic horses. Each woman sets one out, gently kneels beside it, and adopts its pose. While Garfield and Townsend nuzzle, Lynch-John positions a horse and a foal to touch noses. Garfield pushes her fingers through Townsend’s long, dropped-over hair as if they were hooves moving in long grass. The choice of songs reflects the many hilarious and touching activities and moods: “Go to Sleep, Little Baby,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “He Loves Me,” “Long Gone,” a lot of country waltzes. By the end, they’ve tossed their bridal drag, but they’re not outta here. Even though the corral gate’s open.

Garfield teams up with Lawrence Goldhuber for Good Girl Daddy—Part 1, to original music by Phillip Johnston (taped keyboards, live sax). As the title indicates, it’s not always easy to know who’s the parent and who’s the child. Because of Goldhuber’s size and girth, Garfield looks like a mosquito beside him; she throws herself at him, and he offhandedly tosses her away. Still, when he’s fallen and she dives onto him, he hoots his discomfort. Offering such temporary distractions as a bullfight tango, they dance at an aerobic pace through a vaudeville act that’s theirs for life.