BWW Dance Review: THE MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY Loses Sight of Its Identity at City Center Gala
The "House of Pelvic Truth" has lost its contraction. Known for its dominating heroines and intense dramas, The Martha Graham Dance Company at the age of 90 has transformed into a company of rail thin beauties who alternate between striking lovely poses and engaging in repetitive calisthenics. It is almost funny how Graham's choreography resembles a set of majorette routines when performed without requisite maturity. Such was the case for the company's April 19th, 2016 Gala performance at City Center. Where was the shifting of weight; the devouring of space; the movement initiated from the pelvis? The answer is in Blakeley White-McGuire -- the scarlet haired Principal Dancer who was sadly given little to do on this concert bill -- though nowhere else. Instead we were given the Graham company as a museum of dated exhibitions populated by young dancers who knew neither what they danced nor why.Following an effective if subdued introduction by Artistic Director Janet Eilber, the concert opened with a number of dated curiosities that did little to reveal the genius of Graham or to arouse much excitement from the audience. Certain ballets, such as Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty" reward each additional viewing. Graham's "Tanagra" (1926), "Heretic" (1929), and "Celebration" (1934), which were never more than minor sketches, offer little payoff, especially in contrast with other works from the repertory. Though given a stunt re-casting to that of an all male ensemble, "Celebration", with its elementary geometric patterns and repeated bounces, was painful to endure. The same is true of the one-note choreographic sketch that is "Heretic", wherein a woman attired in a white shift is oppressed by a group of women who are all clad in dark hooded dresses. And even with Ms. White-McGuire as soloist, "Tanagra", a three-minute evocation of veils and orientalism, failed to take flight. It is worth noting that the performers of "Celebration" and "Heretic" were pre-professionals. What makes this sadly remarkable is that their technical execution was both inadequate and not far removed from that of the actual company members. No Graham gala would be complete without the masterpiece "Lamentations" (1930), performed on this evening by Peiju Chien-Pott. Though a wonderfully charismatic performer blessed with an incredible body that can do anything, Ms. Chien-Pott looked lost at sea. The genius of "Lamentations" is that it transforms the interpreter into a piece of visual art that evokes intense emotional resonance according to the interpreter's spiral and contraction. It takes at least 10 years to become a mature dancer, and though she is a Principal, Ms. Chien-Pott is 6 years too early for this particular Graham masterpiece. The evening moved forward
through Graham's choreographic history to two excerpts featuring the former étoile and future Artistic Director of Paris Opera Ballet, Aurélie Dupont. Recently retired from performing with her home company, Ms. Dupont retains her personal glamour and wonderful facility, which she deployed nicely in the ritualistic "Lament" (excerpted from "Acts of Light", which was choreographed in 1981). It must be said that out of context, surrounded as she was by the scantily clad men of the company, this lament felt like a gavotte through a garden of succulent delights. Ms. Dupont did not have much to do besides hang onto the men, execute tilts, and promenade in attitude. I write "promenade" when I should write "spiral", but then Ms. Dupont is not a Graham dancer. She did not look out of place in this company, though she was clearly out of her depth in the excerpted pas de deux from "Appalachian Spring" (1944). Perhaps it was the lack of context; it is more likely that the choreography's rhythmic design, which reveals everything one needs to know about character of The Bride, was impossible to conquer for a one-off gala performance.The event of the evening was the world premiere of Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg's "Woodland". Following a promising opening of shifting patterns and interesting partnering sequences, all forward momentum came to a halt with the introduction of Soloist Ying Xin. Ms. Xin is a beautiful cipher who does not project much even when dancing meaty roles. Cast as the star of this ballet, she projected even less. Playing a stranger clad in blue amongst dancers who wear animal masks --until she removes them-- Ms. Xin spent more time passively observing than dancing. It felt as if Mr. Lidberg were inspired to create an interesting story about a stranger in a strange land but lost the thread a quarter of the way through. A missed opportunity, lost in the woods.
It is telling that this company assigns so many commissions to choreographers who do not deploy the Graham technique. Such commissions do a great deal to reveal who the dancers are, though less was revealed here than one would have hoped. And then there was the revival of "Steps in the Street", which revealed all too much about the current state of affairs for this company. This excerpt from the masterpiece "Chronicle" (1936) was Graham's response to the rise of fascism in Europe. In "Steps in the Street", Graham arranged the chorus of its all-women cast inline with how she saw herself: as an indomitable force of nature. These women are avenging angels whose every contraction strikes with the force of a bulldozer; whose every spiral sends one into a vertiginous tailspin. Over the past 15 years I have watched professionals and students alike deliver interpretations of this piece that have stirred the audience to cry for revolution. In none of those performances did I ever see the jeté á la seconde to the floor (think a Russian split that lands in a crouched position) performed with a beaming smile that screamed "Ta-Da! Look at how high I can jump". And yet that is exactly what happened during this performance. Twice. While the jump was physically impressive -- it cleared five feet and was executed with perfectly pointed feet -- the lack of perspective exhibited by the performer chilled me to the bone.
The work of Martha Graham can astound an audience with its brute strength, but the point of the work will always be in its cause, not effect. This tone deaf interpretation of "effect over cause" ran amok throughout the concert. At no point (excepting Ms. White-McGuire) did I know why these dancers where dancing or what the movement meant to them. At no point did I see movement initiate from the pelvis. There was plenty of movement, but the engagement of the pelvis came after the fact as a marked affectation. It is easy enough to say that these dancers are simply too young to grasp Graham's sophistication (and they are certainly young), but when America's oldest dance company is no longer able to perform its work in the way that makes it special, one has to ask why bother seeing that company at all. There are other companies that perform contemporary dance of the variety currently commissioned by the artistic management better than these dancers can. No one else on the planet should be able to better perform the work of Martha Graham. And yet, at least one company does: Paul Taylor American Modern Dance (which recently performed "Diversions of Angels" during its season at the Koch Theatre). This is no slur against the dancers of The Martha Graham Dance Company, all of whom danced energetically even as they moved without true contractions. This is a call to management to consider what sort of company it wants to be in the future: an exemplar of the Graham Technique or a commissioner of unrelated works? As it stands, the company is now a watered down mix of the two.
Photographs by Brigid Pierce.