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BWW Review: DEBORAH ZALL Project Illuminates Archetypes at The Graham Studio

Deborah Zall bowing at the conclusion of
"In The Company of Women" at
The Martha Graham Studio Theater.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

A master teacher of Martha Graham's technique, Deborah Zall continues the tradition set forth by Graham of illuminating the inner landscape of powerful female characters. "In The Company of Women" -- a collection of dance monologues presented at the Martha Graham Studio Theater on May 13th, 2016 -- featured work that was originally choreographed by Ms. Zall to showcase her strengths as a solo performer. Evidenced by the demands of the work, it is clear that she was a captivating force. Equally clear is that she is an adherent to Graham's vocabulary; almost to a fault. At times one wonders where Graham's voice ends and Ms. Zall's innovation begins. The distinction is that Ms. Zall communicates in ways that the creator never saw fit to. Graham thought big, crudely even, and frequently sacrificed the subtle details that made a character memorable whereas Ms. Zall plumbs the depths of minor moments creating a fully rendered portrait of her characters. As embodied by a cast of current and former Graham company members, this proved rich and rewarding.

Jennifer Conley in "Lyric Suite".
Choreographed by Anna Sokolow.
Staged by Jim May and Samanatha Geracht.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

That is not to say that the evening was without flaws. Ms. Zall's work suffers from a quality of sameness leaving one with the impression that she only choreographs for a few archetypal roles. Either that or these performers overpowered their monologues with their own unique attributes. Whatever the case, ultimately what was communicated depended less upon the material than the performer, which only served to reinforce the connection to Graham common amongst the women. After all, Graham was famous for typecasting her dancers and her dancers were equally famous for embracing their branding. As was the case then, much of what was seen on this concert was constructed to showcase star personality over choreographic brilliance. And yet certain works were wonderful.

Erika Dankmeyer in "Amanda". Choreographed by Deborah Zall.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

"Amanda" -- inspired by Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" -- had Erica Dankmeyer who retains her remarkable physical gifts, shifting backwards and forwards through the eponymous character's timeline as a once fêted beauty. Letting her hair down from a bun, Ms. Dankmeyer transformed into a bonny lass eager to flirt. One glimpse into her mirror shattered this illusion, revealing the devastated homebody she had become. Amanda remains the vain creature of yesteryear at heart, but life has ruined her. In this telling, youth is wasted on the young; they don't appreciate what they have until it has been swept away. We could just as easily have been looking at Mary Tyrone from Eugene O'Neil's "Long Day's Journey Into the Night", such was the strength of Ms. Dankmeyer's specificity and instantaneous transformations. Seeing her perform Ms. Zall's "George Sand" proved less convincing. Either the material was too similar to "Amanda" or Ms. Dankmeyer's power of characterization was not disparate enough.

Jennifer Conley in "Sonnet".
Choreographed by Deborah Zall.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

In "Sonnet" -- inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Sonnet II", recited with heightened sensitivity by the actress Geraldine Johns -- Jennifer Conley transformed an ode to unrequited love into an aria of great sophistication. Beginning with the great line, "TIME does not bring relief; you all have lied", our sense of reality suddenly shifted to that of a silent movie during which Ms. Conley's mastery of movement displayed a three dimensional texture; even when she extended her leg to the side, one was aware of its front, back, rotation, and depth. And what depth there was. "Sonnet" was remarkable in that it provided Ms. Conley the opportunity to reveal the glories of a woman who has known all seasons and yet who remains incomplete. There was only one moment that rang false: the two Graham style grand battements felt incongruous. This was not a woman who kicked her legs up high. Doing so would have brought the entire house tumbling down around her and she was too dedicated to nurturing her loss to bury it.

Lauren Neslund and Luis Gabriel Zaragoza in "September Sonnett".
Choreographed by Anna Sokolow. Staged by Jim May.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Anna Sokolow's "September Sonnet", performed by guest performers, Lauren Neslund and Luis Gabriel Zaragoza of Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble under the direction of Jim May, had one virtue: unleashing the magnificent stage presence of Mr. Zaragoza. Though plain in countenance, his silent fervor convinced the audience that they were observing a smoldering beauty. It put one in mind of the dazzling brilliance that older dance aficionados mention when referencing José Límon. Ms. Zaragoza effortlessly set the stage ablaze with his runs and peerless leaps. Just as easily, he reigned it all back in and restored the cool waters. One wonders what he might have unfurled had he been allowed to cut loose.

Lauren Newman and Dani Stigler in
"Shadow of Her Sister". Choreographed by Deborah Zall.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Closing the program was "Shadow of Her Sister", a physical transcription of the dueling passions between the sisters Angustias and Adela from Federico Garcia Lorca's "La Casa de Bernarda Alba". Though the work followed the thematic line of "Dark vs Light" a tad too closely for my tastes, it was wonderful to see these two characters go at each other: Dani Stinger as the pretty young thing vs. Lauren Newman as her jilted sister. Imagine Lilith from Graham's "Embattled Garden" conspiring to murder Eve and you have a good idea of the piece's layout. Things turn out not so well for Ms. Stinger, who is chewed up and spat out by a deliriously cruel Ms. Newman, though one wonders how things might have transpired had Ms. Stinger been allowed to fight back. She certainly had the power and facility to give as good as she got. In the source material, Adela has more bite to her than what was choreographed as a traditional Graham "princess role". Because it is foreshadowed that Adela is destined for a tragic ending, it would have been nice to have seen more of the original's spitfire characteristics here. A kitten that does not stand up for itself is less interesting than a conniving minx.

Despite my qualms with the lack of variegation and the fact that I felt that some of the endings landed too abruptly, I longed to see more. One would love to see the Martha Graham Dance Company (or one of the other modern legacy companies) commission a piece from Ms. Zall. Unlike their usual fare, she clearly understands stagecraft and is able to communicate in the language of their founder. It seems to me that all she needs is the opportunity. Denise Vale, the Graham company's Artistic Associate was in the audience. Perhaps she will communicate what a boon it would be to work with Ms. Zall to her colleagues.

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

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