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BWW Reviews: Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater – Myth and Transformation


Opening night of the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce featured an interesting pairing: a revival of Graham's 1962 Phaedra with Richard Move's 2002 piece, The Show (Achilles Heels).

In typical Greek tragedy-form, Phaedra is the not-so-uplifting story of forbidden love and human demise. Like the image of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, Phaedra is torn between the influence of two goddesses, the modest Artemis and the passionate Aphrodite. Plot wise, Phaedra seduces her stepson, Hyppolytus, lies to her husband, and commits suicide.

Phaedra is the quintessential Graham piece both thematically and choreographically. Graham collaborated with composer, Robert Starer, and sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, to create a multidimensional world; the work blends elements of traditional Greek theater and mythology with more contemporary orchestral music and Picasso-like sets. The movement features signature Graham deep contractions, cupped palms, suspended jumps, and statuesque poses.

Back in 1962, Congress criticized the overt eroticism of Phaedra and nearly halted the company's State-commissioned European tour. True, the male dancers wear next-to-nothing, but so did quite a few hippies of the time. At one point, though, Phaedra takes a golden dagger and pantomimes slicing herself from pelvis to chest. But in general, from a modern-day standpoint the sensuality of Phaedra is tame compared to what we see everyday on MTV and E!

In terms of other Graham works that I have seen, Phaedra is the most theatrical - not in terms of melodrama, but as a piece of theater. Coupled with the sculptured set pieces and a whole ensemble of dancers, Phaedra truly tells the full story, just without any words.

After intermission the audience took to their seats for a more modern portrayal of Greek tragedy. Choreographer, Robert Move, breathes new life - and pop culture - into the well-known legend of Achilles, a beautiful man who disguised himself as a woman to evade going to war. The Show (Achilles Heels), set on several dancers of the Martha Graham Company, presents the traditional story of Achilles in a quasi-21st century. The piece begins with Graham and Greek-inspired choreography with one-dimensional, carving movements to perhaps mimic the characters on ancient ceramic vases. But the mood quickly changes to a contemporary game show with lip-synced voiceovers by Deborah Harry and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Through mural set pieces, popular music, and the use of current dance styles, Move puts a modern-day spin on historic mythology.

As the curtain went down, I felt a little uneasy in my seat. The modern-spin on Homer's Iliad was innovative, sure, but I couldn't help but feel that the story was cheapened by the performance. Why was it that Martha Graham's Phaedra is a beautiful and powerful illustration of the story of Phaedra while The Show (Achilles Heels) felt sort of silly? The answer hit me as I was catching up on last week's episode of "Dance Moms" on Lifetime. Move's recreation of the story of Achilles was genuine - it is our society itself that is almost laughable. The legend of Achilles is timeless in terms of its themes of love, war, fame, passion, and revenge. But the framework - how the story is presented - was antiquated. Move places Achilles in a contemporary context and, in doing so, illustrates how the story, the themes, and the resonance among audiences are eternal.

Photo 1
Martha Graham Dance Company
Pictured: Tadej Brdnik and Blakeley White-McGuire
Photo: Costas

Photo 2
Martha Graham Dance Company
"The Show (Achilles Heels)"
Choreography: Richard Move
Pictured: Lloyd Mayor
Photo: Costas

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