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BWW Reviews: Saying Something New About Graham: The Martha Graham Dance Company at New York City Center


It's probably not possible to say something about Martha Graham's choreography that hasn't already been said. After all, 2014 marks the Martha Graham Dance Company's 88th season. But just because these works have been seen by audiences a hundred times before does not make them any less meaningful or relevant. There will always be a few Graham "virgins" in the house, experiencing the magic and mystery of the technique and canon for the first time. And on the other hand, there will always be Graham connoisseurs in the audience, ones that have seen each of the company's twenty-eight works. Even for them, however, the experience is new thanks to a different cast of dancers and an ever-changing contemporary lens.

The Martha Graham Dance Company performed at New York's City Center March 19-22. I attended on the evening of March 21st, excited to see an interesting trio of works: Graham's famous "Clytemnestra," the world premiere of Adnonis Foniadakis' "Echo," and Graham's final creation of her career, "Maple Leaf Rag."

The first act consisted of the hour-long "Clytemnestra" (1958), Graham's rendition of Aeschylus' ancient Greek tragedy, The Oresteia. I recently read the play-but it was not necessary. The program included a brief introduction to The Oresteia, artistic director Janet Eilber mentioned the plot in her opening speech and another quick textual synopsis flashed on the dark scrim before the dancers appeared. It's as if the company said to the audience, "You will understand this performance if it's the last thing we do!"

The plot, as in any Greek play, is complicated. Agamemnon is away at war, Queen Clytemnestra craves revenge for the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. When the King returns, Clytemnestra, with the coercion of her lover, Aegisthus, murders Agamemnon. However, the other two royal children, Electra and Orestes, reprove their mother's matricide, and Electra convinces Orestes to kill both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Much more happens. Still, Graham's work focuses primarily on Clytemnestra, who is present only in the first two acts of The Oresteia trilogy. Martha Graham created many pieces inspired by prominent female characters of ancient Greek mythology: Medea ("Cave of the Heart" 1946), Jocasta ("Night Journey" 1947), Phaedra ("Phaedra" 1962), and Clytemnestra. In all of these pieces Graham took a Greek tragedy and concentrated on the complexities of the female archetypes: mother, wife, seductress, murderer, daughter, etc.

The choreography is extremely geometric and archaic. Each dancer (or rather, character) is personified through contorted yet very emotive poses-the messenger's slow, sustained arch of his back, Agamemnon's repeated cupped slap against his thigh, and Clytemnestra's nightmare when she tries to dance while entrapped in a red cape from the neck down.

Many of the dancers, especially the men, never seem to fully realize their movement. There is so much tension that the energy is always redirected in towards the body (i.e. flexed feet, cupped palms, bent elbows, vertical jumps, etc.). On the other hand, Clytemnestra's energy derives from within her core but extends beyond herself.

Overall, Graham's interpretation of The Oresteia, in my opinion, diverges from the original text-but in doing so, she forces the audience to explore the character of Clytemnestra more deeply. In the text, Clytemnestra is portrayed as a maniacal, ruthless, and scheming. As devil's advocate, Graham seems to ask: What drove Clytemnestra to commit murder? In her rendition, Graham's Clytemnestra is despairing, passionate, angry, clever-less monster, more human.

Sandwiched between the two Graham pieces was a world premiere of Adnonis Foniadakis' "Echo" (2014). The work illustrates the myth of Narcissus, a handsome man who became so enamored with his own reflection that he could not see how much the nymph, Echo, loved him. To demonstrate the myth through dance, Foniadakis constructs an amazing pas de due between two male dancers, Narcissus and his reflection. The choreography is a stark contrast to the geometric, grounded poses of "Clytemnestra." It is fast and fluid, intertwined and uninhibited. The duet between Narcissus and his reflection is mesmerizing, fusing loving embraces, fighting sequences, unison phrases, and partnering. At one point Narcissus lays on top of his reflection and the two dancers snake their noses back and forth as mirror images. But, just like the myth, Narcissus is conquered by his own vice. At the end of the dance, the reflection sensuously strangles Narcissus and drags him upstage into darkness.

The performance finally lightens up with "Maple Leaf Rag" (1990), Martha Graham's final choreographic creation before her death in 1991. While the jaunty song and dance act as a sort of self-parody of Graham and her own technique, this effectually emphasizes how legendary Graham's style and choreography still is.

Photo credits:
Martha Graham Dance Company
"Echo", choreography by Andonis Foniadakis
Pictured: Lorenzo Pagano and PeiJu Chien-Pott
Photo: Costas

Martha Graham Dance Company
Pictured: Blakeley White-McGuire and Abdiel Jacobsen
Photo: Costas

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