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BWW Reviews: Shocking, Sensual, Surreal Graham


The Martha Graham Dance Company performed an intimate performance this week as part of the Company's "Graham Deconstructed" Series and Performa 13. The evening, entitled "Surreal Graham," consisted of two pieces that exemplify the aura of surrealism, which sought to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality through uncensored, unfiltered, and unconscious expression. Graham is perhaps the ultimate surrealist choreographer in that her work was ridden with shocking, sexual, and even violent undertones, themes that were popular amongst surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.

The works performed were Graham's "Spectre - 1914" and "Hérodiade." Before each number, guest speaker Mary Ann Caws (professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at CUNY's Graduate School) discussed relevant connections to surrealist paintings and pointed out moments in the dance for the audience to consider.

In the intimate Martha Graham studio theatre, it was out of the ordinary for the audience to be so close to the dancers. You could see every emotion emanating from the dancers' eyes, proving that Graham's work was as much about the acting as the dancing itself.

The statuesque Katherine Crockett opened the performance with "Spectre - 1914." Graham premiered "Spectre - 1914" just after she declined to perform at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, saying, "I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible. In addition, some of my concert group would not be welcomed in Germany."

The intense solo evokes the general feelings of war-expectation, passion, anger, and devastation. Crockett adorned a long-sleeved black leotard and a long black skirt (that extended perhaps a foot past her feet) with bright red trim. The skirt also had red fabric underneath and a full slit in the back so that Crockett was able to pull the pieces forward, lift them above her head, and release them over and over again like a bird flapping its wings or like flames engulfing her.

"Spectre - 1914" was followed by "Hérodiade," a poignant yet very ambiguous duet. This piece premiered in 1944, a stark contrast to Graham's optimistic "Appalachian

Spring," which was also part of the program. The set consisted of three abstract white structures designed by Isamu Noguchi: a coat rack, a chair, and a mirror. Miki Orihara performed the role of "A Woman," dressed in a purple gown with elaborate gold embroidery, while Katherine Crockett was "Her Attendant," dressed in a simple gray dress. Throughout the number, the Woman continuously gravitated toward the mirror, obsessed with its power. What exactly that power may be is up for interpretation - it could be the mirror's ability to satisfy her vanity, to reveal her "skeletons," or to show her flaws.

The Woman and her Attendant are opposites. To the Woman, there is only black or white, right and wrong. The Attendant, however, embodies the middle ground (her costume is gray, a blend of black and white). The Woman travels through space at right angles. Her movements are vigorous and sharp: repetitive jumps and moments of complete stillness. At one point, the Woman swings her leg like a pendulum, tottering between her decisions. In contrast, the Attendant's shapes are round and virtuosic. Crockett sweeps her long legs into gorgeous tilts and arches her back to gaze at the audience. Her choreography is motherly, both in her round shapes and deep squats that suggest birthing and in her care for the Woman.

Near the end of "Hérodiade" the Woman stands still at center stage. Her Attendant strips the Woman of her purple gown to reveal a simple white dress underneath. She slowly circles the Woman as she removes the dress - again contrasting her circular shapes with the Woman's rigidity. But the Woman eventually summons her Attendant to leave, and then the Attendant is left alone.

In the final moments of the piece the Woman takes a black cloth from the coat rack and envelops herself in the fabric. Does this suggest that the Woman takes her own life, overwhelmed by the struggle within herself? Or is there a glimmer of hope as she wraps herself in the black cocoon, anticipating a sort of rebirth? Graham leaves us with all of these looming questions; like surrealism, it forces us to try to make sense of our subconscious.

Get your tickets to see the Martha Graham Dance Company at New York City Center March 19-22, 2014.

Photos by: Paul Goode

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