"My whole premise," says Richard Move, "is that Martha never died. It's just that now she's hosting a dance series in which she performs and introduces other people's work."
Move is talking about Martha Graham, the modern dance icon who actually did die in 1991. On a regular basis, though, Move brings her back to life, reincarnating a legendary figure who spent most of the century developing her severely angled and weighted form of dance, and reached household-name status while sweeping about in diva style, making pronouncements in lofty, "I am art" style.
At barely 5 feet tall, she was perhaps not the logical alter-ego for the 6-foot-4 Move to choose. Nevertheless, for the last three years, at a tiny club called Mother in the meat-packing district of New York, Move has been packing them in. Dressed in full Graham drag--plenty of severely draped Lycra and a wig of black hair tortured into a bun far above ski-slope cheekbones--Move hosts a monthly dance series called Martha@Mother.
Since its inception in 1996, Martha@Mother has become one of the hottest tickets in New York--hotter, some might say, than tickets to see the Graham company itself, which has fallen on relatively hard times since its founder's death. In 1997, Martha@Mother received a Bessie (the nickname for the New York Dance and Performance Awards, presented by Dance Theatre Workshop) and was listed among the year's most unforgettable moments in New York's Time Out magazine. The series is regularly recommended by critics in the Village Voice and draws a mix of dance insiders and the high-art crowd (Baryshnikov is a fan), along with curious clubgoers and locals.
Each Martha@Mother program, curated by Move and his co-director Janet Stapleton, contains a number of quick-moving (nothing over 10 minutes) contemporary dance works, as well as what Move calls his "Cliffs Notes" versions of Graham classics. His company sometimes swells to 12 dancers, half of whom currently belong to the real Graham company as well--and none of whom is in drag.
Move's interpretations are not to be confused with Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo antics, which rely primarily on cross-dressing for their effect. Nor are they reconstructions of Graham's famous works--more like deconstructions, Move says. "I take parts of different dances and restage them, maybe combine things, heightening what I think are important elements. And I find new music--I like to use the Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock movie scores, like from 'Psycho,' things like that."
Other works on the Martha@Mother series have included premieres by the likes of Mark Morris, Meredith Monk and Sean Curran; as well as pieces by unknown choreographers, either from well-established companies (Taylor, Cunningham or New York City Ballet dancers) or discoveries, such as Bill Shannon, a hip-hop wunderkind who dances on crutches. Move calls the series "a monthly New York dance season, really." Dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt has described it as "a dandy backdoor education in modern dance."
In addition to the new work, there's no doubt that one of Martha@Mother's biggest attractions remains Move's ghost-of-Graham commentary, delivered in a style best termed "oracular chic." He tells historically correct anecdotes as he imagines Martha might have--had she been just inches further over the top. Sometimes, he inserts spoken text into his dances. In his interpretation of Graham's famous solo "Lamentation," for instance, he stretches against the tube-shaped purple Lycra costume and freezes at a severe angle to recall--in a reverential deadpan--the famous story about a critic who thought this solo made her look as if she might give birth to a cube.
Groping for a way to describe someone who worships Graham and satirizes her goddess persona at the same time, dance writers have called Move's work a "sophisticated parody," a "clever, disarming dance tribute" and "an accurate and irreverent homage." Move himself calls it "an in-depth character study."
Southern Californians will get a chance to see this second coming of Martha on Thursday and Friday, when Move hooks up with the L.A.-based American Repertory Dance Company to host its evening of modern dance reconstructions at California Plaza. It's not exactly a predictable collaboration, since ARDC usually presents its historical modern dance without a discernible sense of humor--you're not meant to chuckle at the dramatic excesses of Mary Wigman, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, no matter how dated they may sometimes seem to today's eyes. But Move and ARDC's more conventional dance reconstructors actually have the same goals in mind: to bring forgotten gems back to the stage with as much historical accuracy and contemporary passion as possible. The fact that Move provides a dicingly clever commentary by reincarnating and deconstructing Graham could be seen as a postmodern bonus.