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In thrall to a phantom

Dance | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

An ownership struggle seems to have been resolved. Now the Martha Graham legacy faces another stiff challenge: too much reverence.

March 30, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Star ghosts have always wielded undying power in the dance world.

More than a century ago, for instance, a ballerina named Pierina Legnani specialized in executing 32 of the high-velocity whipping turns, called fouettes, on pointe. So choreographers put that bravura feat into her roles.

Those roles keep the afterimage of Legnani's prowess alive and kicking, and today nearly every ballerina dancing the ballroom scene of "Swan Lake" must invoke her ghost -- and measure up to it -- to be deemed a worthy successor.

Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Balasaraswati of India, Gwen Verdon and Isadora Duncan: Their shades still haunt dance stages. And there are plenty more.

But perhaps no dancing ghost remains as potent as Martha Graham's, partly because the modern dance masterworks that carry her spectral imprint have never been extensively restaged or redesigned. That's why the dominating and, some might argue, oppressive afterimage of her dancing remains vivid and seems to be inescapable.

It certainly seemed that way during the Martha Graham Dance Company's two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater in New York in late January, the company's first home season in four years.

Financial crises and litigation over the ownership of Graham's name and repertory had left her company dangling, and its comeback proved that her ghost could be a destructive force, invoking past greatness in a way that made present achievement look both paltry and old-fashioned.

There were plenty of women at the Joyce made up like Graham, striking poses familiar from Graham photographs and giving well-rehearsed displays of Graham technique. But much of the dramatic power in her choreography had eroded to an alarming extent, and as a result, the whole future of the Graham legacy appeared questionable.

Happily, the outcome of the litigation has opened up new possibilities for its survival: possibilities for separating the greatness of Graham's choreography from the aura of her dancing ghost -- and also from the struggling, mediocre dance company that bears her name.

The sincerest form of flattery?

Even before her death in 1991, the women of her company tried incessantly to look like Graham -- approximating and sometimes exaggerating her hairstyles, her makeup -- to conjure up the ghost in some small measure.

Graham hated it but wasn't strong enough to stop it. "I want the dancers in my company not to be like me," she wrote in her autobiography, "Blood Memory." "I want the dancers to learn the dance physically, strongly, and then put their own meaning into it, if they dare to do that. I don't believe in stereotyped mes running around. What a horrible thought."

Horrible or not, many of the lead women at the Joyce performed her dances physically, strongly, but without putting their own meaning into it -- or, indeed, any meaning. For example, Katherine Crockett's approach to Graham's signature 1930 solo "Lamentation" boasted impressive physical pliancy but had absolutely no sense of suffering. She carefully reflected the shapes familiar from photographs and an early film of Graham's performances, but stayed so resolutely away from the state of feeling that the solo embodies that the result resembled an impression of Graham more than a full-fledged performance. And she was hardly alone.

At times, newly appointed artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin (both veteran principals in the company) seemed to be introducing a radically anti-dramatic style of Graham dancing, one prioritizing body sculpture, the clearest, cleanest execution of steps and the preservation of Graham ghost-imagery. It wasn't enough.

In Graham's glory days, major actors took classes at her school because of the way her style of dancing unlocked emotion deep in the body. But only the revelatory Fang Yi Sheu (a member of the company since 1995) and a very few others consistently brought this kind of emotional component to their dancing. And since a cogent interpretive concept or emotional through-line rarely sullied the emphasis on abstract expressionism, the most ambitious restagings often left Graham looking confused or downright unreadable.

Other stagings invited derision because they seemed dated or utterly passe. "There it was, the Graham legacy," Laura Shapiro wrote in New York magazine, reviewing "Errand Into the Maze," Graham's 1947 proto-feminist take on the ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur. "And what did we see? A guy in little black briefs marching stiffly across the stage with a pole across his shoulders to suggest a yoke, and a kind of bone perched on his forehead as horns. He's the Minotaur. I really think it's over."

Calling the Graham legacy an "unwieldy burden," Shapiro compared the literal, "antiquated" "Errand Into the Maze" with George Balanchine's 1934 "Serenade," which she termed "as fresh and provocative as if he premiered it today."

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