Natalia

CLYTEMNESTRA revival - Graham Company

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I attended an extraordinary performance at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater last night -- the U.S. premiere of the recent revival of Martha Graham's only full-evening work, Clytemnestra (1958 premiere - not staged since 1994). The World Premiere of the restoration took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, just two months ago.

As company director Janet Eilber explained in a fascinating post-performance discussion, this revival was a monumental undertaking that took the work back to its 1950s roots in almost every sense, e.g., restoration of passages deleted over time by Ms Graham, reconstruction of the original costumes by Ms. Graham (which had been replaced by the 'lighter' Halston designs for the 1978 PBS telecast), piecing together of the score by El-Dabh (the ONLY Graham composer still alive - teaching at Kent State Univ, Ohio). The Noguchi set-pieces and props, as well as the Rosenthal lighting effects, were splendidly intact. On the other hand, Ms. Eilber and other veteran dancers involved in the revival opted to modernize the work in a couple of ways for today's audiences -- most notably the inclusion of "surtitles" above the proscenium, to announce what's-about-to-happen...and the deletion of one character, the Ghost of Clytemnestra.

The dancing by the 20-member company was beautifully expressive. Principal guest Fang Yi Sheu was terrific and gave the eerie impression of being the reincarnation of Ms Graham -- almost a twin in petite exotic looks (with high-bun hairdo) and darting moves.

The program began at 8 am with the Prologue and ended at 10:30 pm. There was one 20-minute intermission, which came at the end of Act I/sc 1, when Clytemnestra holds up the dagger, having made the decision to kill her husband, Agamemnon. After the intermission we had Act I/sc2, Act 2 and the Epilogue (trial of Orestes by Athena and Apollo). Long- long night of heavy-going Greek mythology for the typical DC audience...but I did not notice anyone leaving at the intermission, it was so gorgeous and powerful. Packed house; huge applause and cheers at the end. A truly grand event in U.S. dance, making me wonder why there was so little publicity leading up to it.

The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra played in the pit. Classical vocalists Nathan Herfindahl and Jennifer Lynn Waters served as Greek Chorus, standing on the stage, next to the front wings.

p.s. - A number of former dancers from the troupe were in the audience, having been invited to last night's opening. I recognized a number of them, including ever-youthful Mary Hickson seated close to me.

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Sublime report, Natalia, and incredibly good news as well. I had planned to go down for this about a month ago, until I called up the company and found that they'd be doing it here in May--which I wouldn't even think of missing. But now that you have found the company in such remarkable shape (I found them to be at City Center in 2005 as well), I look forward to it even more. Glorious.

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I wish I had known about this! Oh well, maybe they'll be back.

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I wish I had known about this! Oh well, maybe they'll be back.

They're repeating it tonight, Hans. Two-and-a-half hours before curtain. I know you're in the area. :blushing:

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Hm...you're right, I might just barely be able to make it. I'll report back if I do!

Edit: I got tickets. I'll be there. :blushing:

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Thanks so much for the report, Natalia! I remember seeing Clytemnestra as a teenager. Although I was already a fan of the Graham company all I remember of Clytemnestra is that it wasn't one of my favorite pieces, and that I found the music really difficult. However my tastes have changed a great deal since then, and I bought tickets for the NY engagement as sooon as I heard about it. Very much looking forward to seeing it again, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that Shue reprises the title role in NY. I think she is an absolutely extraordinary dancer, and although I always enjoy seeing the company it hasn't been quite the same for me since she stopped appearing with them regularly a couple of seasons ago.

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Susan, could you tell me if you got them through a website with tickets, etc. I had no idea they were already on sale. Are you going in spring? I couldn't find the ticket sales location. When I called them, they said nothing about tickets ready yet, and didn't know various other things, whereas they did know all about the Kennedy Center perfs.

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Well, I'm back, and I loved it. This was my first time seeing Graham live, and it is extremely powerful. I expected it to be so, but the energy of the dancers really does hit you like a wall, even when they are merely posing in the background for long periods of time. The only thing I disliked was the surtitles, which I found distracting and annoying. The choreography tells the story very clearly (though it is helpful to read the synopsis) and singers narrate portions of it. More of this at the Kennedy Center, please!

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Susan, could you tell me if you got them through a website with tickets, etc. I had no idea they were already on sale. Are you going in spring? I couldn't find the ticket sales location. When I called them, they said nothing about tickets ready yet, and didn't know various other things, whereas they did know all about the Kennedy Center perfs.

They'll be at the Skirball Center May 12-16 doing a rep program and 3 performances of Clytemnestra. The Skirball is an NYU theatre in the Village that's a little bigger than the Joyce - it probably holds 900 people. Very good sightlines. I got my tix at the box office but you can also order them online , here's their website:

http://www.skirballcenter.nyu.edu/

Go to Calendar+ Performances on the top right and then scroll down on the list that pops up in the middle

Susan

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Glad that you made it to the theater, Hans, and loved it as much as I did. :)

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Natalia, I'm glad you posted in time for me to get there! :)

There is a review by Sarah Kaufman in today's Washington Post.

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Thanks, Susan-they're just a few blocks over from me. It's possible they didn't have them ready 6 weeks ago when I talked to them. Will do.

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Wow -- keeping fingers crossed for a tour!!

In the meantime, many thanks for the great report.

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Martha Graham Dance Company

Clytemnestra (1958)

Northrop Auditorium - University of Minnesota

November 12, 2009

The Martha Graham Dance Company brought its 2008 revival production of Clytemnestra to the Northrop on Thursday night. Set to a score by Halim El-Dabh (no live orchestra/singers on the night) and told in a prologue, three acts and an epilogue, Clytemnestra is the story of the House of Atreus (Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes, Electra, etc.) and its bloody self-destruction.

Going against the grain of the other posts, I have to say that Clytemnestra is a failure. To my mind, the failure is a result of Graham asking the dance to express more than the form allows. Attentive readers of my other posts will know that I've taken to not reading program notes prior to seeing narrative dance works. I do this because sometimes I think choreographers use dancegoers' preexisting familiarity with a subject matter as a crutch to make some of the stage business in their dances intelligible (i.e. Jose Limon's The Traitor, Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet) and I like to test a narrative dance to see if it's comprehensible without the aid of program notes.

Neither Limon's The Traitor nor MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet fails my little test (but there are certain events in both which only really make sense given familiarity with, respectively, the Bible and Shakespeare's play.) Graham's Clytemnestra, however, is a different fish altogether. To me, it's a cheat -- and it's a cheat because the narrative is simply incomprehensible without the help of the program notes (one-third of one 8x10" page and almost the entirety of another) or the supertitles which are projected on a screen above the stage. I defy anyone to convince me that the dance for four men and four women in the Prologue is intelligible as a recounting of the Sack of Troy without outside help. I defy anyone to convince me that the viewer can make sense of what the Night Watchman is doing at the beginning of Act 1 (lighting beacon fires to announce the fall of Troy) without outside help. I defy anyone to convince me that the point of Aegisthus' seduction of Clytemnestra in Act 2 (getting her to murder Agamemnon) can be known through their dance. (Note: Couldn't they be plotting the murder of Helen for all the trouble she has caused? The dance simply does not have the ability to impart a distinction between possible murder victims to the viewer.) I defy anyone to convince me that the viewer can make sense of Cassandra's dance in Act 2 (showing us a prophecy of Agamemnon's death) without the supertitles. (Note: In the absence of outside knowledge, the viewer might reasonably speculate that she is having some kind of seizure instead of conveying a prophecy.)

Clytemnestra goes on and on like this until it reaches the Epilogue where, ostensibly, the gods (Apollo, Athena) resolve Clytemnestra's situation in the Underworld and she achieves release. But do we really see this? I don't think so -- and the reason we don't is that Graham is asking the dance to impart very complicated information and it simply cannot do that. As annoyed as I get with the Balanchine cultists and their treatment of his every utterance as being par on with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or the Sunnah of Muhammed, Balanchine did have a point about the dance not always being able to do the work of literature or theatre or politics.

The shame of it all is that there is some absorbing non-Clytemnestra-related dancing in Clytemnestra which shows that Graham -- contrary to received opinion -- was still creating movement of a very high quality in 1958. It's tempting to think what the Graham company's repertory would look like today if Graham hadn't continued shackling her gifts to star vehicles for herself (which artistic director Janet Eilber freely admitted to in the pre-performance talk) and, instead, choreographed exclusively for her company members from the 50s or so onward. But that, alas, was the road not taken and Clytemnestra serves as an appropriate mausoleum to the decision not made.

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It's tempting to think what the Graham company's repertory would look like today if Graham hadn't continued shackling her gifts to star vehicles for herself (which artistic director Janet Eilber freely admitted to in the pre-performance talk) and, instead, choreographed exclusively for her company members from the 50s or so onward. But that, alas, was the road not taken and Clytemnestra serves as an appropriate mausoleum to the decision not made.

Thanks, miliosr, I enjoyed reading your post. Graham was always candid about making dances for herself to dance in. It may well be that for Graham the choice was not between making dances for her fading gifts or creating on other dancers, but continuing primarily to make works for herself or make no works at all.

(And she got such a relatively late start with her own company that I’m sure from her perspective her active career as a dancer was, in a way, too short.)

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Miliosr, there are some Graham vehicles from the Sixties in which she did nothing but stand onstage

as a totem/symbol/deity while dancers surrounded her. At least Clytemnestra doesn't fall into that

category...

As a semi-Balanchine 'cultist', I admit you have a point about the Gospel of George; he himself referred

to his ballets as 'butterflies' and was famous for such remarks as 'there are no mothers-in-law in ballet';

'la danse, Madame...c'est une question morale'; and 'God creates: I only assemble'--clearly he put on

no airs about his own work. He also had the advantage over Graham of being an artist who did NOT

like to perform (by every account a great dancer who did not like to dance himself) and who was not

indelibly linked with the performance of virtually every great role he created. Graham, even on film,

burns up the stage and comes right through the camera; she was undoubtedly one of the great presences

and dancers of her time, and it has always put subsequent dancers of the caliber of Elisa Monte,

Mary Hinkson, Yuriko, Matt Turney (to name only a few of many stellar Graham company members) at

a huge disadvantage to be inevitably, and unfavorably, compared with Graham herself.

Graham was of the artistic and esthetic stature of a great classical actress; they have great roles in which

to express their gifts--she did not, and in attempting to make such roles she turned to classical mythology

and, indeed, classical theatre (Phedre, for example), as well as the lives of great female artists like

Dickinson. alas, some of the information she asked dancing to impart is beyond the scope of the art form,

as you say, but what a magnificent creator she was.

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Graham, even on film,

burns up the stage and comes right through the camera; she was undoubtedly one of the great presences

and dancers of her time, and it has always put subsequent dancers of the caliber of Elisa Monte,

Mary Hinkson, Yuriko, Matt Turney (to name only a few of many stellar Graham company members) at

a huge disadvantage to be inevitably, and unfavorably, compared with Graham herself.

Mostly agree, and do think she 'comes right through the camera'. The exception I would want to point out, which I think is pretty obvious, is in the film of 'Appalachian Spring'. Not only was she not statuesque enough to do the Pioneer Woman herself and seem the one partially immortal character in the dance, Turney clearly dominates the film, perhaps along with Stuart Hodes. Graham is marvelous as the Bride, but she is obviously old and has lost some physical flexibility--not that I don't think her Bride is fantastic, I do. But I think, at least in that film, that Matt Turney quietly and without surely thinking to do so, dominates and owns that filmed performance. Whether I would think this onstage I'm not sure, so do agree with D. Jowitt in her film that 'the camera loves her', referring to Turney--just guessing, but Turney so incredibly beautiful both of form and grace of movement, I can't imagine not adoring her euqally onstage--would give anything to have seen that live back then. I also saw Virginie Mycene (I believe that's the name) in the Bride in 2005, and thought she was quite as powerful in the role, if not more so, that Graham. But it is true, I can't imagine anybody inhabiting roles like Jocasta or probably Herodiade, although she's not on film with the latter, as does Martha herself. She didn't try to escape from the horrible things as fast as others do; she could stay with pain and agony long enough to capture it, at least that's how I see why she is so great at the tragic roles she made for herself.

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Graham was always candid about making dances for herself to dance in. It may well be that for Graham the choice was not between making dances for her fading gifts or creating on other dancers, but continuing primarily to make works for herself or make no works at all.

I can't help but think of the famous exchange which occurred between Graham and Antony Tudor:

Tudor (to Graham): "How do you want to be remembered, as a dancer or a choreographer?"

Graham: "As a dancer, of course."

Tudor (springing his trap): "I pity you."

If only she had thought differently . . .

Graham, even on film, burns up the stage and comes right through the camera; she was undoubtedly one of the great presences

and dancers of her time

And this, to me, is precisely what plagues Clytemnestra (and later period Graham more generally.)

By all accounts, Graham was a fearsome and formidable dancer/performer. My guess is the sheer force of her own charisma lulled audiences of that time (i.e 1958) into thinking the dance was doing the heavy lifting when it wasn't. Or, her Herculean and quixotic onstage bid to hold old age and reality at bay transfixed audiences and diverted attention away from the structural problems inherent in Clytemnestra. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this . . . and it undoubtedly made for fascinating theater.

The trouble for the current Graham company is that there is no one in the company who can match that grandeur and, as a result, the structural flaws in the work come surging to the forefront in performance. Without the great star holding forth "in the grand manner," Clytemnestra devolves into an incomprehensible mess.

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... The exception I would want to point out, which I think is pretty obvious, is in the film of 'Appalachian Spring'. Not only was she not statuesque enough to do the Pioneer Woman herself and seem the one partially immortal character in the dance, Turney clearly dominates the film, perhaps along with Stuart Hodes. ...

Indubitably. That's the one Graham role which was not quite typical--not a cauldron, not epic in scope--and I think it was less suited to her than any of the others. Matt Turney, a goddess, indeed dominates and owns that performance. I would give anything to have seen her live in many roles (She of the Ground, Errand into the Maze, whichever role she danced in Diversion of Angels...the list just goes on) she danced. I believe the stage probably loved her too--who wouldn't? miliosr, I think you're right--sadly, something like Clytemnestra requires the great star, in fact perhaps the sacred monster, to hold it together. It isn't Primitive Mysteries or Letter to the World--it's no masterpiece.

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Not having seen this revival, I am wondering if the problems some of you have described have more to do with the current production than the original choreography. After Martha gave up the role, Clytemnestra was performed to great critical acclaim by Pearl Lang, Mary Hinkson, Takako Asakawa and Yuriko Kimura. I also wonder if the supertitles (sounds like a horrible distraction to me) aren't resulting in an expectation of a very literal depiction of what they describe, preventing one from being caught up in the drama. There was definitely an assumption on Graham's part that the audience has a basic knowledge of the myth, although when Clytemnestra was performed in Asia, audiences were very enthusiastic, and they for the most part don't have Greek Mythology as a reference. Perhaps their theatre forms prepare them to be open to an experience that can't be taken in all at once and there is an expectation of understanding more on repeated viewings.

I guess I shouldn't be ranting on when I haven't even seen this production, sorry!

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I also wonder if the supertitles (sounds like a horrible distraction to me) aren't resulting in an expectation of a very literal depiction of what they describe, preventing one from being caught up in the drama.

I found the surtitles more of a help than a hindrance; they don't suck you into the story, but then that's something that shouldn't be left up to surtitles in the first place. Graham's "Clytemnestra" is difficult to follow even if you know the Oresteia backwards and forwards and have braved Graham's own program notes to boot. The original score (composed by Halim El-Dabh) includes chanted text for a man and a women to provide some context, but it's not much of a road map if you get lost. The work is structured as a non-linear series of flashbacks with multiple takes on the some of the incidents. The cast is very large; there are about a dozen named parts and not all of the characters are easy to identify. Keeping track of who's doing what to whom and why is a challenge and I think it can make it difficult to experience the work as a drama. The big solos and set pieces are plenty vivid, but would be an eyeful even if they were presented as excerpts. If you worked them up as a trailer, everyone would want to go see the show.

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I guess I shouldn't be ranting on when I haven't even seen this production, sorry!

No need to apologize. You've actually raised some interesting points.

Not having seen this revival, I am wondering if the problems some of you have described have more to do with the current production than the original choreography.

In the pre-performance chat, Janet Eilber said that the current production of Clytemnestra is a hybrid -- incorporating several versions Graham had supervised during her lifetime. She did say that they went back to the original costumes for this revival; thereby ditching the Halston replacements.

I didn't get the sense there was anything wrong with the production per se. For me, the concept just didn't work as a dance event.

I also wonder if the supertitles (sounds like a horrible distraction to me) aren't resulting in an expectation of a very literal depiction of what they describe, preventing one from being caught up in the drama.

The supertitles were distracting. I was constantly looking up and then looking back at the stage. Still, I would argue that the supertitles were more a symptom of a problem than the problem itself.

There was definitely an assumption on Graham's part that the audience has a basic knowledge of the myth

True enough. But given the general decline in literacy since the 1950s, those works which presumed a preexisting knowledge on the part of the viewer can no longer count on the viewer to fill in the blanks.

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True enough. But given the general decline in literacy since the 1950s, those works which presumed a preexisting knowledge on the part of the viewer can no longer count on the viewer to fill in the blanks.

Indeed, and although I consider myself well-read and -educated, I haven't thought myself 'up on a lot of those blanks' until relatively recently, and still not all of them! including some of the basic ones. I hadn't even read the first two plays of the Oedipus Cycle till about 6 months ago.

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I also wonder if the supertitles (sounds like a horrible distraction to me) aren't resulting in an expectation of a very literal depiction of what they describe, preventing one from being caught up in the drama.

I found the surtitles more of a help than a hindrance; they don't suck you into the story, but then that's something that shouldn't be left up to surtitles in the first place. Graham's "Clytemnestra" is difficult to follow even if you know the Oresteia backwards and forwards and have braved Graham's own program notes to boot. The original score (composed by Halim El-Dabh) includes chanted text for a man and a women to provide some context, but it's not much of a road map if you get lost. The work is structured as a non-linear series of flashbacks with multiple takes on the some of the incidents. The cast is very large; there are about a dozen named parts and not all of the characters are easy to identify. Keeping track of who's doing what to whom and why is a challenge and I think it can make it difficult to experience the work as a drama. The big solos and set pieces are plenty vivid, but would be an eyeful even if they were presented as excerpts. If you worked them up as a trailer, everyone would want to go see the show.

Thanks, Kathleen. Great post.

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I am sorry to report that Matt Turney died today. She went peacefully and had the love and support of her wonderful son Adam, his loving wife, Jennifer and their three beautiful children. Her best friend, and my aunt. Mary Hinkson is still living in New York. I hope the next time Clytemnestra is performed, these gorgeous dancers will be acknowledged.

Miliosr, there are some Graham vehicles from the Sixties in which she did nothing but stand onstage

as a totem/symbol/deity while dancers surrounded her. At least Clytemnestra doesn't fall into that

category...

As a semi-Balanchine 'cultist', I admit you have a point about the Gospel of George; he himself referred

to his ballets as 'butterflies' and was famous for such remarks as 'there are no mothers-in-law in ballet';

'la danse, Madame...c'est une question morale'; and 'God creates: I only assemble'--clearly he put on

no airs about his own work. He also had the advantage over Graham of being an artist who did NOT

like to perform (by every account a great dancer who did not like to dance himself) and who was not

indelibly linked with the performance of virtually every great role he created. Graham, even on film,

burns up the stage and comes right through the camera; she was undoubtedly one of the great presences

and dancers of her time, and it has always put subsequent dancers of the caliber of Elisa Monte,

Mary Hinkson, Yuriko, Matt Turney (to name only a few of many stellar Graham company members) at

a huge disadvantage to be inevitably, and unfavorably, compared with Graham herself.

Graham was of the artistic and esthetic stature of a great classical actress; they have great roles in which

to express their gifts--she did not, and in attempting to make such roles she turned to classical mythology

and, indeed, classical theatre (Phedre, for example), as well as the lives of great female artists like

Dickinson. alas, some of the information she asked dancing to impart is beyond the scope of the art form,

as you say, but what a magnificent creator she was.

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