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Martha Graham 80th Anniversary Gala

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There's been some discussion of this in response to the Greskovic artcle, but since it's coming up so soon I thought I'd start a topic to remnd people. It's this Tuesday at the Skirball Center in the village. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased at their box office at 566 Laguardia Place, by phone at 212-992-8484 or through their website ($3.50 service charge):



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John Rockwell and Tobi Tobias both wrote mixed to negative reviews of the Graham gala this week. The idea to feature Richard Move comes in for the most fire. A little too close to camp for some, I would imagine.

I agree with them about Move - his act might be hilarious in a different setting but it bordered on caricature and I found it pretty innappropriate for this type of occasion. It was very strange to come to a theater to celebrate Graham’s accomplishments and watch someone up on stage impersonating her. As a gala and a commemoration of the anniversary of her company’s first performance I was ok with the chronological presentation of excerpts and the narration. Move probably would have been ok too if he had been limited to one segment but I think he went on for the whole 2nd half of the evening. He provided running commentary “in her voice” and introduced a number of pieces - it was weird. But more than the camp question, the biggest problem with Move was that he danced in Part Real -Part Dream with Desmond Richardson and it became painfully clear that he is not a dancer. I don’t think Martha would have appreciated that, and I fear for the company’s future if this is a sample of what Janet Eilber has in store for us.

The evening began with excerpts from a couple of Denishawn pieces, which I found interesting for the perspective they gave on Graham’s early influences (which I guess was the point of including them). On their own they were no more than historical curiosities. The evening ended with Maple Leaf Rag which is always panned by critics but which I’ve always enjoyed. I find such a sweet simplicity and gentle humor in it. It always makes me smile to think that as she aged she may have been freed somewhat from her demons and could look back on her life with a little wry amusement, but maybe that’s just me!

My favorite moments were the excerpts from Heretic, Steps in the Street, Dark Meadow and Clytemnestra. They made Graham’s genius perfectly clear, especially when interpreted by dancers like Fang-Yi Sheu and Elizabeth Auclair.

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nysusan -- Was it a full house for the gala? Also, what was the "mood" of the audience given all the drama that played out in the press in the run-up to the gala??

The Graham Web site says that they are heading my way (Madison, WI) in October. I'm wondering whether I should bother to circle the date on my calendar.

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Miliosar, the house was about 90% full - but it’s a small theater. It’s about the same size as the Joyce which holds about 900 people. It’s really a very beautiful theater with a steeply raked orchestra and great sightlines from all seats. The mood was pretty upbeat - there were a lot of ex Graham dancers in the audiance!

If the company is doing a repertory program I wouldn’t hesitate to go see them. I saw several programs at their City Center season last year. They may have lost money but I thought the company was in pretty good shape, and I remember some great Graham dancers from the 70s like Yuriko Kimura and Takako Asakawa as well as Janet Eilber. Today’s company has several dancers who really do the work justice, especially Fang-Yi Sheu who is a brilliant dancer and worth seeing in her own right. And those wonderful minimalist Noguchi sets are worth the price of admission.

I wouldn’t be quite so keen on a program of excerpts. On one hand I did really enjoy a few from the gala, but they’re just not as strong as when they’re presented in full with costumes & scenery.

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I just read a review of the gala by Claudia La Rocco and it hits the nail on the head with my complaints:

"The setup served to give a historical context for Graham's accomplishments, but also gave the impression that the company, under the new artistic direction of former principal Graham dancer Janet Eilber, did not trust the works to speak for themselves..."

Having seen many of Graham's works previously I was glad to learn the historical context but the structure of the program gave the impression that her work needed to be "explained". Minor works may need to be put into context but Graham's great works need no preface or explanation. Heretic is one of the few works performed at the Gala that I had never seen before and I was struck by it's power and piercing depiction of isolation and censure. One's reaction was vicseral. To think the audiance needed to have this explained to them is insulting to the audiance and to the work. What we needed was to see the whole piece, not just an excerpt!


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Joan Acocella has a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker reviewing the gala, and although she makes many of the same criticisms, she emphasizes that the company’s situation is truly desperate and the choices made should be seen in that context.

I will not second-guess this program. If many of the selections did not follow the main track of Graham’s career, they were nevertheless performed honorably. The dancers didn’t trash “Three Gopi Maidens”; they tried to put it over. In the second half, Miki Orihara and Tadej Brdnik were persuasively innocent, and poignant, as the bride and groom of “Appalachian Spring.” As for Fang-Yi Sheu’s performance of Cassandra’s doom-predicting solo from “Clytemnestra,” it was like an earthquake. That, too, got contextualized. Before Sheu came out, Judith Ivey declaimed Cassandra’s fiery lines from Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” Graham’s source. But this was not an intrusion. Ivey did the speech just fine, and there was nothing wrong with telling the spectators, most of whom probably hadn’t read Aeschylus lately, what the solo was about.

She goes on to observe:

No artist ever had a greater reputation for high-mindedness than Graham. That was part of her mystique, and so, for some of her old fans, a program like this is going to look like a cheap sales job. But Eilber cannot afford to worry about the old fans. She needs new fans. If the Graham company were a European organization, it would be given a comfortable government subsidy in recognition of its status as a repository of the national art. But our government doesn’t care about having a national art, so the Grahamites have to make their own way.
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A fasinating article, which just arrived in the mail.

There are a couple of issues that relate to problems that some ballet companies are currently facing:

One is how to attract new audiences to a classical art form that is no longer familiar to many, or in tune with the culture's dominant aesthetic.

The company, she says, has failed to address its true problems: not only the deficit but the fact that American modern dance, which Graham more or less created (her company is the oldest dance troupe in America), had moved on since her time, making her work seem old-fashioned. “It’s not old-fashioned,” Eilber told me—any more than any classic art. But, in order to convince audiences of this, you have to take them by the hand, explain the work, “contextualize” it. “That is my personal crusade,” Eilber said.

Another has to do with the difficulty underfinanced companies of all sorts have in keeping their best artists:

...at the opening of the New York season the dancers—together with the teachers at the company’s school—hadn’t been paid in weeks. They met with their union to discuss whether they should pull out of the season; they decided to go on. But for how long? Fang-Yi Sheu, who is the company’s star—and, if the troupe needs anything (besides money), it needs a female star of her magnitude, to fill the Sarah Bernhardt-size roles that Graham made for herself—is now living in her native Taiwan. She is still on the company’s roster, but after the gala she took off her makeup and caught a midnight flight to Taipei, to fulfill an engagement there, for which, presumably, she was paid.

And here's Acocella's parenthetical comment on the special problems of dance troupes based in NYC:

(Almost all dance companies prosper, when they prosper, by touring. In New York, theylose money.)
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...(her company is the oldest dance troupe in America),...

Is Graham's company the oldest in America? Or just the oldest modern dance? Or did the early part of San Francisco Ballet's life as an Opera ballet company not seem to be the same troupe?

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