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Martha Graham Dance Company

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The Martha Graham Dance Company performed a program titled Prelude and Revolt: Denishawn to Graham at Madison's Overture Hall on Tuesday night.

The structure of the program was unique in that it traced Graham's evolution over time through a lecture/performance format. Various members of the company would take to the stage before pieces were performed to give the audience some context about what they were about to see and how the dances related to Graham's evolution over time.

I have to say that I had mixed feelings about this approach. While the contextual comments were thoughtful, I didn't think that this approach always worked within the confines of a concert hall. I think a lecture/performance of this sort would work better as part of a residency at a college (like the University of Wisconsin-Madison) than it did as part of a concert hall performance.

My other reservation about the format is that the tone was -- at times -- too jokey for my taste. At one point in the program, the company showed footage of Danny Kaye's famous filmed takedown of modern dance in general and Martha Graham in particular. The company member who introduced the clip remarked that, when you get as big as Graham did, you're bound to attract affectionate tributes. The problem with this is that the clip didn't seem terribly affectionate. I found that the clip, rather than enhancing Graham's reputation, had the no doubt unintended effect (from the company's standpoint) of exposing one of Graham's shortcomings -- the lack of humor in her work.

Format questions aside, here are my thoughts on the actual works performed:

The Incense (Ruth St. Denis, 1906)

Gnossienne (A Priest of Knossos) (Ted Shawn, 1919)

These solos premiered, respectively, in 1906 and 1919 but they look like they could have premiered in 1806 and 1819 -- they're that dated. The point of showing these was to show where Graham's later interest in presenting Greek/mythological themes in her own work came from. As concert dance works, however, these pieces were so boring that I nearly fell asleep.

Serenata Morisca (Ted Shawn, 1916, danced by Graham from 1921-1925)

This solo contained every Spanish/flamenco cliche you've ever seen in your life but what made it more palatable than the first two was the dancer's ankle length skirt which was weighted so that the skirt took on a life of its own as the dance progressed. While Shawn's choreography is nothing to write home about, the interplay of the dancer and the skirt was interesting. It was as if dancer and skirt were conducting a duet of sorts.

Three Gopi Maidens (Martha Graham, 1926)

This was the low point of the evening. Sub-standard Denishawn at its worst except that Graham herself was the author of this inanity. It would fit right in with ABT's production of Le Corsaire, though. (Yes, that's meant as an insult to ABT.)

Lamentation (Martha Graham, 1930)

Satyric Festival Song (Martha Graham, 1932)

These two Graham solos were a considerable step up in quality from what came before them. Unfortunately, because they represented such a radical departure from the whole Denishawn ethic, I couldn't help wondering if the lecture/performance format wouldn't work better if the company ditched the Denishawn works and, instead, just gave the audience aural context about Denishawn before presenting the Graham solos as revolts against what came before.

I liked both solos well enough but I thought that the two dancers in these pieces lacked the kind of explosive stage presence that history tells us Graham had.

Steps in the Street (excerpt from Chronicle) (Martha Graham, 1936)

This was my favorite piece of the night and, to me, was a virtual master class in how to animate stage space through the positioning and movement of human bodies. There were many memorable sections to this work but the best was watching lead dancer Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch use her swinging left foot to mark time on the stage floor (as if she was a human metronome) while the rest of the company traversed the stage. Outstanding!


Appalachian Spring (Martha Graham, 1944)

I had mixed feelings about this one. I loved the scenic design and how Graham filled the stage space -- everything and everyone looked like they were in perfect harmony.

The performances lacked something, though. I didn't think the leads were charismatic enough to put the work across. As a result, I found that it only sprang to life intermittently. (The audience liked it, though, so maybe it was just me.)

Acts of Light (Martha Graham, 1981)

This dance was a split decision for me. The first two sections of this dance (a duet between a man and a woman and a group dance with one woman and five men) were very bad. The duet was vulgar and unsightly and the group dance was Graham at her self-parodying worst. (If I hadn't known better I would have said that the second section was the handiwork of the Carol Burnett Modern Dance Troupe -- it really looked like that much of a parody.)

Amazingly, I loved the final section, which featured the entire company. This last section was a remarkable contrast between the "earth" and the "air" with the company members alternately taking flight or plunging to the earth. My only reservation about this piece was that the Graham dancers (particularly the male dancers) looked a little ragged in the air. I found myself wondering what a company like ABT could do with this section if you could detach it from the other two sections and present it as a stand-alone piece. But then I doubt ballet dancers would be at ease with the "earth" sections of this dance like the Graham dancers are. So, at the end of the day, maybe the answer is that this is a dance where the perfect performance of it will always remain elusive because no company can ever measure up to its peculiar demands.

All told, I thought the Graham company's performance in Madison was an up-and-down affair. They're alive and kicking but both the repertory choices and the actual performances were very uneven. Based on what I saw on Tuesday night, I don't think they're anywhere close to being where they should be based on Martha Graham's reputation.

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Many thanks for the report -- the company performed here in Seattle soon after their legal battles were settled, and my biggest response was relief that they were still alive, and gratitude that the works were still being performed.

Graham herself, after she came out of her post-performing funk, would introduce her works from the stage, and comment on various aspect of her career and interests. I remember that she was always much funnier than we thought she would be -- she had the timing of a good stand-up comic. I'm not sure why I would be surprised -- you could see it in her choreography.

Graham worshipped St Denis, and was very attached to that part of her heritage. I know she was happy to perform the Denishawn repertory at various times in her career, and you can see some of those influences in her later choreography. And, yes, she certainly could 'work her skirt' -- something that she got from Miss Ruth. But very few people had the same skill with a piece of fabric that Graham had.

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papeetepatrick -- The Graham company has been touring the upper mid-West recently. They've been performing in college towns like Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) and Madison (University of Wisconsin). I'm not sure where they are heading to next. The company Web site probably has a list of performance dates.

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