Entertainment » Theatre

Martha Graham Dance

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Friday Mar 21, 2014
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Katherine Crockett as Clytemnestra
Katherine Crockett as Clytemnestra   (Source:Hibbard Nash Photography)

In its all-too-brief season at City Center, "Martha Graham Dance" is presenting in one of two programs (the one I saw) something very old, something very new and something in between.

The freshness, vitality and immediacy of Graham’s own works, in contrast to a world premier mess, doesn’t mean that the company has to become a waxworks repository of the iconic founder of modern dance, like so many symphony orchestras. I sometimes think this is what the senior dance critic for the Times would like to happen at City Ballet vis-a-vis Balanchine.

Even if you’ve never seen "Appalachian Spring," you’ve heard the music. The score, one of (if not the) most popular works of "serious" music by a 20th century American composer, is nearly ubiquitous, as it should be.

The last time I saw a live performance of "Spring" done by Graham, Rudolph Nureyev played the preacher. So it’s been a while, but I do remember thinking at the time that it was stilted, lacked energy and was even slightly ridiculous in parts.

Wow, was I wrong! The great dancers at City Center really bring this wonderful paean to the American pioneering spirit to life and plunge its depth as well as bring out its humor. Every gesture -- and Graham was very big on gestures, the framed pose, the frozen move -- reflects something iconic.

Everyone, even the four camp followers, who can be just silly, knew how to wrench every bit of meaning from this rich work. That said, Katherine Crockett as the Pioneering Woman (pretty iconic, huh?) was like the American version of the French national symbol Marianne, mixed with the theatrical intensity of a Helen Mirren.

At 70, "Appalachian Spring" stands not only as one of the foundation stones of modern dance, but as a work that has truly stood the test of time.

Only in the first bloom of adulthood at 30, Graham’s interpretation of "The Rite of Spring" also benefits from a well-known modern score, although "Spring" would never have inspired the riots that greeted Stravinsky’s revolutionary dissonance.

Katherine Crockett as the Pioneering Woman (pretty iconic, huh?) was like the American version of the French national symbol Marianne mixed with the theatrical intensity of a Helen Mirren.

In Graham’s version, it seems there’s a virgin who’s being sacrificed by a priest. Or something. The work meanders a bit (as does the music in my opinion) but, this being Graham, it’s still enthralling.

Anyway, the male ensemble are all dressed in tight mesh black boxer briefs. For me at least, that certainly kept my attention, even though in a few places I felt like I was watching an Andrew Christian promotional video directed by a Sarah Lawrence graduate student.

Nothing could prepare me for the world premier of "Depak Ine," which could have been titled "Deepak Chopra" for all the sense it made. This is one of those contemporary works that suggests insects, a yoga class on bad acid, a hospital ward of St. Vitus Dance sufferers and "The Roach" from "Hairspray."

The "music" for this mess (ironic quotes) was a melange of noise that reminded me of Dolly Parton’s famous quip that it takes a lot of money to look that cheap. Next time, the company could save a lot of money by hiring a high school student to splice together random sounds.

I’m most certainly not a fuddy-duddy, and again, I don’t want to see Graham’s company turn into nothing more than the dance version of a tribute band. But new works should be an extension of Graham’s vision, not a wholesale rejection.

This is the kind of boiler-plate comment on randomness (of nature? modern life? contemporary art?) that is itself so random it ends up not saying anything. These kinds of works fill the repertoire of Young Turk choreographers. But Graham, like Ailey, has a legacy to build on. So build something, don’t just commission something so artistically destructive just to be with it.

(One brief addendum: Seeing the choreography texting during a curtain call didn’t exactly endear him to me.)


"Martha Graham Dance" runs through March 22 at New York City Center, 131 W 55th St. For information or tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://marthagraham.org/citycenter or http://www.nycitycenter.org/tickets/

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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