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The Rites of Martha Graham

Martha Graham Dance Company 1984

at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center February 28–March 18,

To produce a version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the age of ninety is so unlikely a prospect that Martha Graham’s life has taken on an aspect of her work—triumph wrested against odds, whether of time or fate. Graham seems more and more like her chosen heroines, more like Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, of course, than like Clytemnestra, Medea, Joan of Arc, or Jocasta, yet they are all women transfigured by extraordinary experience. Graham’s drama consists of turning despair into psychological release, the worst blows life can muster into mastery, whether over the self or in art. The Rite of Spring provides no opportunity for the dramatization of triumph; a human sacrifice and a primitive ordeal of renewal, it is communal, not heroic, and though it has a central figure, the Chosen One, her choice is random and she is not of the slightest psychological interest. The only questions are: how she is going to be killed, and how quickly.

I have seen three productions of the Stravinsky work in the last year: Paul Taylor’s (on TV), Jean-Pierre Bonnefous’s in a trio of Stravinsky works at the Met, and now the Graham. The Bonnefous was all effort and no impact—it had the urgency of a tea dance at the Paris Ritz. Taylor’s version, the most eccentric, exploits the score for unexpected purposes, making use of the profiles one sees on Greek vases—one foot lifted, the other fixed, the face positioned at right angles to the feet—the flicker of silent movies, and what appeared to be subway crowds, to dance out its detective-story format. There is a certain method in Taylor’s madness. The Rite of Spring may propitiate the gods, but its first business is finding a body to be killed, and so the mystery-novel notion is not as far-fetched as it first seems. Taking the word “mystery” literally, it junks the Russian folklore (as does Graham) and the primitive and the ritualistic as well. Taylor is too good a choreographer to trivialize the nature of the music itself. Instead, he minimizes it, wanting to suggest, perhaps, how much habit and routine may have replaced ritual in modern life. Taylor’s Rite is raffish and elegant and cleverly updates the original purpose of the score.

Graham meets it head-on; her two main characters are the Shaman and the Chosen One, a role Graham danced to Massine choreography in 1930 when Stokowski introduced the music to America, and her version proves once more that the three great early Stravinsky scores—The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring—are only danceable in part. Even Balanchine’s Firebird stops dead in the wedding scene, and ends, to glorious music, in pageant and tableau. I have never seen a successful Petrouchka or even heard of one beyond the original Diaghilev-Nijinsky staging. The scores are too much of a good thing. In The Rite of Spring there is no possible way of sustaining excitement at the level and intensity of the music itself; the violence and dynamics of the great climaxes are beyond the power of the human body to express. No one has ever heard chords quite like the ones that seem literally to be torn from the orchestra, as if the blood of the woodwind players and the percussionists were being thrown into the bargain.

The stage setting for the sacrifice is possibly the Southwest of El Penitente, a work from the Forties—a forked tree melodramatically silhouetted against the sky, surrounded by descending layers of steps. A rope is eventually drawn from the tree—both suggest too literally the props of a Southern lynching. Several times, what appears to be the beginning of a dramatic action is puzzlingly discontinued—the rope, for instance, would around the victim’s legs, then in ascending spirals around her body, is, for no apparent reason, loosened, removed, and finally abandoned. It doesn’t quite make sense with what has gone before or comes after. Wouldn’t the ritual, once the girl is bound, proceed by preordained convention to her sacrifice? And why bind her at all since she is going to dance herself to death through exhaustion?

This discrete sectioning off of the score, fitting the action to the music piecemeal, leads to several anticlimaxes, as if the subdivisions of the characters Graham has arranged weren’t quite adequate, and she seems to have sensed this for there is one minor but highly effective solo for the partner (Steve Roos) from whose back the victim is snatched by the Shaman. The simplicity of Graham’s plans focuses the work—there is nothing unclear about its storytelling, but it comes in installments that don’t logically quite connect.

The men dance in broad, sweeping motions, the foot jerked out and then held at the instep—large, hip-oriented swaggerings that eat up stage space in record time. The women shuffle in menacingly close to each other, rigid, fearful. The dance is essentially one of random catastrophe suddenly striking, of men against women, of nature against humans. Entering with bodies at a slant, off balance, the men often look as if they are beginning a somersault—the Shaman’s two helpers actually complete a cartwheel. Bending from the waist, arms extended, the men make wide, rambunctious gestures; sometimes they stop completely and sit on the floor—a watchdog chorus—dramatically appropriate since they are waiting, just as we are, for the woman’s big solo. The movements seem to be meant for large-boned men, yet they remind me of the entrances Graham and Erick Hawkins made years ago in American Document—the same pushing impatience with the air in front of them. The men are primal strength, the women wound-up springs, equally threatening.

There are a hundred Graham trademarks we have come to know: the contraction; the hand placed to the forehead; the one knee bent with the other leg extended behind; turning gestures half-stopped and then twisted the other way, like a spinning top reversed; the jump in place; the slow run increasing in speed; the slapped thigh. Sometimes they work; sometimes they simply remind us of other times, other places. The real trouble with the Graham vocabulary is that it allows for so few opportunities for extended dance, for continued sweeps of movement. When it happens in Graham it can be dazzling, and in The Rite of Spring it sometimes does, but not often enough. There is something too premeditated about it. If the Bonnefous company seemed amateur, the Graham choreography struck me as almost too professional. The first had the look of camouflage, the second the gloss of high fashion. Expert, never tedious—what more could one ask? Yet some real native impulse refuses to flow through it, at least at the performance I saw. Terese Capucilli had the look of a trapped animal and loyally trod her relentless treadmill. She and George White, Jr., as the Shaman were credible, but the backing and filling of the Shaman’s role made for blurred moments.

Graham, who had years of making do with homemade and last-minute costumes, has a weakness for grand theatrical effects. They are more congenial to Greek tragedy than to primordial rites. In Clytemnestra, the red floor covering suddenly becoming the Queen’s cloak after Agamemnon’s murder is a stunning dramatic device, but Graham has become too much given to robes and props in general. There is something childishly puppet-theaterlike in her addiction to sweeping yards of material. Halston’s support and interest in the company may have increased a tendency to rely on costumed effects, but it shouldn’t be blamed on him—the tendency was there before he was associated with the company.

Phaedra’s Dream takes up where an earlier work, Phaedra, left off. Sexual frustration, the doom of unrequited love—old Graham subjects—center both ballets, but here the drama is pared down to three figures: Phaedra, Hippolytus, and the Stranger, a homoerotic rival for the prize of Hippolytus’s body; the Queen and death literally struggle for the possession of his flesh and bones. Jean-Louis Morin, as Hippolytus, cradled by the Stranger, suggests a voluptuous Pietà, and George White, Jr., is majestic and unswervable. Christine Dakin’s Phaedra projects devouring obsession. Dreams allow for all possibilities, and this nocturnal combat never strays far from the obvious, even though the sexual implications are fuzzy.

The sexual fantasies in Graham’s work always have forbidden objects: Aegisthus (Clytemnestra), the Lover (Letter to the World), Jason (Cave of the Heart), Oedipus (Night Journey), and so on. The women in myth and literature who overcome repression or guilt, or their own murderous instincts and actions, are the ones that interest Graham as choreographer and storyteller; her letter to the world repeats its message: for mastery of art, or the world, it is necessary to forgo love and sensuous pleasure. The Puritan simplicity of the idea was most successful in Letter to the World; the abstractions were anchored in reality. The black costume worn by the Ancestress—a figure analogous to the Stranger—did not merely suggest death; it had a New England credibility. In Graham’s dances, self-possession and rebirth are the hard victories wrung from anguish and obsession. The forbidden is always tempting, and Morin, with erotic diffidence, both looks and dances the part but, once again, there is too much drapery: Phaedra’s red, Hippolytus’s green, and the Stranger’s purple cloaks have to be fussily thrown across the respective sculptured hangouts of the three characters: a racklike sofa (Phaedra), a wheel (the Stranger), and a dolmen (Hippolytus). The Noguchi sets, splendid in themselves and imaginatively used, become, ultimately, distractions.

The two new works are dwarfed in choreographic genius by Primitive Mysteries on the same program, a masterpiece that holds its own fifty years after it was created. A signature work, it is to Graham what Serenade is to Balanchine. Everything in it remains fresh; none of the hand-me-down Graham postures appear in it. The Crucifixion story is transformed by the sunny disposition of the guileless into a work of naive hopefulness. Formally framed by its walk-on exits and entrances, it vibrates with adolescent energy. The Christ story is reenacted through the figure of a young girl, a youthful Mary, undergoing the transition from girlhood to maturity. Her white costume is a communion and a wedding dress in one.

The Theatre of Martha Graham” is not merely a phrase. Singlehandedly, she created a form of dance-drama never seen before. The unique combination of choreographer-playwright and dancer-actress was hers alone. Letter to the World, Deaths and Entrances, and Cave of the Heart have never been the same since she stopped dancing them. Watching Takako Asakawa perform Cave of the Heart was watching superb Graham dancing. But the center was missing. Graham was a great actress. You do not replace great actresses. The Graham repertory has a certain museumlike quality in which masterpieces have been replaced by reproductions.

The scaling-down of intensity in works made up of intensity was inevitable and is now visible. The reliance on drapery continues in The Rite of Spring and there is a peculiar look to it, as if everyone were too clean. The Shaman, for instance, wears a costume of three colors, green, black, and white, and the white, a large rectangle worn from neck to toe, is such a dazzling little plaza of its own that I couldn’t help thinking of the laundry bill. The men’s draped loincloths were carefully set in place. In Primitive Mysteries, the use of two hands, fingers outspread to form a crown, seemed a welcome relief from the scarves, throws, ropes, headbands, ribbons, and cloaks that now clutter Graham’s stage.

When one thinks of the sometimes hideous costumes of the New York City Ballet, one looks with wonder at those of Cave of the Heart, ravishing in themselves, and in which even Jason, a nearly naked man, seems beautifully dressed. But the New York City Ballet almost always dances, and the Graham company, for all its energy, its sometimes remarkable choreography, and the skill of its dancers, stops and starts and then starts over again. Its audience is now divided into two separate groups: those who saw Graham dance and those who didn’t. Perhaps to the latter the reproductions look like masterpieces. Those who saw Graham in, say, Letter to the World in the Forties—an admittedly diminishing group—with a cast that included Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, May O’Donnell, Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and Jean Erdman can at least answer Yeats’s question. They know the dancer from the dance.

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