The Rites of Martha Graham

Martha Graham Dance Company 1984

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

Martha Graham
Martha Graham; drawing by David Levine

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…

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