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Martha Graham Dance Company’s Program A at the New York City Center, 2014…

April 11, 2014
Martha Graham Dance Company’s Katherine Crockett as Clytemnestra in Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra”

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Katherine Crockett as Clytemnestra in Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra”

Few dance companies, especially modern dance companies have had the staying power of the Martha Graham Dance Company, celebrating its 88th Season at New York City Center. Martha Graham’s influence on dance has been compared to Picasso’s on painting, Stravinsky’s on music and Frank Lloyd Wright on architecture. She collaborated and commissioned works from some of the leading artist of her day, she had a close working relationship with American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The top fashion designers in the world dressed her for the stage, Halston, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. The score she commissioned from Aaron Copeland in 1944, Appalachian Spring, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year in 1945.

The Company’s 88th Season was labeled Myth and Transformation, revered Graham masterpieces were seen alongside newly commissioned works by two of the world’s foremost choreographers… Andonis Foniadakis and Nacho Duato.

Program A opened with a new one-hour production of Ms. Graham’s Clytemnestra. The original Clytemnestra, which premiered in 1958, is easily considered one of her greatest works from her Greek Cycle. It is Ms. Graham’s only full-evening work and presented in three acts. The Playbill listed the choreography for the new one-hour production as Ms. Graham’s with arrangement by Janet Eilber and Linda Hodes.

The original production was commissioned by Bathsabée de Rothschild with an original score by Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh. Isamu Noguchi designed a series of set pieces that the transformed the stage from the Underworld to the Royal Palace and then to the Queen’s bedroom.It is the torrid tale as seen from the perspective of Mycenae’s (Argos) inimical Queen, Clytemnestra.

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Blakeley White-McGuire  as Electra & Abdiel Jacobsen as Orestes in Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra”

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Blakeley White-McGuire as Electra & Abdiel Jacobsen as Orestes in Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra”

Clytemnestra has been planning to seek revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon’s absence during the Trojan War, Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. Clytemnestra deceives her husband Agamemnon into stepping onto a red cloth that is reserved for the gods which means his death.

The Furies gather for they know what is to come. The captured Princess Cassandra, who Agamemnon has taken as a mistress, foresees what is to come but is believed by no-one. Helen of Troy is seen lamenting what her abduction has caused. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus fall into bed after a night of drunken celebration. During the night she is awakened by the ghost of Agamemnon who spurs Electra and Orestes, their other two offspring, to avenge his murder by killing their mother and her lover. Now that is a lot to cram into an hour…

Over the years I have had the opportunity to see Clytemnestra in its entirety several times and it is one of my favorite Graham works. So I was curious as to whether this new reduced-revised-shrunken version would work…I sorry to report it did not…

It is just too much information, too much going on to try to complete in an hour. The stage seemed too crowded by the use of all the sets Noguchi had created for the production, a throne, a bed, large red swords that form a cross…. I remember settling in when the work was shown at  BAM and watching the plot unfold…but, unfortunately there was no chance to do that with this one-hour production…Neither Katherine Crockett as Clytemnestra or Ben Schultz as Hades were allowed the leisure of truly developing their characters on stage…

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lorenzo Pagano & PeiJu Chien-Pott in Andonis Foniadakis’s “Echo”.

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lorenzo Pagano & PeiJu Chien-Pott in Andonis Foniadakis’s “Echo”.

During the intermission, I meet with three professional dancers, part of the younger generation that this new one-hour version was supposed to reach. To them it appeared everything was rushed, the subtitles between scenes just did not work…and they commented on how the stage seemed so crowded with the dancers, all the props plus the set.

The old adage is…if ain’t broken don’t fix it…I felt a brilliant piece of dance history and a stellar part of Ms. Graham’s Greek Cycle had been forcible dumbed down and I, for one, feel somewhat insulted….

I mean, come on…betrayal, unfaithfulness, retribution plus a lot of grief and agony then you have remorse thrown in for good measure, now mix that with Noguchi’s brilliant sets and the great costumes originally designed by Halston … There’s no-way to fully utilize or explore that with the justice deserved within an abbreviated time frame…What’s next, someone deciding to redo Picasso’s blue period in shades of red…

Adonis Foniadakis’ Echo I can still see in my mind’s eye. The work was inspired by the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo but it is not a retelling of their story. Lloyd Mayor as Narcissus struggles with his reflection, Lorenzo Pagano. They move together as one, sometimes intimately, sometimes almost violently…a struggle with self, what to except, what to reject.

Martha Graham Dance Company in Andonis Foniadakis’s “Echo”.

Martha Graham Dance Company in Andonis Foniadakis’s “Echo”.

In the myth, Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in a pool of water and the reference of water is found in Mr. Foniadakis’ flowing movements and fluidity of shape. The dancing is fast and continuous, the choreography forged with twisting curves while the torso arches in mid-motion. A certain freedom that is denied within the confines of the formalized Graham technique defines the work. Witnessing other choreographers work with the Graham trained dancers, you see the beauty of the technique, the use of contractions and the way the spine spirals. Excellent work by a truly talented choreographer…

Martha Graham completed her last work, Maple Leaf Rag to the music of Scott Joplin at the age of 96. In her early career, when she got stuck creatively and feel into a funk she would ask Louis Horst, who was Ms. Graham’s music director, friend and mentor in her early years, to play the Maple Leaf Rag. You hear Ms. Graham’s recorded voice saying, ”Oh, Louis, play me the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Ying Xin & Lorenzo Pagano in Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag”

Martha Graham Dance Company’s Ying Xin & Lorenzo Pagano in Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag”

There is a light heartedness to the piece, its Ms. Graham poking fun at herself in ways that only she can get away with. A somber figure in a white dress crosses the stage as an ominous beat is heard with every step, then Joplin is heard and joyous dancing breaks out behind her…. Maple Leaf Rag is Ms. Graham’s last work and also one of her best…..

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