DANCE DIARY: Martha Graham Lives Again

Martha Graham Dance Company has been missing from the dance world for too long a time. We had not seen the group for about five years. The news that it was to commence a season at The Joyce Theater earlier this month was most heartening. Led by Artistic Director Ronald Protas, the company also boasts Associate Artistic Directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, both still performing with the company. Under that pair's peerless eyes‹and those of Yuriko and Pearl Lang, consultants for the Graham repertoire‹the fresh group of youngsters that make up the current roster were wholeheartedly involved in the genius that was Martha Graham.

A program on Feb. 6 opened with three solos that Graham had originally created for herself‹"Frontier" (1935), "Deep Song" (1937), and "Satyric Festival Song" (1932). These were performed by Elizabeth Auclair, Terese Capucilli, and Rika Okamoto, respectively.

Seated on a fence, the pioneer woman of "Frontier" portrayed by Auclair indicates an awareness of her wild surroundings, which will eventually be her home. She is fearless as she faces the future. The boundless extensions of her legs from the fence and as she comes forward seem to indicate the stretching prairie. Her deer-like leaps appear to symbolize the young woman's determination to see her dreams flourish.

As Protas states in the program notes, "Deep Song" was Graham's dance of protest against war, the Spanish Civil War in particular. Capucilli goes through the torments of the victims, as well as of those who live in constant fear and mourn their loved ones. The bench from which she performs seems to materialize into a mourner's bench or a coffin, mirroring her utter despair.

Okamoto's performance as a clown-like character in "Satyric Festival Song" certainly displayed Graham's keen sense of fun. Graham was not the "Mirthless Martha" that her mentor Louis Horst labeled her. Okamoto, with bouncing, lilting actions, filled the theatre with joyous abandon.

The beginning of "Heretic" sees a grim group of women posed in linear positions that seem reminiscent of figure formations on ancient Egyptian friezes. They are rigid as they prepare to persecute a woman who is unacceptable in their bigoted minds. The outsider (Fang Yi Sheu) pleads with them, first by crawling, then in prayerful attitude. Still, she is rejected by the relentless group. The persecutors parade about with resounding, pounding rhythms as they bring their heels crashing down to indicate the vehemence of their hatred. Fang Yi Sheu, even in rejection and defeat, managed to display a radiant spirit, meeting a tragic end with dignity.

In three sections‹"Hymn to the Virgin," "Crucifixus," and "Hosanna"‹Primitive Mysteries depicts the coming of age of a young girl in Southwestern Spanish-American culture. She acts out all the stages of the Madonna's life on earth, including the viewing of the Crucifixion, and her pain. "Hosanna" pictures her return to Heaven. Okamoto's multi-faceted talents were fully displayed in the length and breadth of her performance.

"Panorama" was created by Graham in 1935, when she was teaching and creating choreography at Bennington College, in Vermont. According to Jane Dudley, who was a student there at the time, the work combined Graham company members with students in the Bennington workshop.

In Goddess, a book of interviews by Robert Tracy with Graham dancers (published by Limelight Editions in 1997), Dudley noted, " "Panorama' itself was quite a dance. Martha had a knack for using the special qualities of a dancer‹the qualities that they came with when they came to study Martha's technique."

On Feb. 6, "Panorama" was performed by the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, staged and directed by Susan Kikuchi. (The original reconstruction was by Yuriko from the Julien Bryan film in 1992.) The creation is rich in those wonderfully inventive Graham leaps. There are also marches that could be a dedication to America‹perhaps a degree of patriotism, minus the jingoism. The students all performed with a dedication that honored the great lady's work.

"Maple Leaf Rag" was, in all probability, Graham's answer to those who claimed that she took everything far too seriously, and that she lacked a sense of humor. That she possessed a great sense of fun and frolic and could even spoof her own choreographic clich s was easily discerned in this, the last work that she created before her death in 1991, at age 97.

Those recognizable Graham traits included skidding steps going forward with legs widely spread apart; a dancer walking across stage, clothed in a voluminous white gown which seemed to be twisting and turning, instead of the wearer, and the swooping tours with the head almost touching the ground To this were added the kittenish, coy antics of Miki Orihara, partnered by Tadej Brdnik.

Dancers spread out on a broad tightrope construction cavorted atop and below the structure. From it they not only indulged in cutsey-pie poses, but even managed spoofs on ballet, some of which were originally seen in Graham's "Every Soul Is a Circus." Talk about galloping delights‹Scott Joplin's music performed by pianist Alan Moverman was an additional cause for unlimited joy.

There was never any doubt about the genius that was Martha Graham. In the early days, in addition to her prodigious choreography, she also designed and executed costumes that were, in their own way, better than those created for her by some famed designers in later years. I have always considered Graham the greatest creative American woman who ever lived. If you are in the mood to do battle over this, choose your weapons‹tutus vs. tights or pointe shoes vs. sandals thrown at 10 paces. q

Free Fridays at the Y

The 92nd Street Y continues its informal performances of new works by up-and-coming choreographers, on the first and third Fridays of each month, at 12 noon. All of these are free. Choreographers involved are: March 5‹Rae Ballard, Maura Donohue, Lynn Parkerson; March 19‹Sean Curran Workshop Members; April 16‹Candace Hundley, Debra Wanner, Nina David; May 7‹Judith Myers, Kacie Chang, Catherine Gallant; May 28‹Tiffany Mills, Eugene Hutchins, Lynne Wells; and June 11‹Alice Tierstein and Jessica Nicoll.

...And Sundays, Too

The 92nd Street Y also offers the series "Sundays at Three"‹preview performances of new works by distinguished choreographers, followed by discussions with the artists.

Performance dates: April 11‹The Eleo Pomare Dance Company in "Yerma," a new work based on the Federico Garcia Lorca play of the same name; May 2‹"Fractured Fairy Tales," in which Laura Staton and Aviva Geismar offer a new perspective on the classic tales of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. Tickets: $8.