Martha Graham Dance Company

'Night Journey', 'Satyric Festival Song', 'Diversion of Angels', 'Sketches From Chronicle'

by Emma Pegler

November 18, 2003 -- Sadler's Wells/London


The works of Martha Graham are like the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci: they are revered and admired even by those who have never actually seen them. I have read a great deal about Martha Graham and how her work has influenced dance, and life itself. I know well the classical stories that inspired many of her choreographies. I am fascinated with the woman and the hair piled up high in a bun. It inspires me that she danced well into her sixties. Yet, apart from the parodies, works inspired by the Graham technique and performed extracts, I have never see a full Graham choreography live on stage. Add to this the controversy surrounding Ron Protas, Graham’s heir, when he withdrew the Company’s rights to perform her works, rendering the Company bereft of its lifeblood, and you have a legend. The lengthy court case finally ruled that most of Graham’s works either belonged to the Graham Center before the will or were in the public domain. The Company is back in business. It is hardly surprising that on the way to Sadler’s Wells Theatre for the Company’s first London appearance since the court ruling, I felt a strong sense of occasion and, indeed, of history. It was a night worthy of wearing a good suit and high heels.

In that respect I was not disappointed. The opening work of the first programme, “Night Journey,” which tells the story of Oedipus’marriage to his mother Queen Jocasta, set to a haunting score by Willian Schuman, is vintage Graham. Queen Jocasta was danced by Christine Dakin as if she ‘was’ Graham. Dakin is joint Artistic Director of the company with fellow veteran Terese Capucilli. She has been a member of the Company since 1976 and was hand-reared by Graham. So much part of the fabric of ‘Grahamism’ is she that certain roles in the repertory were created on her. Dakin’s movement is clear, crisp and dramatic. She has the sinewy body and defined muscles of a seasoned dancer. This is completely right for the role of Jocasta since, being in her fifties, she is dancing the role at a similar age to the great lady herself – Graham was 53 when the work was premiered in 1947. To clinch the comparison, her hair was piled high in a bun – “a la Graham.”

Dakin is a superb guardian of the Graham tradition. Her performance was loaded with tension and you believe she has taken her own life when, after she discovers that her beloved husband is her also her son, she pulls a rope around her neck. Kenneth Topping (another veteran, he joined the Company in 1984) is a respectable Oedipus. Yet the rest of the dancers – the chorus – were pretty shoddy. Even with the excuse of opening night nerves, the supporting female dancers looked under-rehearsed and, in places, not particularly versed in Graham technique. Dakin’s performance was, however, all-pervasive and so it was easy to ignore the surrounding shortcomings.

“Satyric Festival Song” (1932) is a stocking filler. It has no great dramatic weight but is an amusing little ditty, well executed by Erica Dankmeyer. “Diversion of Angels” (1948) was given more dramatic hype in the programme than it deserved. Three couples and supporting chorus live out their respective personalities in love: the white couple represents mature love in perfect balance, the red couple plays out erotic love and the yellow couple, adolescent love. The white and yellow couples got it, spot on. Katherine Crockett is a tall, confident dancer with masses of physical presence and she delivered a faultless study in a seasoned woman’s love. Yuko Suzuki hopped around like a young deer. Virginie Mecene looked equal to the game of eroticism but the choreography didn’t give her the opportunity to properly express it. More like athletic (read, ‘bad’) sex. Martin Lofsnes, Maurizio Nardi and Christophe Jeannot, their partners, are superb dancers – strong athletically and very lyrical in their performances. I had wondered how men’s choreography would fare under Graham – would a strong woman give them equal billing or consign them to be supporting partners? The men clearly had equal billing.

The first three pieces showed the breadth of Graham’s creativity. I am most familiar with the work inspired by the Classics – it is always easier to read about movement that expresses an action or emotion surrounding a storyline than about abstract dance that expresses a mood. I saw how much more Graham was, and is, since this is not a museum company performing works carved in stone. It appears a vibrant, living company with blood still coursing through its veins and water flowing up through the roots. Where a lot of contemporary dance looks dated, much of this could have been made yesterday – it is very modern, modern dance.

The finale, “Sketches from Chronicle” (1936), looks a great deal more like the Graham with which I am familiar. It is a dramatic work in which women emote on the subject of war. The particular war is the First World War but all wars are the same in terms of the destruction they wreak and the spirits they destroy. Again the soloists are magnificent while some of the chorus members are wobbly. (I assume that if Graham technique is used to execute the step, shakiness is out of the question.) The dresses of the principal figures are long black gowns with reams of material extending beyond floor-length, lined with blood-red silk, which are so ably managed so as never to appear in a heap around the ankles. The dancer’s movements are so nimble that the dress extends from the leg in a continuous line with no time to sag before it is thrown into another pose. This makes the wobbling of the chorus all the more inexcusable. In fact, the shakiness can cause you to suspend belief in the Company, which is precisely the point at which you wonder whether the Company’s future lies in it becoming a museum piece. Will it repeat the works of Graham, choreographed by Graham, produced by Graham, costumed by Graham, with hair (definitely) by Graham? Or will it build on Graham technique and continue to suck the nourishment up from the roots to produce new spring leaves – new works?

Edited by Jenai

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