Martha Graham Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
April 20, 2023: Gala Program
Panorama, Canticle for Innocent Comedians (excerpts), Embattled Garden
April 21, 2023: Program A
Dark Meadow Suite, Get Up, My Daughter (premiere), Cortege 2023 (premiere), Cave of the Heart
Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the Joyce Theater last week for a two-week engagement.
As Artistic Director Janet Eilber – whom I saw enrich multiple MGDC performances over many years in a galaxy far, far away – reminded the audience at both of the programs I saw that MGDC is the oldest company in the United States in continuous operation; it’s now in its 97th year. As Eilber also points out, it’s still going strong. While I have a quibble here and there, evidenced by the pieces and dancers I saw she’s obviously right.
I’ll begin this review with two of the most iconic of the Graham dances I saw, followed by a discussion of the other two Graham dances on these programs, and concluding with the season’s two new pieces. But so as not to leave one guessing, with respect to the premiere dances (their world premiere was on the run’s opening night), I found Get Up, My Daughter to be choreographically impressive and very compatible with the company; Cortege 2023, though superbly performed, did not strike me the same way.
Although I’ve seen many live performances of Graham-choreographed masterworks over the years (including the evening-length masterpiece Clytemnestra, which I saw when it was presented on Broadway in the 1970s), I’d not, to the best of my memory, previously seen live performances of either Cave of the Heart or Embattled Garden. These omissions were cured this season.
Graham-choreographed dances are marked, in addition to overall quality, by emotional clarity. One always knows what emotion(s) are being examined under Graham’s choreographic lens. This doesn’t make such dances simply transparent; it makes them accessible, and unless human nature changes, perpetually relevant. And although a viewer knows what’s going to happen, the power of the piece is in seeing how Graham gets there. Both Cave of the Heart and Embattled Garden exemplify this, and while each is a masterpiece, of the two, Cave of the Heart is beyond even that: it’s iconic.
The story’s narrative is a take on the myth of Jason and Medea, but it begins after much of the myth has already occurred. Jason has already – after pledging his love for her, taking advantage of her sorcery to capture the Golden Fleece, and fathering two children with this magically-powered Granddaughter of the Sun – betrayed Medea and wed a highborn princess (Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth) to further his own ambitions (and, some iterations of the myth say, because he’d become indignant – and belatedly self-righteous – over Medea’s murderous excess).
Cave of the Heart picks up from here, with Medea already having been betrayed, seething with anger, and intent on revenge, and shows the characters’ evolution from these initial position. Consequently, the piece’s focus is on primal possessive and destroying love, and, as the program note indicates, “on the dark passions that guard the human heart, coiled like a serpent ready to strike when attacked.”
That focus is a description of Medea and the consequences of her actions, but they’re not the only emotions that Cave of the Heart scrutinizes. The piece also addresses excessive and blind pride and ambition (Jason), equally blind innocence (The Princess), and the frustration of foreseeing the tragic events that will happen when these emotional forces clash with no ability to change the course of events.
Although the names of some of the characters in the four-dancer cast changed a year after its 1946 premiere (as did the title, from Serpent Heart), the premiere’s dancers, each as iconic in their dance careers as the piece itself, remained the same: May O’Donnell as the Chorus, Yuriko as The Princess (formerly The Victim), Erick Hawkins as Jason (formerly One Like Jason or The Adventurer), and Graham herself as The Sorceress, Medea (formerly One Like Medea). Respectively, these roles were here performed by Anne Souder, Marzia Memoli, Lloyd Knight, and Xin Ying, and I have difficulty envisioning superior execution.
Memoli and Knight delivered excellent performances, their characters initially are one-dimensional until confronted by Medea’s evil – Memoli when she realizes that Medea’s “gift” of a dress was poisoning her from the inside, and, to no avail, pleading for Jason to do something; and Knight, trapped within his innate sense of superiority, ignoring Medea’s threats and the powers she had that enabled her to do whatever she wanted until he’s destroyed by the loss of his new wife and (offstage) his two children. That Knight managed to be commanding and unforgettable even with the limited variety of his character is a credit to the stage presence he displays at every performance.
But the dance’s forces in terms of movement and character are The Chorus and Medea. In the former role, Anne Souder almost – almost – stole the ballet from Medea, partly because her character is so spellbinding in her hopelessness, but mainly because Souder’s visual description of that hopelessness evokes a viewer’s overpowering sympathy. However, it was Ying’s Medea that displayed the multiple forms of venomous evil that ultimately commands the most attention and left the greatest impression. Looking nothing like she did in any of the other dancers in which I saw her perform this season, Ying made every one of her expressive moments here different from another. In execution and characterization, hers was one of the performances of the year.
Contributing to the brilliance of the piece were the score Graham used – Samuel Barber’s Medea Ballet Suite, Op. 23, which was specially commissioned for Graham’s ballet, the dramatic lighting by Jean Rosenthal (adapted here by Beverly Emmons), and the sets by Isamu Noguchi, who added his austere but perfectly distilled sets to so many classic Graham dances. Here, his tripartite set serves to isolate the three parts of Graham’s piece and yet presents them as constant visual components of Graham’s overall theme.
Noguchi did the same thing in Embattled Garden, which Graham created in 1958, through two stark centers of visual attention as focal points for the different but related subjects that Graham here explores: evil and temptation in the context of revenge.
Continuing in the “hell hath no fury” vein, Graham here turned her attention to the Garden of Eden, expanding on the Biblical story by adding Lilith, who, according to some accounts was Adam’s first wife before Eve, and by personifying that snake, here called The Stranger. As in Cave of the Heart, Graham begins her story after the events that set it in motion already occurred, to focus on the consequential emotional currents.
In some accounts, Lilith was expelled from the Garden of Eden because she refused to be subservient to Adam. [Save your emails; her existence and qualities arose at least in or about the Sixth Century, and was developed further through the Middle Ages.] She’s purportedly a cognate of a Mesopotamian female demonic figure, lilu, that emerged during the same time period as a dangerous female demon of the night who is sexually wanton and who steals or murders babies in the darkness. [Translated, according to Wikipedia, Lilith means “night creature,” “night monster,” “night hag,” or “screech owl.”] And in some iterations of the story, Lilith, following her expulsion, lived in a tree, the roots of which concealed a serpent.
Graham takes this background (admittedly selective) and creates a dance that ties it all together. Here, to a commissioned score by Spanish-born composer Carlos Surinach, she weaves a story of Lilith’s revenge by temptation. Lilith is first seen in front of a Noguchi-stylized tree, within the branches of which lives a personified serpent. Lilith holds what appears to be a wood stick with a red-colored apple atop it, resembling a red ping-pong paddle. [That’s the only weak component of the peace, but I suppose there wasn’t much raw material to work with in 1958.] On the other side of the stage, in Noguchi’s comforting and shielding faux high grass reeds, live Adam and Eve. Over the length of the dance, The Stranger (who acts pursuant to Lilith’s instruction, albeit with undeniable enthusiasm) is sent to spy on Adam and Eve, and then to prepare innocent Eve’s susceptibility to Lilith’s curiously-interesting apple. You know the rest – after Eve succumbs to the Apple /Lilith, Adam is unable to resist her, and couples with the now corrupted Eve outside the boundaries of the Garden of Eden, to Lilith’s witch-like glee.
While not as inherently exciting or dramatic (maybe melodramatic) as Cave of the Heart, and not startlingly erotic by contemporary sensibilities, Embattled Garden is still a compelling story compellingly presented. In the roles originated by Graham (although I haven’t found any reference that confirms that), Glen Tetley, Bertram Ross, and Yuriko, Leslie Andrea Williams here played the bitchy Lilith, confident from the start of her inevitable victory, Lorenzo Pagano was a superbly serpentine The Stranger, and Knight and Ying, with equally superb portrayals of characters who could easily have been presented as cardboard, were the fatally flawed Adam and Eve.
Dark Meadow Suite, which opened Program A, is a selection from Graham’s original Dark Meadow, a non-narrative dance that premiered in 1946, choreographed to a score (“La Hija de Cólquide”) composed by Mexican composer Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez. [Whether the original included that entire composition or only portions of it is not clear. And the genesis of the music used is quite interesting, but beyond even my capacity for “asides” in the context of a review.] The “Suite,” arranged by Eilber, premiered in 2016. Based on the performance I saw, the decision to re-present the dance in this manner was a wise one.
No surprise here, but the best way to describe what this Suite presents was provided by Graham herself (with respect to the original): “Dark Meadow is a re-enactment of the mysteries which attend the eternal adventure of seeking.” Reduced to its essence, that’s what one sees here – people seeking a connection, or a place, or a future, whether the referenced context is a connection with one’s self, a partner, or a community. In addition to memories of the dance’s central duet, what lingers in the mind long after the piece concludes are the images of the women, while being secured by male (or female) partners, leaning forward somewhat like a ship’s figurehead, quietly seeking … something.
A perpetual search is not an uncommon dance theme, but here Graham suggests a universal human quality rather than one limited by time and place. That being said, Graham does inject something of a Southwest / Native American aura to the piece in the sense of having an enduring, reflective, at times even spiritual rather than impulsive dramatic overall movement quality; and particularly in the striking rust/ dark orange, black and white costumes she conceived for the women (the program credits her with designing the costumes in all her choreographed dances presented in this run, although other sources reference Edythe Gilfond as the costume designer for Dark Meadow as well as Cave of the Heart).
So Young An and Jacob Larsen were the primary couple; the piece’s other dancers included James Anthony, Allessio Crognale, Laurel Dailey Smith, Devon Loh, Kate Reyes, Richard Villaverde, Memoli and Williams.
The last of the Graham-choreographed dances I saw was the initial piece on Thursday’s Gala program. Panorama, choreographed in 1935, is Graham at her most strident. Of those Graham pieces I’ve seen, the most comparable is Chronicle, choreographed a year later (and revised the following year). In context, Chronicle was created shortly after Graham had publicly rejected Hitler’s invitation to perform in an “International Dance Tournament” to be held in conjunction with the 1936 Olympics, and delivers a clear, prescient message relating to the post-World War I rise of fascism and the obligation of the People (here all women) to resist and stop it; its militant combativeness is in furtherance of a goal, although, as I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, I think Aristophanes (“Lysistrata”) had a better idea.
Panorama mines a similar theme, but, without Chronicle’s specific sense of purpose. [It’s way beyond the limits of this review, but in considering Graham’s work during this time period, it’s helpful to put the two dances in context. Graham was well-attuned to fascist developments in Europe (and here), and 1933 to 36 was a critical period in terms of a transition from a belief in the efficacy of any power of non-violent persuasion (that the populace could be rallied to oppose fascism) to a conclusion that armed resistance was the only available option. Among other developments during this period, the documentary/ propaganda film “Triumph of the Will’, which memorialized and glorified the 1934 Reich Party Rally and appeared to demonstrate the Nazi Party’s enthusiastic popular perception, was released in 1935.]
After having been considered “lost,” pieces of Panorama were discovered (by Yuriko) in a film, and the dance was reconstructed and presented in 1992, to Norman Lloyds original score. Soon thereafter, however, Panorama apparently became a vehicle for Graham students, which here consisted of an “All-City Panorama” of students drawn from participating New York high schools.
According to the Program note, Panorama presents “three themes, which are basically American.” They are “Theme of Dedication, Imperial Theme, and Popular Theme.” Whether such themes are basically American, or even appear in Panorama, is debatable. The piece is divided into somewhat clear segments with varying tempos and stage configurations (e.g., the dancers form a circle that’s sandwiched between cross-stage militant movement), but these segments don’t appear to relate in any way to the “themes” indicated. Regardless, in this performance, restaged by Amélie Bénard and with what appear to be copies of Graham’s original red costumes, those “themes” primarily take the form of a stylized march (to music that’s at times more Wagner than Sousa) into a future that’s theirs for the taking.
Even though the piece is not one of Graham’s greatest, within its powerful components are unusually interesting patterning (far more inventive than one might see from a marching band at a football game), and its future-oriented purpose is fulfilled by the well-drilled but never robotic-looking 23 student dancers. They delivered a terrific, apparently flawless performance. Space doesn’t permit identifying each of them by name, but some made particularly vivid impressions.
Canticle for Innocent Comedians was a piece that Graham created in 1952. Its current incarnation, conceived by Eilber, is “inspired” by Graham’s original, but the choreography was created by contemporary choreographers under the overall supervision of Sonya Tayeh. I reviewed it following its initial New York appearance during last year’s Graham Company season at New York City Center, and considered Tayeh’s accomplishment miraculous.
Here, for the Gala performance, the presentation was reduced to Canticle’s final three segments and Conclusion, but it still looked glorious. As in the program I saw a year ago, the segment titled “Moon,” choreographed by Graham, was performed by An and Larsen. Reduced to its essence, the segment is a pas de deux for a pair of lovers, but that isn’t a sufficient description of the luminous interaction between the two. Similarly, Memoli and Crognale reprised their duet in the second segment, choreographed by Micaela Taylor. In the third and final segment prior to the Conclusion, “Death/ Rebirth” (which in my review a year ago I attributed to Tayeh, but the Gala program indicates it was choreographed by Jenn Freeman), Ying portrayed the transforming character as brilliantly as everything else she performed this season (she and Larsen alternate in this role, and it was Larsen I saw in the role last year). And although I failed to reference them a year ago, the costumes (by Karen Young) are appropriately stellar – as well as gorgeous, and the lighting (by Yi-Chung Chen) lent the piece an appropriately celestial ambiance.
No dance company, and certainly no legacy company, can rely exclusively on dances created by its founder. New dances are essential, and any new piece that exploits, or expands, company dancers’ collective strengths is a welcome addition. But on a certain level, if the new dances clash with the founding choreographer’s style, their presence can be problematic. To me, one of the new dance’s during this MGDC season worked; the other … not so much.
Get Up, My Daughter is the awful title of a commendable new dance choreographed by Annie Rigney, whose previous choreographic pieces I’ve not seen. Somewhat akin to Graham’s “power to the people” pieces, this one is a feminist diatribe in the guise of a dance, but as a piece of choreography and as executed, Get Up, My Daughter shows considerable promise.
I suspect the dance is intended to be somewhat broader than a diatribe, but that’s what I saw on first view. Whether one agrees with the notion that male oppression is an institutional, generalized problem, as presented there’s no doubt that these women are portrayed as justifiably enraged and must rise up against their male physical (and I suppose emotional and financial etc.) oppressors.
Get Up, My Daughter is populated by five women (An, Memoli, O’Donnell, Souder, and Ying) and one man (Villaverde). As it unfolded, I first thought that Villaverde’s character was a positive force (e.g., some universal “father” figure to the daughters who he commands to “get up”), since he didn’t look at all malicious. [I know, I know … just goes to show…] But it quickly became apparent that his purpose here was to serve as some sort of everymale (and/or serial) oppressor who demands that the women he intersects with accede to his control and/or prevents them from exerting their independence, from making their own choices, or from being all that they can be.
The dance is choreographed to music described in the program as Bulgarian folk music and original music by Italian-born composer Marco Rosano (who now works out of Belgium) and his collaborator, Andreas Scholl. Notwithstanding the seeming strangeness of that description, the score works well as a framework for Rigney’s choreography. More significantly, to me, is the style that Rigney uses here. Although considerably more contemporary-looking, Get Up, My Daughter looks like it could have been a Graham dance – down to the women’s blood red costumes (by Caleb Krieg). As I recall, each of the women appears troubled, at times melodramatically so, but not to the point of disbelief. They’re suffering, and the dance’s accent is as much on that suffering as on their oppression. And I must add that during the post-performance bows, Villaverde appeared genuinely relieved and contrite, as if pleading with the audience to believe that his character isn’t really him.
In or about 2014, the late Liam Scarlett created a dance for New York City Ballet titled Acheron, which dealt with the ferryman who transports passengers to the underworld. I didn’t like it much. The program states that Baye & Asa’s Cortege 2023, the second of the two premiere pieces in Program A, is inspired by Graham’s Cortege of Eagles, and focuses on Charon, “the ferryman who shepherds souls to the underworld,” but where Graham’s Charon is the harbinger of the fall of the Troy, Baye & Asa’s piece posits the question “Who is today’s Charon?” [Baye & Asa is a company creating movement art projects directed by Amadi ‘Baye’ Washington & Sam ‘Asa’ Pratt.] I wasn’t impressed with this voyage to the underworld either.
I’m at a disadvantage never having seen Cortege of Eagles, but while the lighting is indeed appropriately dark and foreboding (lighting here also designed by Chen) and there’s a pervasive atmosphere of doom, any other resemblance to the program’s description stops there. I saw four men (Anthony, Knight, Pagano, and Villaverde) and three women (Souder, Williams, and Ying) – although here gender seems irrelevant – each wearing non-descript costumes and looking miserable, moving frenetically as if trying to get out of where they are fast but with no “out” to go to, ganging up on each other and displaying far more energy than purpose.
I suppose that what I’ve just outlined can be taken by some as thoroughly consistent with the program description, but it didn’t impress me that way. My instant reaction was that the piece brought to mind Hofesh Shechter’s Cave, but with far less invention – and the light emanating from above was not something the dancers were trying to escape to; it was simply there, an area from the other part of the afterlife universe that provided the stage’s minimal light. I don’t even recall seeing someone I could identify as the piece’s Charon, much less “today’s Charon” – some contemporary Charon who is also a harbinger of disaster. And since no cast-member wore orange hair, maybe the identity of “today’s Charon” is intended to be unanswerable.
Other than the noble efforts of each of the dancers (who, as I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me, should be given combat pay), on first view I saw little here to recommend Cortege 2023. Nevertheless, at times a new piece grows on a viewer over time, and an initial impression can be clouded by expectation. So I’ll reserve further consideration of Cortege 2023 until I view it again, perhaps when Martha Graham Dance Company presents its next New York season, and enters its 98th year.