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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
Martha Graham
The Joyce Theater
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Martha Graham Dance Company - Phaedra, Lamentation, Diversion of Angels, Chronicle

by Robert Abrams
January 28, 2003
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011

Martha Graham Dance Company - Phaedra, Lamentation, Diversion of Angels, Chronicle

Review by Robert Abrams
January 22, 2003


Review by Robert Abrams
January 28, 2003

Phaedra was visually stimulating. The company danced with assurance. Ken Topping danced with great strength. One could see the characters' agony passing from one to the other. There was a constant pull between dancers. This interaction was gripping. Phaedra is a work that is put forth as having a narrative, or at least being a representation of a narrative. I didn't think the narrative was so easy to follow. But as I said, the interactions were gripping, so I don't think it mattered much. They were able to distill the tragicness of the story. In Greek drama, the explication of the tragic flaw is on one level more important than the story. One could argue that Phaedra takes the central moment within the original story and lays that moment bare in detail, which is a valid tack for modern dance to take.

On the other hand, there may be ways to draw out the narrative for the audience without altering the work itself. Martha Graham's choreography is a bedrock of work, so it is reasonable to ask why one would even suggest this. Consider the following hypothesis. Modern dance originated around the same time as silent motion pictures. The art forms have a lot in common: they rely almost entirely on movement to convey meaning to an audience; they have limits of specificity that come with a lack of words, but they can also transcend language barriers. Silent movies are now mostly a historical curiosity, while modern dance is still a vibrant art form. Modern movie audiences have difficulty understanding silent movies, not because the silent movies are flawed or less developed than modern movies, but because the audience itself has changed. While there is clearly an audience that has retained the ability to respond to modern dance, there is a larger audience out there who has not (this audience is likely to be the same audience that has difficulty watching silent movies). If the primary of objective is to hold the meaning of a work constant, and if the audience has changed, perhaps the work must change to present its original meaning intact?

One can argue that authors such as Shakespeare have absorbed such changes in the presentation of their work, and that such absorption (some of it cyclical) has played a large role in the long term viability of his works.

How could this play out in Phaedra? As an experiment, I would have the company create a prologue for the work. In this prologue, through a short series of tableaux most likely, the characters would be identified and the basic story would be presented from beginning to end. Shakespeare's plays usually have such a prologue. Brecht, both his plays and his views on directing, is a modern example of framing a work so that an audience can concentrate on how the action happens, and less so on what happens. This seems especially appropriate in modern dance. After the prologue, Phaedra would be presented as is. This might or might not make the work accessible to a larger audience, but either way it would make an alluring research project. Dance, after all, is not just an art form; it can be a form of inquiry.

If there was a flaw in the presentation, it was ten to twelve feet above the stage. There were two or three moments where Ken Topping was raised onto dancers' shoulders. These were dramatic moments. If the lighting at ten to twelve feet above the stage (i.e. at the level of his head) had been brighter, it might have added to the effect. At most though, this affected maybe ten seconds out of the whole work. Otherwise, the presentation was wonderful.

See the complete Phaedra Photo Essay by Robert Abrams

The second act paired Lamentation with Diversion of Angels.

Lamentation was its usual egnimatic, but powerful, self. In a way, it is dancing on the inside of the self, in contrast to most dancing which is done on exterior surfaces.

Diversion of Angels was more balletic in style than Graham's other works. The company was very convincing in this lyrical mode. This work also features an irresistibly cheerful woman in yellow, which puts it in good company with Contact and Fancy Free. The costumes, which were half-way between being a skirt and a skort (in case you were wondering, I didn't make this term up), show the female dancers' legs while also amplifying their movement, and were thus very apt for this dance.

The final work of the night was Chronicle. The work started with a single female dancer in a over-long skirt, which was dark on the outside and blood red on the inside, with some degree of translucence when it was held against the light in just the right way. She used this long skirt very artfully, sometimes appearing to be three feet taller than she really is. Sometimes the skirt felt like an awkward shroud. Sometimes it seemed to symbolize blood, similar to the use of red scarves in Chicago. This section of the dance reminded me of Paso Doble.

The Company then presented a maelstrom in black. They danced as a regimented torment only slightly softened by the fact that all of the dancers were women. They managed to capture the triumphal nature of martial rhythms while at the same time being critical of the implications.

This work was originally presented in 1936 and was meant to be a portrayal of war. A lot has changed since 1936, so it would be interesting to know how audience reaction to this work has changed over time. Regardless, whether the work is presented with the intention to teach a moral (which would be consistent with Graham's borrowings from Greek drama which was originally intended to be expressly moral and educative), or whether it is presented with the intention of just being a dance, Chronicle was well paced and powerfully presented. The audience's reaction was very enthusiastic. The entire company deserved the applause.

Principals tonight were Dakin, Drdnik, Topping and Orihara in Phaedra; Auclair in Lamentation; Crocket, Lofsnes, Mécène, Galbraith, Prosperi, and Jeannot in Diversion of Angels; and Sheu and Orihara in Chronicle.

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