Martha Graham Dance Company, Updated, at CPA

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A moment from Martha Graham’s frolicking Maple Leaf Rag. Photo: Costas.

 

The Martha Graham Dance Company, like the companies of several other of the great modern dance choreographers, is still struggling to find the right mix of classic works by the late artist and new works by others that will allow the company to continue to live and thrive. The program at Carolina Performing Arts last night–which repeats Friday, March 24–illustrates the dichotomy, and some of the choice-making.

The evening opens with Act 2 of Graham’s powerful Clytemnestra, with its Noguchi set and Egyptian music. Yep, Act 2. The piece really doesn’t work so well without Act 1. I don’t know if the lackluster performance was due to the cast having to plunge in, dramatically speaking, without any lead-up, or for some other reason. The dancing, while correct, lacked passion–it never caught fire. Not even PeiJu Chien-Pott, as Clytemnestra, worked up any feeling as her children prepared to take their bloody revenge upon her.

The program switches gears with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new work, Mosaic, a co-commission by Carolina Performing Arts. Where Clytemnestra is highly stylized, and makes much use of angular profiles, Mosaic is very fluid, its individual images submerged in the kinetic flow. It was very interesting to see something made of little pieces that was all about the joining together rather than the separate bits. The delicious partnering and fabulous limber agility in the shape-making were inseparable from the swirling stage patterns. It was very lovely, and in retrospect deeply satisfying in the way its form was its content.

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A studio shot of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Mosaic, co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo courtesy MGDC/CPA.

 

After intermission comes comes Annie-B Parson’s I used to love you, described as a re-imagining of Martha Graham’s comedic 1941 dance, Punch and The Judy, itself derived from the Punch and Judy shows with puppets or marionettes. Parson’s work, more theatrical than dancey, includes everything but the kitchen sink: ergonomic rolling chairs, projections large and small, music, noise, text, radical reimagining–or “updating”–of various subtexts, fabulous bright costumes, and–oh, you guessed it–dancers with microphones. Dancers with microphones who were not experts at using them. Some of Will Eno’s text came through; some of it was irretrievably lost to microphone noise and feedback. Will Eno’s text! It was hard not to be pissed off about this. In fact, I failed. However, the piece is quite entertaining in its way, although it undercut its own cleverness with numerous odd lags in timing, which diminished its funniness. Another issue with the piece came to light while discussing it with a student next to me: he had never heard of Punch and Judy. Part of the interest of this work lies in its layered cultural references, yet younger viewers may not be able to see below the hyper-active surface.

The evening closes with Martha Graham’s last dance, the effervescent, angst-free Maple Leaf Rag from 1990, set to Scott Joplin’s lively Elite Syncopations, Bethena and the Maple Leaf Rag (arranged by Chris Landriau). There is nothing here that is not lovable–Graham even sends up herself, charmingly–and Graham aficionados will recognize many of her striking forms and movement phrases from the course of her career–there are quite a few similarities with the more buoyant sections of her Appalachian Spring, for instance. Some may find Maple Leaf Rag lacking in substance, but you know, joy is an ethereal thing.

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Dancers at play in Martha Graham’s Maple Leaf Rag. Photo: Costas.

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