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.

Glass # 3: DANCE with Lucinda Childs

LUCINDA CHILDS'S DANCE- Photo by Sally Cohn

Lucinda Childs Company in DANCE, with Sol LeWitt’s film of DANCE, set to Philip Glass’s DANCE I, Dance II, and Dance III. Photo: Sally Cohn.

 

Will art last, or is it strictly of its time? That’s always a question with new art, but the answer of necessity is slow in coming, and must be checked and perhaps revised as the generations pass. So one still cannot say that the beautiful, joyous, cunning 1979 collaborative work DANCE will last forever, but one can say that, 38 years after its premiere, it remains kinetically vital, visually challenging, and aurally propulsive towards spiritual uplift. Carolina Performing Artspresented the re-created work by choreographer Lucinda Childs, visual artist Sol LeWitt and composer Philip Glass in Memorial Hall as part of the ongoing Glass at 80 festival.

 

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A moment from DANCE, by Lucinda Childs, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Photo: Sally Cohn.

From my review “Ephermerality Reconstituted in DANCE at CPA“published 2/8/17 on cvnc.org. Click through to read the whole review.

 

 

 

 

 

…an artwork that draws its power from images of dance so ancient as to be archetypal – dance as communal expression, dance as celebration of innocent joy.

 

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Henri Matisse, Dance I, 1909, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

 

Childs, Glass and LeWitt were all among the art avant-garde in their youth. LeWitt died in 2007, but Childs and Glass continue to push the forward edge of art in their 70s and 80s.

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Choreographer Lucinda Childs. Childs will receive the ADF/Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 2017 American Dance Festival. Photo: Cameron Wittig.

Bait and Switch

The advance materials for a performance that will repeat today at 2 and 7 at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art show Thomas F. DeFrantz dancing. True, the photo shows him dancing in the Ninth Street Dance studio, but one is led to think that DeFrantz himself will dance in the performance at the Nasher.

No.

SLIPPAGE: reVERSE-gesture-reVIEWed supposedly explores “the provocation of Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” and maybe that is what the three dancers did, but most of the audience saw only a small fraction of the movement and the projections. DeFrantz was there, speaking cryptically in a tone suited to first year students in a classroom, and gliding about in his groovy multi-hued seersucker suit (yes, Virginia, it IS still January) and his white buck (heavy sartorial symbolism) shoes, but he did not dance.

DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American studies at Duke, and I had expected a sophisticated work, and was hoping for something as brilliant as Colson Whitehead’s recent book, The Underground Railroad. The use of technology was sophisticated (DeFrantz came to Duke from MIT), or maybe just cool, but neither the choreography nor the visuals were. What one could see of them.

I can think of three reasons for this performance to have been set up in an empty gallery, rather than in the museum auditorium. 1) They didn’t expect a crowd–didn’t think more than 10 or 15 people would show up–and that many would have been able to see. 2) The real purpose of the live performance was to create a video, so the audience didn’t really matter. 3) DeFrantz may have been trying to make a point about how difficult it is to see the whole picture and how few can actually do it. That is a point that one always must keep in mind.

But to lure people to a performance, people who are curious, and willing to look for what they have not noticed before–and not let them see it, strikes me as sadistic and self-defeating.

If you, like me, are really interested in “the place of Black women’s presence in the landscape of the Civil War,” you would do better to go back to Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. This 1966 book turned my head around when I was 15. The Durham County Library has four copies.

 

 

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