Martha Graham Dance Company: ’Myth and Transformation’

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Feb 23, 2013
Blakeley White-McGuire and Lloyd Mayor in ’The Show (Achilles Heels)’
Blakeley White-McGuire and Lloyd Mayor in ’The Show (Achilles Heels)’  (Source:Paula Court)

The three-part program of the Martha Graham dance company has been given the umbrella title of "Myth and Transformation," which is about as broad as calling a Hitchcock film retrospective "Paranoia and Suspense."

It was Graham who, along with Freud, brought Greek myths kicking and screaming from the prettified academia of the Victorians into the modern age by redefining them as profound allegories of the human unconscious. Everything Graham did had the effect of myth; even the humble Shakers in her best-known work (thanks to that commissioned Copland score), "Appalachian Spring" become symbols of something greater than themselves.

For me, the most anticipated program was the double header of "Phaedra" and "The Show (Achilles Heels)." The two one-act pieces revealed a great deal, not only about the Greek myths they portrayed, but about modern dance itself.

First of all, Graham's back office deserves accolades for getting this program together at all. After Hurricane Sandy destroyed a good deal of the historic sets and costumes in the company's Greenwich Village storage area, recreating enough to do a two-week program was an effort downright, well, herculean.

I had never seen the 1962 "Phaedra," so I didn't come in with a lot of the preconceived notions more experienced (jaded?) critics seem to have brought with them.

This is very much a story ballet, most of it taken from Euripides' tragedy with some borrowings from other sources, most notably Racine's French classical drama and Seneca's Roman version.

If you're not familiar with the plot, a lot of what goes on will probably seem oblique. The program should have had much more details about the action; simply noting that Phaedra "enacts the lie that brings destruction and tragedy" doesn't explain the complexity of the fatal hunt or the bitch fight between Aphrodite, the goddess of love Hippolytus spurns, and Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt (and the moon) whom he honors, or the way the goddesses use and abuse mortals to score points.

That said, you don't have to be a classical scholar to enjoy the gorgeous tableau that unfurls, or the wonderful way the choreography, costumes, music and set all come together. The cast is fully up to the rigors of making an eternal myth very real.

Also sexy. The men, all clad in black spandex briefs with Greek waste bands (now we know where Versace stole it from!) will make you forget that this is supposed to be highbrow stuff. Ditto the stunning bodysuits worn by some of the female dancers.

Much of the dancing seems taken directly from classical friezes. When the men literally swoop onto each other, balancing themselves against their male partners, the effect is electrifying.

Blakeley White-McGuire conveys the hauteur, passion and torment of a queen who can neither explain to herself the lust she feels for her stepson or control it. Tadej Brdnik brings a solid authority to the pounding steps of her husband Theseus.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Blakeley White-McGuire conveys the hauteur, passion and torment of a queen who can neither explain to herself the lust she feels for her stepson or control it. Tadej Brdnik brings a solid authority to the pounding steps of her husband Theseus. Maurizio Nardi gives Hippolytus all of the ardor and callousness of youth.

This piece represents for me the very essence of Martha Graham.

'The Show (Achilles Heel)'
Unfortunately, "The Show (Achilles Heel)" is an example of what happens when someone tries to make the most storied company in modern dance hip and trendy.

It's especially sad because few have done as much to keep interest in Graham herself than the choreographer, Richard Move. Performing in downtown clubs and arts spaces, Move has been doing a spot-on homage. With equal parts high art and low camp, his Graham impersonation is really something to see.

Although there are plenty of iconic Graham poses and moves in "The Show," the incoherent way it mixes music and dialogue moves it far away from her style. It may be impossible to project what Graham, who died in 1991, would have thought of having the cast lip synch, but I have a feeling her reaction wouldn't have been pretty.

In an effort to bring the audience up to speed with the story, which comes mostly from Homer's "Iliad," the goddess Athena periodically comes out as a game-show hostess and gives Achilles various "Jeopardy"-type answer-questions. There would have been a time when an educated audience would have been as familiar with Homer's plot as with "Star Wars" or the "Twilight Series." But if Move felt the need to explain, isn't that what why we get Playbills?

I can't blame Blakeley White-McGuire for the vulgar hip thrusting, but of all the Olympians, Athena, the stern goddess of both wisdom and warriors, would have been the last to do any hootchie-cootchie dance. As Achilles, Lloyd Mayor has the androgynous beauty that makes plausible the story that his mother disguised him as a woman to keep him from the fatal siege of Troy, although it was harder to imagine him as a brutal mass killer on the battlefield. But he gets major totes for maintaining a haughty dignity throughout the goings-on around him, no small feat when glitter confetti is raining down on you.

Not surprisingly, Move makes the celebrated love between Achilles and Patroclus central to the piece. For the most part, the erotic component is played down, except for a very few bits such as Patroclus smothering his face in the towel with which he has just wiped down his lover. He also has to dress the poor guy in a red molded breastplate -- red, I guess, because he's about to slaughter half the Trojan army.

Best of all was Katherine Crockett as Helen of Troy. Although I couldn't quite figure out what she was doing there much of the time (she only makes one guest appearance in "The Iliad'), she did it with dignity.

If there is anything about this piece that i can single out for unstinted praise, it's the Debby Harry songs. Not that this wonderful artist can ever make a false step, but her haunting, clarion voice and the sinuous music really do give a sense of the futility of man's efforts in the face of the Fates. But she's only a part of the "score" (ironic quotes), a mishmash or styles, including some droning that would be loud at a Victor Calderon party.

This whole mash-up of musical styles, dialogue and breaking down the fourth wall must have been revolutionary at one time. Now that every downtown dance troupe does it, it's time to move on.

Marthan Graham Contemporary Dance’s "Myth and Transformation" runs through March 3 at the The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. at West 19th Street. For info or tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit www.joyce.org

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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