Martha Graham in body, but not in soul

Times Staff Writer

In the ever-hopeful dance world, fabled but luckless companies struggling to regain their former stature find no shortage of cheerleaders heralding a new golden age. But, as with the Bolshoi Ballet’s attempts at a comeback in the last few years, it’s too soon to wax ecstatic over the recently reconstituted Martha Graham Dance Company.

In its first New York season in four years, the 24-dancer ensemble is performing a two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater under new artistic directors, following a period of financial crises and legal battles. Los Angeles last saw the company in 2000, shortly before it disbanded, and some of the same dancers and works were included in the first half of the Joyce run last week.

Live music, artful lighting design, the wondrous sculptural settings of Isamu Noguchi and meticulously rehearsed dancing gave the Graham works on view over the weekend a high theatrical gloss. However, too many leading dancers offered performances strong in technique but lacking in both emotional expression and an overall dramatic shape or through-line.


Indeed, novice artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin (both longtime company principals) often seemed to be enforcing a whole new style of Graham dancing, one minimizing dance drama in favor of pure body sculpture: Martha Graham as abstract expressionist and nothing else.

When the choreography told you everything you needed to know, the results of this approach could prove remarkably fresh and even thrilling, as in the Friday performance of “El Penitente,” Graham’s 1940 depiction of Southwestern strolling players enacting Bible stories. No scenery chewing, just eloquent body language, especially from Tadej Brdnik in the title role.

Similarly, on Saturday, Alessandra Prosperi brought great physical force and flexibility to “Deep Song,” a 1937 solo performed around and under a bench, and the sheer kinetic power of her dancing carried a memorable expressive charge.

However, when a work needed a series of specific interpretive choices to make its purposes clear, it could emerge impossibly confusing. In “Dark Meadow,” for example, Graham created an extended meditation on the life force, full of sexual symbolism and the interplay of soloists and corps.

Simply executing the movement isn’t enough here -- you have to take your audience along on the journey. That didn’t happen in this nearly hourlong 1946 challenge, not with Miki Orihara in her debut in Graham’s role on Friday, nor with the more experienced Dakin the following night. For all the technical surety they commanded, the dancing looked directionless, the narrative unreadable.

Prosperi’s dancing fell prey to the same interpretive fog in her Friday debut in “Errand Into the Maze,” a 1947 proto-feminist view of the ancient Greek legend of Ariadne and the Minotaur. But a day later, Orihara managed to trace the character’s growing self-confidence, and conquest of her fears, while still giving the movement full power.


On Friday, Graham’s 1944 Americana classic “Appalachian Spring” offered a collage of clashing approaches. Virginie Mecene gave a cautious, expressively scattershot debut performance as the Bride. Gary Galbraith provided a technically shaky, curiously furtive interpretation of the Husbandman. Heidi Stoeckley (another debut) remained an enigma as the Pioneering Woman but gave authority to the movement. Finally, Christophe Jeannot acted and danced superbly in well-nigh-perfect realization of the Revivalist.

Perhaps the finest realization of a Graham work all weekend came Saturday afternoon and evening from the extraordinarily poignant Fang Yi Sheu and the women’s corps in “Heretic,” a stark 1929 study of the destruction of an individual by an implacable mob.

However, the greatest impact arguably occurred on the same programs during the spectacular mock-serious jumping entrance of the full corps in “Maple Leaf Rag,” a 1990 diversion in which Graham laughed at her own image.

Aaron Sherber again conducted a versatile chamber orchestra here, but also contributed new orchestrations to what previously was a piano score.

When Graham was alive, program credits for “Maple Leaf Rag” always included the dedication “For Ron,” referring to Ron Protas, then Graham’s associate artistic director and, soon after, her sole heir. But now that litigation has removed Protas from any involvement with the company or repertory (though an appeal is pending), “For Ron” is missing at the Joyce.

Capucilli and Dakin have declined to explain its absence, except to issue generalities about Graham’s commitment to change and the declaration: “We trust our instincts.” Protas calls the deletion an attempt “to rewrite history.” Either way, it signals an enduring bitterness not likely to heal any time soon.