Star ghosts have always wielded undying power in the dance world.
More than a century ago, for instance, a ballerina named Pierina Legnani specialized in executing 32 of the high-velocity whipping turns, called fouettes, on pointe. So choreographers put that bravura feat into her roles.
Those roles keep the afterimage of Legnani’s prowess alive and kicking, and today nearly every ballerina dancing the ballroom scene of “Swan Lake” must invoke her ghost -- and measure up to it -- to be deemed a worthy successor.
Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Balasaraswati of India, Gwen Verdon and Isadora Duncan: Their shades still haunt dance stages. And there are plenty more.
But perhaps no dancing ghost remains as potent as Martha Graham’s, partly because the modern dance masterworks that carry her spectral imprint have never been extensively restaged or redesigned. That’s why the dominating and, some might argue, oppressive afterimage of her dancing remains vivid and seems to be inescapable.
It certainly seemed that way during the Martha Graham Dance Company’s two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater in New York in late January, the company’s first home season in four years.
Financial crises and litigation over the ownership of Graham’s name and repertory had left her company dangling, and its comeback proved that her ghost could be a destructive force, invoking past greatness in a way that made present achievement look both paltry and old-fashioned.
There were plenty of women at the Joyce made up like Graham, striking poses familiar from Graham photographs and giving well-rehearsed displays of Graham technique. But much of the dramatic power in her choreography had eroded to an alarming extent, and as a result, the whole future of the Graham legacy appeared questionable.
Happily, the outcome of the litigation has opened up new possibilities for its survival: possibilities for separating the greatness of Graham’s choreography from the aura of her dancing ghost -- and also from the struggling, mediocre dance company that bears her name.
The sincerest form of flattery?
Even before her death in 1991, the women of her company tried incessantly to look like Graham -- approximating and sometimes exaggerating her hairstyles, her makeup -- to conjure up the ghost in some small measure.
Graham hated it but wasn’t strong enough to stop it. “I want the dancers in my company not to be like me,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Blood Memory.” “I want the dancers to learn the dance physically, strongly, and then put their own meaning into it, if they dare to do that. I don’t believe in stereotyped mes running around. What a horrible thought.”
Horrible or not, many of the lead women at the Joyce performed her dances physically, strongly, but without putting their own meaning into it -- or, indeed, any meaning. For example, Katherine Crockett’s approach to Graham’s signature 1930 solo “Lamentation” boasted impressive physical pliancy but had absolutely no sense of suffering. She carefully reflected the shapes familiar from photographs and an early film of Graham’s performances, but stayed so resolutely away from the state of feeling that the solo embodies that the result resembled an impression of Graham more than a full-fledged performance. And she was hardly alone.
At times, newly appointed artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin (both veteran principals in the company) seemed to be introducing a radically anti-dramatic style of Graham dancing, one prioritizing body sculpture, the clearest, cleanest execution of steps and the preservation of Graham ghost-imagery. It wasn’t enough.
In Graham’s glory days, major actors took classes at her school because of the way her style of dancing unlocked emotion deep in the body. But only the revelatory Fang Yi Sheu (a member of the company since 1995) and a very few others consistently brought this kind of emotional component to their dancing. And since a cogent interpretive concept or emotional through-line rarely sullied the emphasis on abstract expressionism, the most ambitious restagings often left Graham looking confused or downright unreadable.
Other stagings invited derision because they seemed dated or utterly passe. “There it was, the Graham legacy,” Laura Shapiro wrote in New York magazine, reviewing “Errand Into the Maze,” Graham’s 1947 proto-feminist take on the ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and the Minotaur. “And what did we see? A guy in little black briefs marching stiffly across the stage with a pole across his shoulders to suggest a yoke, and a kind of bone perched on his forehead as horns. He’s the Minotaur. I really think it’s over.”
Calling the Graham legacy an “unwieldy burden,” Shapiro compared the literal, “antiquated” “Errand Into the Maze” with George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade,” which she termed “as fresh and provocative as if he premiered it today.”
Balanchine, however, consistently revised and redesigned his early works, including “Serenade,” and Shapiro might well find the original designs for such masterworks as 1946’s “Four Temperaments” as old-fashioned as the Graham productions, if they too had remained unchanged over the years.
“Errand Into the Maze” is about a woman conquering her fears -- fears that are personified by a threatening male. If the man’s costume makes him more threatening, great. But if it seems ridiculous to contemporary audiences, why not simplify it or change it altogether, and leave the Greek mythology in the program notes?
Ruling opens possibilities
When the Graham litigation began three years ago, there seemed just two possible winners: Ron Protas, Graham’s heir, or the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, the umbrella organization that runs the company and school. But on Aug. 23, U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum created a third possibility -- indeed, a whole new landscape for Graham dancing -- by ruling that some of Graham’s most famous and popular works belonged in the public domain.
Currently under appeal, her ruling left “Appalachian Spring,” “Lamentation,” “Night Journey” and other masterworks up for grabs, and that’s news for modern dance.
Graham certainly would have hated the idea -- during her lifetime, she allowed very few companies to touch her repertory. But she might have hated more the performance of “Appalachian Spring” that the Graham company danced on the first Friday of the Joyce engagement: the flattest, most uncommunicative, by-the-numbers “Appalachian Spring” this writer has ever seen.
But it need not be the dominant “Appalachian Spring.” The current legal reality means that the Graham company is no longer in sole control of her legacy. The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance certainly came out the big winner in Cedarbaum’s ruling, but it ended up owning only six of the 15 works that the company danced at the Joyce. (Six others came from the public domain and three from one kind of legal limbo or another.)
Thus, other companies no longer have to ask anyone’s permission to mount some major works. They’re free to recapture something deeper and more essential in the Graham repertory than what was seen at the Joyce -- or to look at Graham from a contemporary perspective.
Just as a number of classical companies regularly dance better Balanchine than his own New York City Ballet, the finest, most authoritative Graham performances might well be found far from the reach of Capucilli, Dakin and company.
Yes, their company is trained in Graham technique, and something crucial is lost when those who aren’t attempt the works. However, some observers contend that the Graham dancers themselves are currently deficient in that regard. For example, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote in a Joyce-season wrap-up that Capucilli and Dakin “need to crack the whip and have the Graham technique executed properly and to the hilt. Often it was not.”
And that’s ironic, for after the company and school shut down in 2000, the dancers sought to make themselves indispensable to the Graham legacy by instituting an international boycott, proclaiming that nobody should perform Graham anywhere until they were back on stage as leaders of the pack. But the Joyce comeback season proved that if Martha Graham is to have continuing impact and influence as a prime creative spirit, the leadership may have to come from elsewhere.
Major dancers who worked with Graham while she was still in her prime are ready to set her works on other companies, starting with Yuriko, who danced for Graham from 1944 to 1967 and staged an acclaimed Joffrey Ballet production of “Appalachian Spring” for Protas despite the boycott. Clearly, some companies will fail at Graham, just as major ballet companies fail at the 19th century classics long in the public domain. But the best stagings will offer us fresh, primal Graham experiences free from an encumbering tradition and the afterimage of Graham’s ghost.
Even if Graham’s company significantly improves, or Fang Yi Sheu dances all her vehicles, the Cedarbaum ruling has changed its status. New access to the Graham repertory invites alternate ways of interpreting her works, including redesigning their sets and costumes where needed. The result may well broaden her reach and give her legacy, if not her ghost, a whole new lease on life.
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Graham works up for reinterpretation
A federal court ruling places 10 dance dramas choreographed by Martha Graham clearly in the public domain, unless an appeals court changes things. Here’s a rundown of the works judged to be freebies, among them some of her most important dances. Most are immediately available for reinterpretation; others have been so rarely danced since their first seasons that they would need to be reconstructed.
“The Flute of Krishna” (1926), music by Cyril Scott. Quasi-Hindu exotica in the spirit of the Denishawn company where Graham began her dance career.
“Heretic” (1929), anonymous music from “Breton Tetus” chansons. A free spirit crushed by an implacable corps: abstract dance drama still relevant and powerful today.
“Lamentation” (1930), music by Zoltan Kodaly. A classic Graham solo, mostly seated, in which the dancer is encased in stretch fabric and personifies grief.
“Celebration” (1934), music by Louis Horst. An energetic, technically demanding group dance suggesting fireworks or atoms and molecules in space.
“Frontier” (1935), music by Louis Horst. A proto-feminist solo abstracting the courage and vision of American pioneer women.
“Panorama” (1935), music by Norman Lloyd. A large-scale experiment in social consciousness with an expanded cast, an elaborate ramped set and mobiles designed by sculptor Alexander Calder.
“Chronicle/Steps in the Street” (1936), music by Wallingford Riegger. The violence of war, a society torn into factions: more abstract dance drama on social themes.
“American Document” (1938), music by Ray Green. A panoramic and sometimes jazz-influenced view of U.S. history in music-hall format, with spoken texts.
“Appalachian Spring” (1944), music by Aaron Copland. Love and a sense of community bloom on the American frontier. Graham’s most popular work.
“Night Journey” (1947), music by William Schuman. A brilliant transformation of ancient Greek tragedy (“Oedipus Rex”) into visceral dance drama.
Lewis Segal is The Times’ dance critic.