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The life of dance legend Martha Graham, step by step, falls and all

The life of dance legend Martha Graham, step by step, falls and all
Christina Carlisi stars in "Martha," the one-woman show by Ellen Melaver playing in Sherman Oaks. (Charles Dougherty)

Can anyone fill Martha Graham's shoes?

That's a formidable challenge for the young performers who take on her roles, but it may be even more ambitious to embody the real-life grande dame of American modern dance. Actress and former professional dancer Christina Carlisi makes an admirable attempt in "Martha," a one-woman show at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

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In this play by Ellen Melaver, Carlisi plays a 74-year-old Martha Graham fresh off a disastrous performance of "Clytemnestra" and facing pressure to retire from the stage.

Convinced that the world wants her dead rather than dancing, she has gathered together her company, patrons, hangers-on and critics to mockingly share her last will and testament.

To New York Times' dance critic Clive Barnes, she bequeaths her foot, whose twisted bones, curled toes, bunions, callouses and spurs are a record of her illustrious career — one spun from training with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, teaching at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and running her own studio in Manhattan.

"Quite an historical archive," she quips, before taking us through the peaks and valleys of her life, the curves and contours of her memories.

Melaver's script weaves together Graham's biography (dance history novices may miss some references) and reveals the dance maker's sharp wit, flair for the dramatic and proneness to bouts of rage and brooding "black Irish" depression.

Under the direction of Stewart J. Zully, Carlisi oscillates between these highs and lows well enough, but what is less apparent is the vitality, the life force, the quickening — to paraphrase Graham — that pulsed through her veins and informed accounts of her. "There were forces within her personality like those within a wild animal," Graham's longtime friend and fellow choreographer Agnes de Mille wrote in her book "Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham."

In his book "Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life," Russell Freedman quotes former Graham company member Gertrude Shurr as saying: "We used to watch her with alarm. She had her tantrums because she couldn't draw out of herself all of the devils she kept inside her. … I thought this was the way Martha had to be, because she wasn't a normal human being. She was a genius."

The play does not exude this intensity, but there are moments of magic when Carlisi — aided by Camille Loftin's apt choreography and Derrick McDaniel's lovely lighting design — seems to channel the spirit of Graham.

When Carlisi elegantly tangles herself in a telephone cord revealing the magnificent geometry of Graham's technique or performs Graham's iconic shrouded solo "Lamentation," the mood of these scenes shifts into an almost awe-inspiring register. Similarly, a serene sparkle comes into her eye as she pretends to cup in her hands the face of Erick Hawkins, Graham's one-time husband and dance partner.

When graced with Melaver's lyrical gems of Graham-like wisdom — "If you give your body limits, suddenly you will see how limitless it is" — Carlisi's performance can be incandescent.

If only it were glowing throughout.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Martha’

Where: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, ends May 28

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Cost: $25

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m. March 28: This article has been updated to reflect the extension of the production and a new ending date of May 28.

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