The Good Old Bad Old Days

by Leigh Witchel

Richard Move’s newest dance was quite retro.  “XXYY,” made for the Live Ideas 2017 Festival: Mx’d Messages, was a study of androgyny and gender that slingshot us back a century, jumping over recent gains for transfolk to remind us not just how far we’ve come, but what the struggle really was.

The trio, performed by Move and two women closely allied with him for a decade, former Graham dancers Katherine Crockett and Catherine Cabeen, was built from two provocative sources: recordings of the last castrato at the Vatican, Alessandro Moreschi, made in 1903 and ‘04, and “Autobiography of an Androgyne” a memoir published in 1918, of Ralph Werther who, had the term existed at the time, would have called herself transgender.

Flanked by Crockett and Cabeen, Move entered masked, cinched into a bustier and perched on thigh-high boots with white lines running across them like ivy on a wall – or veins.  As the others danced, Move came to the front to take off these layers of gender and arranged them in a pile.  Cabeen and Crockett wore outfits that incorporated elements of both genders and wound up looking something like the emcee in “Cabaret.”  The trio danced with a plastique that recalled Nijinsky and how society reacted to his disorder.

Move’s references to the bad old days of “inverts” and the “third sex” were calculated.  Our perspective was from the inside of a prison looking out; even the masking and cinching suggested being bound.  Werther wrote during a time when transfolk did not ask for acceptance or tolerance, much less insist on their own normality.  They called themselves “faeries” and begged for pity, seeing themselves as disordered.  Listening to Moreschi, though, made you think less about gender politics and more about art.  Moreschi was in his mid-40s by the time of recording.  To modern ears his voice was tinny and warbling, with ease only in the highest notes.  How much of that was a change of taste and emphasis in singing technique and how much was the deterioration of age is a matter of debate.

Catherine Cabeen, Richard Move, Katherine Crockett in “XXYY.”  Photo © JulenPhoto.

“XXYY” was more theater-dance than dance-theater.  The clean, simple movement may have been at center stage but the score and narration held the foreground – a balance that wasn’t always in the best interests of the performance.  Some of the limitations seemed budgetary. If you’ve seen any of Move’s other works, such as “The Show (Achilles Heels)” it’s clear what he can do with dancers and money.  But a point that wasn’t as easy to finesse as it has been in Move’s canny work reanimating Martha Graham.  In “XXYY,” Move the dancer was not on the same level as Move the director.

The bad old days were preceded by the good old ones.  “Martha@20” celebrated the anniversary of Move’s brilliant embodiment of Martha Graham.  Agelessly aging much as she did in real life, Move’s Martha narrated the co-production with the New York City Ballet of “Episodes,” exposing a bitter rivalry behind the façade of comity.  Martha, genteel, composed and simmering with resentment, explained in her clipped tones how her dance was programmed to go first because Balanchine was sure his work would be stronger.  After, she recounted how she managed to redesign Karinska’s costume so she could move in it, while convincing Karinska that it was her own idea, and finally her vindication in the massive audience acclaim. “No response from Balanchine.  He never came backstage.  He never said a word.”

With the assistance of the adept Crockett and Cabeen, Martha narrated her way through a lecture-demonstration.  In a Graham class, she showed how emotions were an essential element of technical mastery, explaining technique through metaphor.  Three of Martha’s Greek roles were shown, Medea in “Cave of the Heart,” Jocasta in “Night Journey,” and finally Martha/Move herself danced in “Clytemnestra”  and afterwards, “Lamentation.”  Cabeen and Crockett are both estimable dancers, so the close-up performance did exactly what a lec-dem ought to do: allowed you to focus on the choreography while getting a good explanation.

Yet this was a performance, and at times it did come off with the same casual air as a lec-dem.  Like the Charles Atlas films being played in the lobby, “Martha@20” was structurally jumpy, cutting from moment to moment.  Move’s wry imitation held it together.  Most of the time Move played Martha straight, the way he obviously sees her: as a towering genius.  His Martha always had Graham’s cultured, regal air.  The jokes were on the fringes: a ninja-like helper bringing her microphone to her and leaving in full-out Graham steps.  Besides, Move’s timing has always been as lethally acute as Martha’s. Why bother with mugging?  As with dance’s other great gender illusionists, the Trocks, Move has the secret of satire down cold.  The best stuff, and the funniest, springs from love.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Martha@20,” “XXYY” – Richard Move and MoveOpolis
New York Live Arts, New York, NY
March 8, 2017

Cover: Richard Move in “Martha@20.” Photo © JulenPhoto.


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