Unconstructive Deconstruction

By now, Martha Graham’s company has completed its transitioned into a contemporary dance company based on Graham in the broadest way possible: Not only Martha Graham’s dances, but her technique, life and mystique.  The works shown opening night journeyed far and wide.

Pontus Lidberg’s “Woodland” began with a dance in a fluid contemporary style that started with a single woman and built to a small ensemble.

Xin Ying appeared as the others rushed off. She danced a pizzicato solo; the rest of the cast returned in animal masks depicting foxes or birds and moved with the alert, sudden nature of animals on watch, glancing around with pricked ears.

Ying removed the masks from a couple and they danced as the others returned in human form. She observed the couples and things dwindled down to her solo. The stage filled again and the crowd that brought her on carried her away.

The Swedish choreographer and filmmaker made “Woodland” for the Graham company last year and this year did a piece for New York City Ballet.  His work looked better on the Graham dancers and used them better than at NYCB. Avoiding the floor at NYCB made Lidberg’s work look flighty, but floor work is something Graham dancers do and NYCB dancers don’t. His work also takes naturally to an ensemble. It looked better on a small, intimate group than on a hierarchical company with soloists and principals. Yet though dance tends the omnivorous, Lidberg’s work didn’t focus on a genre, making it pleasant, fluid – and generic.

Xin Ying in “Woodland.” Photo © Brigid Pierce.

Even if Graham’s work forms the company’s base, this program accented the new works, and the Graham was less consequential. An excerpt from a longer work from 1946, “Dark Meadow Suite” changed the full-evening work into a long abstracted group piece ending with solos. Inspired by Pueblo ritual, the company was clad in costumes of ocher and burnt umber, dancing to a plaintive cello and thrumming violins. All the women had bare midriffs, which showed just how cut stomach contractions make you. The group circled in prances, with a soloist reaching out in distress.

Graham’s notes described “Dark Meadow” as about seeking. Lorenzo Pagano displaced the women to hop back and take the space, searching with clenched fists. More men arrived to carry the women, bracing them on their thighs like the figurehead of a ship.

If “Dark Meadow” was only presented as a fragment, “Ekstasis” was a re-imagining of a solo by long-time Graham dancer Virginie Mécène, conjured from photos and to music (also recomposed) by Ramon Humet reminiscent of John Cage with the sounds of water and rain sticks, PeiJu Chien-Pott stood with her knees tight together, and bent and twisted locked in place. Once done, she came to rest back at center before one last contraction to the side.

“Maple Leaf Rag” was made close to six decades later as Graham’s last utterance but it’s a strange final signature, programmed a great deal for a minor-league work. Using a joggling board – a kind of unstable balance beam – as a prop, Graham spoofed herself, setting Konstantina Xintara as a Martha-surrogate in a long skirt revolving portentously across the front: a heroine without a conflict. Behind her a chorus of tight-bunned harpies agonized about nothing in particular. Diminutive Charlotte Landreau was also a central figure, at the end Lloyd Mayor ripped off her skirt and ran away with it. The dance is an in-joke that would be funnier programmed with a work like “Cave of the Heart” or “Night Journey,” which showed what Graham was spoofing.

The evening’s debut, “I used to love you” by Annie-B Parson, was an overt riff on Graham: a deconstruction of Graham’s comic piece “Punch and the Judy.”

A projection screen at the back looped a short clip of the 1941 work, but Parson’s exploration said a lot more about Parson than it did about Graham. Three women in loud outfits formed a chorus, racing about on rolling chairs, screaming things barely audible in the general din.

Parson’s chorus began questioning and examining itself almost immediately. “I thought we were a chorus, isn’t a chorus supposed to speak at the same time?” and then wondering if we could hear them. It would have been less precious had they actually done anything to be heard first.

The battling couple, Ying and Pagano, argued, each speaking in their native tongue. Their daughter (So Young An) did a variant of her solo from the archive footage. “I used to love you” was more interesting when Parson used more of the source material to make us reexamine the steps rather than free-floating commentary.

“Trouble starts,” the chorus announced, and then asked what that meant, and immediately answered its own question. “Family Stuff.” Parson didn’t say it, but by setting a dance with Punch and his daughter immediately after she implied that the trouble could be incest on a “Big Bertha” scale. Yet that didn’t make sense unless Punch was polymorphously perverse: she showed him lying in bed with another man, something not in the source film, but the original Punch was Graham’s husband, Erick Hawkins, who was many years Martha’s junior and gay. Her examination didn’t shed light on what she was trying to get at, or the material itself.

There was a blackout in the dance that is solely there because the source film broke, but the entire piece had a fascination with the messenger that kept ignoring the message. Judy collapsed, the cast tries to fan and revive her, and to end the chorus ruminated on possible alternative endings.

If you respect or would like to understand more about the original work, Parson’s work will disappoint. Continuously the cast announced what they were doing, and then barely did it. The chorus announced wryly, “the movements have been updated.” What movement?  We knew little about the source material, and it barely got discussed.

Deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake gets old, fast. There’s only so many times you can announce that you’re breaking the fourth wall without examining the room.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Dark Meadow Suite,” “Ekstasis,” “Woodland,” “I used to love you,” “Maple Leaf Rag” – Martha Graham Dance Company
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
February 14, 2017

Cover: (L to R) Anne O’Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, Laurel Dalley Smith, and Xin Ying in “I used to love you.” Photo © Brigid Pierce.

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