Night Journey, which opened the program, is Graham’s retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus from Jocasta’s point of view. It is a stellar work, from the Graham-designed costumes to the Isamu Noguchi scenery. George Balanchine was surely influenced by this work when he made Orpheus in 1948, which also featured sets and props by Noguchi. Graham (1894-1991) and Balanchine (1904-1983) were contemporaries, and though they worked within different genres, there are many overlapping aspects to their choreography. Moments from the Four Temperaments, Symphony in Three Movements, and many other ballets that are so familiar to me kept popping to mind while I watched the Graham dancers. Graham’s influence looms large in many of Jerome Robbins’s ballets too--Night Journey frequently evoked The Cage. Deborah Jowitt notes in her biography of Robbins that he studied Graham technique in Greenwich Village for a time in his youth.
Night Journey begins and ends with Tiresias, the blind seer, forcefully slamming his walking cane into the ground. In the beginning he strikes the floor with his stick on huge chords in William Schuman’s music, at the end of the piece he repeats the movement while passing across the front panel of the stage in silence. Though this framing step emphasizes the inevitability of his dire prognostications, the real power in this piece derives from its women.
Blakely White-McGuire was captivating as Jocasta. She has strong, broad shoulders yet she comes across as exceedingly feminine—an intriguing combination that reminded me of former NYCB principal Jennie Somogyi. Her Jocasta was passionate and forceful, and she remained firmly in command during a heated duet with Lorenzo Pagano as Oedipus. Xin Ying was also excellent as the leader of the all-female Greek chorus. The choreography for this group of women was thrilling, with the women doing deep
AXE, which Artistic Director Janet Eilber announced pre-show was Mats Ek’s final work, was the highlight of the night. It began with sounds of an axe chopping wood emanating from behind the curtain. The curtain then rose upon Ben Schultz determinedly splitting logs on a block in silence, the stage had been struck of all scrims and sets and only a few woodpiles set the scene. He worked mechanically, effortlessly, and he made his simple task so beautiful. The whole audience applauded, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if the piece had consisted of just that. Finally Tomaso Albinoni’s lovely Adagio in G Minor commenced and PeiJu Chien-Pott skittered onto the stage in a drab floral dress.
Chien-Pott was riveting as she flitted about him, though Schultz could not be distracted from his chopping. She alternated slow fluid moves with jagged skips and ungainly chug steps, so that at times she resembled the Monty Python funny walk skits. She exited and entered like this a few times, in slightly altered garb each time, to evoke the passage of time. In subsequent passages she would sit on the chopping block while Schultz retrieved more wood, a symbol of her role in their relationship perhaps.
At about three-quarters of the way through the piece she arrested his axe mid-swing, and they began to dance together. At first they convulsed as if electrocuted—as if the interruption of his work was too much for his system, and by extension, hers. But their partnering became increasingly tender as the pas de deux progressed. Exhausted by their encounter, Chien-Pott went to retrieve his axe for him and they walked offstage together. Ek’s simple concept was incredibly effective, intimating so much about priorities, duty, and ambition within a relationship. I loved it.
The premiere of Marie Chouinard’s Inner Resources followed the intermission. I’m sorry to say that I thought it was dreadful. The pumping electronic music by Louis Dufort, which was blaringly loud, resembled the spitfire of a machine gun. It droned on with little variation for a long time, and the dance could not sustain the relentless energy of its staccato pulsing. The cast of eight women tried hard to sell some trite concepts—like men’s shirts pulled over their heads, and prancing around on pointe in their sneakers. It looked like a bad music video from the 90’s somehow. In a big reveal at the end of the first section the women pulled the shirts off their heads, one by one, to reveal that each one was sporting a stick-on mustache. Why? I didn’t care. It all seemed gimmicky, like a misbegotten amateur performance art attempt. At the end of the piece the women stripped each other down to see-through mesh leotards, for no apparent reason. Their bodies were beautiful, and at least provided something pleasing to look at, but it felt rather exploitative to me. This discomfort was underscored by the fact that the women put tank tops on for the bows.
Cave of the Heart, Graham’s interpretation of the Medea tragedy, closed the program. PeiJu Chien-Pott was back in the title role, and from her first step, when she parted the philandering Jason and his princess bride, she was knockout. Leslie Andrea Williams, who danced the role of The Chorus, was also fabulous. Her baggy skirt and top looked like they would swallow her up, but her huge layouts and powerful dancing easily tamed the dress. The costumes, once again by Graham, were great and the Noguchi set was spare yet compelling. Abdiel Jacobson as Jason and Anne O’Donnell as The Princess were also good: he had clean long lines and she had beautifully arched feet.
Cave of the Heart suffered a little for being a much quieter piece with a small cast, although, Samuel Barber’s Medea Opus 23 was a relief after the grating house music of the preceding piece. But overall, the evening made me want to see more of this talented company, and I especially want to see more of Graham’s classics performed live (most of which I have only seen on video at the Performing Arts Library). I think it would be so cool to have a collaboration “Greek Week” of Graham and Balanchine works. To see Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon next to Graham’s Grecian dances would be fascinating.
I am sorry too that I cannot see Andonis Foniadakis’s take on the Narcissus story, Echo, which the company danced last night. I would also like to see the New York premiere of Pontus Lidberg’s new work, which is being showcased at the Monday gala. Unfortunately I cannot make that show either. In all, the troupe is dancing eight works by five different choreographers over four programs. Surely Martha Graham deserves more than four performances in NY to commemorate her 90th anniversary!