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Several seescapes
The legacy and anti-legacy of Martha Graham at the Pillow

Halfway through Thursday (8/8) night’s performance in the Doris Duke Studio Theater at Jacob’s Pillow, a man and a woman in drag enter to begin a conversation. Richard Move as Martha Graham, in an off-the-shoulder, floor-length sequined gown, has just delivered a lengthy introduction to Yvonne Rainer, a former Graham student who spearheaded the wave of postmodern experimentation at the Judson Church in the 1960s. The modern-dance goddess claims she’s still mystified by this dissident and disloyal clan.

Rainer, in steel-rimmed glasses, suit and tie, and a butch haircut, confesses she was never able to get herself into the pretzel shapes demanded by the Graham technique — she demonstrates a few — and explains that the Judson dancers weren’t interested in telling stories or projecting their sexuality on stage. The uncomprehending Martha demands to know, then, just what Rainer’s dances might mean. " Well, " says Rainer, pushed to the wall, " my dancers are saying, ‘I’m not Martha Graham!’  "

This staging of one of the 20th century’s great hypothetical encounters was followed by a performance of Rainer’s 1962 dance Three Seascapes by Patricia Hoffbauer. The whole segment was the highlight of Martha @ the Pillow, the latest in Richard Move’s ongoing variety show celebrating the late diva of modern dance.

Three Seascapes looked about as far as you could get from anything else being danced at Jacob’s Pillow last week. And yet, it was powerful in ways you want dance to be — shocking, physically demanding, formal, sensuous, and evocative.

The dance is in three parts. Hoffbauer enters running, from an upstage corner. She has a poker face, and her hands are stuffed into the pockets of her blue raincoat. To an excerpt from Rachmaninov’s flamboyant Second Piano Concerto she runs around the perimeter of the space, keeping the corners as square as possible and occasionally reversing direction. Without warning, though sometimes in conjunction with a musical cue, she topples onto the floor and remains inert for a couple of seconds, then jumps up and continues running. She never changes her expression or her posture, but you can see after a long time that she’s getting tired.

In part two she starts at the same corner, wearing a black top and pants. The music, an excruciating sound mix that suggests a train heading for a wreck with a herd of elephants on board, is from LaMonte Young’s Development for Chairs, Tables, Benches (1960). Young was in the midst of his natural-sound period then, and the continuous scraping of furniture on concrete produced great variety and interest, he says in a program note; he found these sounds " unimaginably beautiful. " One of the resultant scores accompanied Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch a couple of years later and was largely responsible for that dance’s notorious reputation.

While this catastrophic grinding and crushing is going on, Hoffbauer slowly works her way down the diagonal, undulating and hugging herself, writhing, shrinking and stretching, but always moving close to the body. Nothing specific happens, but she seems to be going through a whole series of half-resolved inner states of tension, fear, agony, desire, who knows what. The phrase keeps cycling back into itself instead of coming to a conclusion, and just when you think you can’t stand the suspense, she gets to the downstage end of the diagonal and walks off.

In part three she drags in a mound of white gauze. She spreads the raincoat on the pile. She stands and looks at the pile. Suddenly she throws herself onto it and rips into a screaming, rolling fit, arms, legs, and material flung all over in a blur of unleashed fury. Just as suddenly, she stops. The dance is over.

Three Seascapes predates Yvonne Rainer’s more overtly feminist dances and films, and as a " pure dance " piece, it seems to represent the reformist intentions of Judson and the postmodern dancers perfectly. It questions the role of music in a dance, displays in nontechnical ways the performer’s refined and controlled physicality, and explores how a dance can manipulate our expectations and our emotions. I had never seen it before, and I was stunned.

The æsthetics of Judson and Merce Cunningham ultimately prevailed over those of Graham. Most dances today avoid the psycho-sexual obsessing and self-dramatization that were Graham’s stock-in-trade. Choreographers still use some of the alternative compositional tactics of the Judson dancers, though the Judsonites’ previously thorny, challenging concepts now arrive on the stage all smoothed out and inviting.

At the Pillow’s pre-performance Inside-Out series the same night I saw Martha @, Jamie Bishton performed his 41, a dance that gets added to for each new Bishton birthday. Like many of the Judson dances, 41 is put together from a pictorial " score, " in this case a collage of snapshots that Bishton’s friends and relatives send him. The snapshots were laid out on the floor, and Bishton referred to them at times during the dance. I’m not sure whether he was imitating poses he saw in the photographs or dancing out some memory connected with the subjects in them.

The idea of making dances from randomly chosen sources or assembling movements in arbitrary sequences can heighten the dance’s moment-to-moment interest. In Three Seascapes, the objectivity of plain movement, the performer’s flat affect, gives each move both importance and insignificance. Each move erases the one before it and is overridden in turn, and you look more intently when you know the movements aren’t leading up to anything.

As soon as a more polished technique re-entered the toolbox of dancers’ possibilities, the audience began to look more conventionally again. Jamie Bishton’s dance seems formless, a string of phrases that don’t lead anywhere, but his movement is big, lush, and highly accomplished. That kind of satisfaction is what the Judsonites wanted to fend off.

Postmodernism has even influenced the mainstream modernism of Mark Morris, whose company performed an evening of repertory in the main theater at Jacob’s Pillow. Morris is known for his attachment to music and his exquisitely formal sense of dance composition. But one of the things he’s absorbed from postmodernism is inclusiveness. He’s able to maneuver among balletic designs, folk-dance forms, and vaudeville steps in a dance like Foursome (2002). This piece, to selections from Erik Satie and Johann Nepumuk Hummel, puts together sleek young dancers (Shawn Gannon and John Heginbotham) and older, portlier veterans (Morris and Guillermo Resto) in companionable romps and rivalries.

Morris is attracted to the rhythms of world music and dance, and for these performances during Jacob’s Pillow’s 70th anniversary season, he re-created the 1929 Mevlevi Dervish of Pillow founder Ted Shawn. Gannon, accompanied by an exotic bagatelle for violin and two pianos, spun on his own axis while cranking his arms into pseudo-spiritual shapes. Ted Shawn may have been paying homage to the sacred-dervish tradition, but the dance looks kitschy and superficial today.

Morris in his own ethnic-inspired dances avoids this kind of literalism by insisting on the ordinariness of the dancers. They walk and run the way you and I do, they look at each other, they gesture as if they were having a conversation. So when they break into the steps of a csárdás or polonaise (The Argument) or a square dance (Foursome), it doesn’t seem foreign at all.

Martha Graham thought of herself as anything but ordinary, and it’s the way she played up her persona that Richard Move has satirized in his Martha @ productions. Move dresses and makes up like Martha; he talks her high-toned rhetoric with her vocal inflections and rhythms. For his ensemble of one male and five female dancers, he’s extracted trademark Graham movements and strung them together in rough approximation of Graham’s choreographies at different stylistic periods in her career.

I’d seen Martha @ only once before, early last year at Town Hall in New York. That show was perhaps the first Martha @ to command a big audience. By then Move had developed an underground reputation with elusive monthly appearances in a tiny gay club downtown. When I saw him last week at the Pillow, I thought the show’s balance had shifted. Instead of playing wickedly to insiders who would get the gender jokes as well as the Martha jokes, the show turned more toward a long-winded lecture format where he talked at length about the dances that were about to be synopsized. Except for the Rainer segment, the guests didn’t do dialogue and their dances were unmemorable.

With Graham’s choreographic legacy still in litigation and her company working at way less than full steam, Move’s reductive take on the dances looks sincere but untrue. Yes, his dancers have the moves down pat, but somehow there’s no choreographic drive connecting them. A real Martha Graham dance may be dated, but it has a demonic power. You can’t convey that with highlights. Martha @ the Pillow seemed to be treading an uneasy space between healthy send-up and educational opportunity. Martha Graham doesn’t need more reverence right now; but Richard Move’s loving mockery is its own kind of tribute.

Issue Date: August 15 - 22, 2002
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