- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

NEW YORK Martha Graham is among the giants of 20th-century art, ranked with the likes of Stravinsky, Balanchine, Joyce and Picasso: creative artists who not only were innovators, but whose art was major and heroic.
Of them all, Miss Graham is one of the most strikingly original. She did not work in an established art form, but led in the creation of a new one: modern dance.
She developed a sinewy, sculptural, strong way of moving, capable of expressing deep emotions of rage, grief, lust, revenge. She also created a total theater experience, using flashbacks and other dramatic devices enhanced with commissioned scores by Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti, Norman Dello Joio and striking stage sculptures by Isamu Noguchi.
The Martha Graham Dance Company has just concluded a two-week season at the Joyce Theater in New York. The engagement had the drama of a Graham ballet; tension, struggle and ultimate triumph. The occasion felt like a rebirth.
The company has gone through a near-death experience since the spring of 2000, when Ron Protas, Miss Graham's sole designated heir, asserted his ownership of her works and refused to let the Graham Company perform them.
The dance world watched these maneuvers with dismay. In such an ephemeral art form, works have to be kept alive by the muscle memory of dancers performing them. A towering legacy of 20th-century art appeared in danger of disappearing.
Three years and a messy lawsuit later, a federal district judge ruled sweepingly in favor of the company in August. A rush to jump-start the company began, trying to bring it to performance pitch for this New York season.
The company's two newly appointed directors, Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, have accomplished a near miracle. Before its long suspension, the company, then under Mr. Protas' direction, had been downsized, able to do only smaller Graham works. The new directors have increased the company to 24 and thereby enlarged its scope.
As a result, the New York season featured a generous offering of 15 Graham ballets, providing an unusual look in depth at Miss Graham's achievement. It was fascinating to see works spanning virtually her entire creative span, from 1929 to 1990.
The earliest dances, the 1929 "Heretic" and the 1936 "Chronicle," were stunning in their stark power and a graphic example of why Miss Graham became such a galvanizing figure early in her career.
In both works, she uses a chorus of women dressed in tight black sheaths who move with the kind of monumental strength and rhythm of a Diego Rivera painting. The boldness and monolithic simplicity of their movements and the strong structure Miss Graham has created give the two dances a timeless appeal.
The directors' choice of repertoire was unerring. They focused on the works of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when Miss Graham was at her height as a choreographer. They included the strong early solos Miss Graham created for herself, "Lamentation," "Satyric Festival Song," "Frontier" and "Deep Song."
Miss Graham, though she appeared onstage longer than she should have when her body was racked with arthritis, stopped dancing 33 years ago. (She died in 1991 at the age of 96.)
Today's dancers are lighter; most of them also are trained in the gravity-defying moves of ballet. But the Graham school, an essential part of the endeavor, continues, and the classes are still beautiful to watch, full of the movements Miss Graham discovered, such as the strong contraction of the torso and its release, spiral falls to the ground.
The company's New York season was a wonderful display of Miss Graham's progression as an artist. Works created in the '40s included her most famous ballet, "Appalachian Spring," with its Aaron Copland score.
The second cast performed during this particular review: Virginie Mecene as the Bride; Gary Galbraith as the Husband; Christophe Jeannot as the Revivalist, a role originally danced by Merce Cunningham; and Heidi Stoeckley as the Pioneer Woman.
All were making their debuts in the roles, and some of the performances were uneven; the women were considerably better than the men. Nevertheless, the dance held, with its inspired simplicity and the heartfelt feelings it invokes.
The fortnight produced many highlights:
"Night Journey" is a supreme example of Miss Graham's interest in reinterpreting Greek myths, looking at them through post-Freudian eyes and also, importantly, through a woman's eyes.
Miss Dakin gave a moving performance as Jocasta, the focus of the ballet, with Kenneth Topping impressive as Oedipus, Mr. Galbraith as the blind seer Teiresias, and Alexandra Prosperi as the leader of the stunning Greek chorus.
"Diversion of Angels," one of the most joyous works in the repertoire, is a paean to many stages of love. It has marvelous dancing passages for a statuesque woman in white, handsomely performed by Katherine Crockett, partnered by Martin Lofsnes; a virtuoso woman in red, shakily performed by Miss Mecene with Mr. Galbraith as her partner; and an effervescent woman in yellow, danced by Miss Prosperi, joined by Mr. Jeannot.
"Embattled Garden," a stylish and witty picture of the battle of the sexes that began way back in the Garden of Eden, is enlivened by its Carlos Surinach score, striking Noguchi set and fine lighting here and elsewhere, originally designed by the late Jean Rosenthal and adapted with skill by Beverly Emmons.
It calls for highly stylized, knowing performances from its cast of four, and for the most part it had that. Miss Orihara was Eve, Tadej Brdnik was Adam, Elizabeth Auclair was Lilith, and Mr. Jeannot was the Stranger.
Although the company wisely concentrated on the period when Miss Graham was at her most creative, it included the last work she ever made, "Maple Leaf Rag," set to music of Scott Joplin. It is a charmer and looked especially so this season.
Backstage after a performance, the two directors talked about how they had weathered the past few years.
"The hardest part was knowing the continuity had been disrupted," Miss Capucilli said. "A lot of dancers were ready for big roles, and all those opportunities were swept out from under them. Fortunately, we started up the school again early in 2001. It was important for the dancers to nurture themselves, not only their bodies, but spiritually as well.
"And the school was important, too, for finding new dancers for the company," she added. "We not only taught technique, we taught Graham repertoire, so they'd been prepared. Almost all the new dancers have come from our classes at the school."
Miss Dakin said, "There's something so magic about Martha's work. … Young dancers are eager to do it.
"We decided to be very ambitious to go with a big rep," she added. "We double-cast all the leading roles we gave the new younger dancers big chances. We needed to get the blood flowing in the company. The more bodies that learn roles the better."
Buoyed by the response to its season, the company is hoping for some European bookings next fall, perhaps in London, Paris and Rome. American booking is set further ahead, so extensive touring in this country probably will not begin until the fall of 2004.

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