Irene Hsiao

Martha Graham at Zellerbach Hall, Jan 31-Feb 1 2014

Martha Graham Company, Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Martha Graham Company, Photo Credit: Library of Congress

As someone who writes and dances, every so often, when you are down on your luck and groping around for your next gig, someone will come up with the brilliant notion that perhaps fame and fortune could be your very own if you would write about dance (no one who ever suggests this understands the reality of writing—that, much like dancing, it offers visibility but little remuneration—but that’s another story). For a very long time, I resisted this notion. Writing about dance seemed terribly dreary. Writing marks your distance from the world, dance your presence—writing allows you to reflect upon things that have never happened, dance offers you only the moment of ecstatic living in the fullness of your senses—“I would rather dance about writing,” was my usual answer. So I fell into journalism by accident. I meant it as a one-off thing, a review written just because I wanted to see if I could do it.

If you had asked who the dance critics were in San Francisco, you’d say Allan Ulrich, Mary Ellen Hunt, Rita Felciano. They had been names but not persons to me, and I read them in a haphazard way, because who, besides critics, keeps up on all the dance in the city? (and as someone who’s spent the last five years in five cities in four countries, I was pretty far from “in the scene.”) If you’re reading this, you probably know me, but I doubt I would have been able to pick the others out of a barrel of bingo players. (I wouldn’t call myself a real critic yet, just someone lucky enough to get comped to watch dance and get paid to mouth off about it. That said, in the brief time I’ve been covering dance in the Bay Area, I do feel committed to a particular strategy of writing about what I see—mainly, to observe as much as I can and to refrain from judgment. Observation in itself is a form of enthusiasm, I think, but who am I to say what is good or bad in print??)

Mr. Ulrich is notoriously cantankerous. I believe he cultivates this reputation as a form of deliberate distance from those he lacerates on paper. He is to be feared. I met him at Zellerbach Hall in the first pressroom I ever had the fortune to enter, when Alvin Ailey came to town last April. “Hey, you’re Allan Ulrich?” I chirped with earnest fervor, “I’ve been reading you for ages!” He did me the honor of shaking my hand and then proceeded to ignore the writer who shrieked like a schoolgirl when the dancers came out for their bows (I’m not sorry to admit that I will still do this if something cool happens, because what’s the point of getting to watch all the dance if you don’t enjoy it as much as possible?). “I need pictures with the dancers’ names on them in my inbox by tomorrow,” I overheard him instructing a publicist. Because I am a very irritating combination of timid and obnoxious, I make a point to greet him exuberantly at every possible occasion, even suggesting to him once that we have our picture taken together on a set piece at the Stacey Printz show (he declined). I am not sure if I mean to coerce him into bff-ship or merely intimidate him with my ruthless good humor; I am also not sure if he honestly dislikes me or whether he secretly anticipates my assaults of charm.

At least, I have not known, until now. As some of you are aware, I have had a long-standing (ok, since late October, when I dared to review Nederlands Dans Theater, AS EVERY DANCE CRITIC WITHIN TWO HUNDRED MILES WAS DOING) conflict with my editor about what the purpose of my writing should be. She protested that if I wrote about a show that closed in two days, readers would be unable to buy tickets. I retorted that I am not a publicist, for, if I were a publicist, I would be getting paid a lot more money to get butts in seats (no, in reality, I wrote politely, “I know it’s hard to understand why a show like this would merit a review but dance performances tend to have short runs, even for major companies—and the appearance of a great major company like this, which only comes to the Bay Area once or twice a decade, has value as a historic event. Basically every dance writer in the region was there to cover it, and I know that readers outside the region who couldn’t have seen the show here would want to read about the company—I certainly read about shows in New York, Chicago, LA, etc.” Fantasy me has a lot more guts than reality me. Reality me tends to get ignored for her own good). This conflict has escalated to the point where, when a company like Martha Graham (“The dance company begun by the matriarch of American modern dance, Martha Graham, whose angular, percussive choreography fearlessly put ugly feelings on display, returns to Zellerbach Hall 98 years after the young Graham first set foot onstage at the UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. On the bill are three icons in her oeuvre, Appalachian Spring, for which Graham commissioned Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning score, Cave of the Heart, a fierce rendition of the bloody Greek tragedy Medea, and Graham’s last work, Maple Leaf Rag.” Does one use quotation marks when quoting oneself? This former copyeditor just drank a glass of wine and doesn’t know anymore) comes for a two-day engagement, I am standing in line for rush tickets like everyone else who doesn’t want to spend $35 for a seat in the balcony and bemoaning the fact that no one in the world will therefore get to hear my witty remarks on the current state of the contraction.

As an aside, you all ought to thank SF Weekly for reining me into 450 words a review (a limit I regularly ignore) and preventing me from airing my personal grievances and anecdotes at every opportunity. (We’re at 1000 and I haven’t even started the “dance writing” portion of this entry. For a serious entry that was originally to be published by the Exhibitionist before some kind of software glitch occurred, please see my review of Sheetal Gandhi).

Anyway, there weren’t any rush tickets, because (thankfully) the viewing public still believes the Martha Graham Company is relevant. I had seen a certain motorcycle-riding ex-Graham principal at the pre-show talk, and he had suggested that maybe he could slip me in. We made it as far as backstage when I decided it might be better for me to see if writing dance articles really does win you money and friends. “I’ll talk to Christina,” I announced breezily to the guard at the door. He looked at me like I had managed to spirit the name from the list of staff on the Cal Performances website. “No, really, she knows who I am.” She does. She wasn’t there that night. The usher at the side door was equally skeptical, but she let me in. “Your e-mail must have slipped through my fingers,” said the publicist. “Er, no…” I stammered. “I was… um, well, I wrote about this event in the Winter Arts Preview, and I was just.. um. I was hoping to write about the show anyway?” (oh lord). And THEN, Allan Ulrich—the irascible, the choleric—volunteered his plus one ticket. “You don’t mind not sitting in the aisle, do you?” HE LOVES ME. (Thank you, Allan!)

Photo of Katherine Crockett (Pioneering Woman) by John Deane

Photo of Katherine Crockett (Pioneering Woman) by John Deane

Ok, the program. Appalachian Spring. I have previously seen it in the 1959 black-and-white film with Graham herself dancing the role of the Bride at the age of 62. It is austere and spare, the lines of the Isamu Noguchi set a mere outline in the indefinite space of the frontier. It is disconcerting, because even if you are Martha Graham and dance with your company of spry twenty-year-olds until you are 74, there’s something that happens to the spine, a kind of curling inward, a withering, that makes it impossible to disguise the mortal fact of age, and then it’s just a little macabre to see the figure of the bride as a crone, even if you invented every step that’s on that stage and trained every dancer on it yourself. So watching the Martha Graham Company in the twenty-first century dance Spring in full color with a live orchestra (the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted under the noble baton of Aaron Sherber) is a bit like suddenly dropping into Oz, with the deep crimson, salmon, and powder blue of the ladies’ costumes swirling against a sky of intense azure. The style is by now antiquated, a modernist abstraction of the complications of any landscape into a series of angles, the body’s impulses sternly and forcefully directed. Innocence is indicated by buoyant repetitive springs (the duckling-sweet Followers, Peiju Chien-Pott, Tamisha Guy, Lauren Newman, and Ying Xin), intensity by a fiery bit of floorwork by the Preacher (Maurizio Nardi), who seemed to be battering at hell’s doors with the force of his knees. The action proceeds frieze-like, everyone present but only one piece moving at a time. Blakeley White-McGuire was a beautiful Bride, her timorous hands a touching contrast to the stoic and sincere picture of hope she presented as she indicated the endless distance of the horizon with her eyes. Abdiel Jacobsen exuded genuine warmth and even pleasure that belies the stiffness and difficulty of the technique. The piece highlights the asceticism of the pioneers, left to the confines of small communities—family, religious fanatics, and a land blank with possibility.

Miki Orihara

Cave of the Heart, second on the program, delivers boldness and luscious visuals where Spring is simple. The piece presents three faces of womanhood. Medea (Miki Orihara), wearing a tight black gown sequined with a green snake, seems an inevitable figure for Graham to have explored, a powerful sorceress consumed by betrayal, jealousy, anger, and the desire for vengeance. Creon’s daughter (Charlotte Landreau) is a lightweight ingénue in a cheerleader’s miniskirt. The Chorus (Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch) wears something like a striped horse blanket and worries incessantly over the antics of the other two. There’s a man, too, Tadej Brdnik in the role of Jason, made to hoist Creon’s daughter on his shoulder or over his head (her long legs spread whenever possible) and stalk territorially over the stage while flexing his muscles. The set, again by Noguchi, is spectacular, suggesting stones or teeth, a glittering tree or a bright crown, an abstract cauldron or an actual anatomical portrayal of aorta and ventricles. Orihara was an implacable Medea, articulating every shudder of the body as if she were being gnawed in her viscera, portraying envy as an auto-immune disorder that drives her to the instinctive destruction of the baby-bird foolish princess and ultimately her own flesh in the form of her unseen children. The deaths of the story all occur offstage; the drama, Graham indicates, is in the mind. The moment that Medea re-enters the stage, dragging Creon’s daughter in a body-bag like the full belly of a serpent, she is trembling with exultation, triumphant, and cruel, revealing the corpse like a snake shedding its skin. She dons the golden spines of Noguchi’s set piece, metamorphosing into something monstrous and more beautiful than ever, toxic, radiant, and utterly magnificent.

Photo of Maple Leaf Rag by Costas

Photo of Maple Leaf Rag by Costas

The program closed with Maple Leaf Rag, Graham’s last completed work, a spoofy confection that puts the company in pastel unitards on a bare stage with a stylized barre to evoke the studio where the real work of dancer’s life is done. “Oh, Louis, play me the Maple Leaf Rag,” she drawls in the brassy voice that has somehow also become an unforgettable part of American history. Marc Shapiro, on piano, obliges, and the dancers leap and fall and flirt and bounce up and down on the barre, never forgetting their impeccable lines.

So because this is my very own space, I finish with questions: what’s in store for this company? Can Graham technique and repertoire evolve without desecrating her memory? Does the company exist to preserve the past as faithfully as possible, and is this right?

Irene Hsiao

6 comments on “Martha Graham at Zellerbach Hall, Jan 31-Feb 1 2014

  1. enrico labayen
    February 4, 2014

    Martha Graham is an American dance icon, I was lucky enough to be around when all the dance geniuses of the 20th century were still alive: Ailey, Taylor, Cunningham, Balanchine and of course, Ms. Graham. Her choreography should be preserved as faithfully as possible, it is NOT the classical warhorses that can re re-arranged. It is Graham’s own, very personal physical and philosophical choreographic style. The technique and physical science she has developed is the American equivalent to the European classical ballet. It is as demanding and as difficult as ballet sans the ballet pyrotechnics that the audience so love, her technique magnifies the human condition, that in itself to me personally is “Virtouso”.

    You as a writer do not want your work/words re-arranged, you have your purpose and intention that might get lost in translation, such is what SF Weekly is doing to you. 450 words is ridiculous! It took six months for dancers, choreographers to work on the production and all you have is 450 words. Very difficult parameters to work in but on a positive note, CHALLENGING! but still a pain in the butt.

    Next to ballet, the Graham technique should be taught ( it is already in the curicullum in some colleges) in all BFA/MFA Dance programs. Out of Graham technique resulted in other modern dance ideas and styles.

    She is an original pioneer of American ,modern dance. Her works are a national if not a universal treasure.

    My two cent reply.:=)
    Director, Labayen Dance.SF

    PS: Hey, Ulrich loves you. That is how much he can love. I love that you are assertive and happy that you now can vent in your own site. Best wishes in all that you do. You are a renaissance woman!! and you “Letter from Taipeh”…such talent and intelligence and an “eye”.

    • irenechsiao
      February 7, 2014

      Dear Enrico! Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I’ve been watching videos from the 1970s lately on youtube… so much great dance!! I agree that Graham’s works should be preserved — and therefore her technique maintained — as for where it evolves, that would seem to be within the world of contemporary dance, which seems to view all techniques as potential vocabulary. I’m also trying to understand what we can view as the larger ramifications of Graham’s work — the kinds of stories that can be told onstage, the kinds of movements we regard as dance, etc…

  2. pianeruda
    March 26, 2014

    Your writing style has me absolutely laughing out loud and your passion for dance is screaming off the page… I absolutely loved reading this and know exactly Martha’s “brassy” voice. How I know it, who knows. How does a dancer’s literal voice become so heard?!

    Graham was always pushing boundaries and exploring and evolving, I can’t imagine it ever being stagnant. That being said, I am grateful for video and books and all other documentation of the original because I do believe Martha Graham, her spirit and her work, deserve faithful preservation. Don’t mess with the classics I say, and she’s one of them.

    • irenechsiao
      March 26, 2014

      Thank you so much for your kind comment!!!

      I think that’s why we still watch Martha Graham — because her voice was so distinctive, right? And we are lucky to live in an age where we not only have still have dancers who worked with Graham but extensive possibility for documentation. Still I wonder how long works that require such a particular movement vocabulary will continue to survive properly in a world where versatility is so prized among dancers?

  3. enrico labayen
    March 26, 2014

    As familiar we are with the pyrotechnics of classical dancing, Graham’s technique (not a style,unlike Balanchine although he’s also a genius of the 20th Century) also has it’s incredible technical demand without the flourishes of nor the obvious stop and clap trap that ballet has. Don’t get me wrong, I am classically trained from the get-go.
    The question of versatility relies in the historical perspective and curiosity of the dancer…in my humble opinion, Ms. Graham paved the way in what we call today as “contemporary dance” and present day dancers should be at the very least experience Graham’s science of dance/world: it is as strict and exacting like classical ballet if not more difficult.
    My dilemma is what is contemporary and what is modern? Which one is distinctly an American original? Graham is absolutely an American pioneer and an original..

    I adore your writing!

  4. Pingback: New Work by Risa Jaroslaw and Peiling Kao at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, May 30, 2014 | Irene Hsiao

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