Janet Eilber, the Martha Graham Company’s artistic director, appeared in the audience with a microphone to give helpful pre-show program notes during her troupe’s run at the Joyce this month. This was a good idea, not only because she is supremely elegant in voice and bearing—she should record books on tape or host an arts talk show—but also because the programs were challenging and a little hand-holding goes a long way. The current season is titled “The EVE Project” in honor of the upcoming centenary of women’s suffrage. Every program explored the power of women and, remarkably, all of the choreographers were female. Any Graham season inherently revolves around feminist themes, but at the two performances I attended this message had more bite than usual.
This was especially true in the piece which opened the Gala program: Graham’s “Errand into the Maze” (1947) duet, in which a woman assumes the mythic role of Theseus and slays the Minotaur in the labyrinth. The always-exquisite PeiJu Chien-Pott danced Graham’s richly complex central role. Ben Schultz danced the Minotaur, with his arms literally yoked to his horned headpiece apparatus—which was additionally anchored by a bit in his mouth. As I watched him repeatedly get up from the floor in this contraption, armless and gagged, I wondered if Graham hadn’t crossed the line into misandry. His choreography—which included peg-legged, thudding emboîtés, bent over lifts, awkward partnering around a pole with his fingertips, and rolling along the ground—looked like torture and was painful to watch.
Chien-Pott’s role is wonderfully layered, and can be viewed in a Jungian light as a woman facing her own internal fears. This interpretation tracks well, for during the Minotaur’s third entrance she doesn’t seem to see him or even look at him for several minutes. She intuitively reacts to his presence. Also, at the beginning of the dance she holds her opposing hip bones with crossed arms, contracting as if in agony. This motif is repeated throughout until she has slain the beast-man. After he is vanquished, she moves her hands from this conflicted home base and turns them inside-out at her heart before pushing them open and out towards the audience. She has wrestled with her own self-doubt and cast out her inner demons in triumph at the close of the piece. Schultz, on the other hand, laid crucified on the floor with his arms in the stocks as the curtain fell—a tool of Graham’s symbolism from start to finish.
This wasn’t the only time Schultz played the square for another character’s transformation during the week. He also danced the role of Christ in Graham’s “El Penitente” (1940). Though one might assume this would be a kinetic part, he mostly moved the Isamu Noguchi scenery or became part of it, much of it done while wearing a long black cloak with a Scream mask. Lorenzo Pagano as the Penitent and, especially, the pert Marzia Memoli as Mary the Virgin, Magdalen, and Mother got to have all the dancing fun in “El Penitente.” Though I’m not sure Pagano’s self-flagellation with a thick rope counts as fun—the red marks the choreography left on his bare skin could be seen from any seat in the house.
I thought perhaps the men would be redeemed in Graham’s “Secular Games/ Men’s Section” (1962). But though this showcased the men’s physical skill—and used all six talented men listed on the current season’s roster—it made them look rather silly. They tossed a ball around and fought for dominance, with the terrific Lloyd Knight frequently posed like a jester presenting dignitaries while he stood on tiny pedestals around the stage (the sets were by Jean Rosenthal). Granted, when the women’s sections of this piece are also performed the ladies look ridiculous too. Graham, who so often uses Greek tragedies as scaffolding to demonstrate the capacity of women to derive power through suffering, posits in “Secular Games” that without any fickle gods to blame humans simply assume their divine caprices.
In “Chronicle,” an excellent Xin Ying rages and mourns the horrors of war and fascism in “Spectre-1914,” her opening solo—embodying the usual plight of women in wartime. Then a cohort of women (the piece uses 12 of the 13 ladies in the troupe) joins her and acts as both senseless army and protesting mob—a statement of women’s untapped power and ultimate futility in a typically male arena. A program that opens with the pointedly excerpted “Men’s Section” and finishes with Graham’s powerful all-female “Chronicle” (1936) sends a rather barbed feminist message. Program B, bookended thus, seemed to say that men left alone are always fighting over their balls, whether on a large or small scale. And women are left raging and reeling in the aftermath.
The newest choreographers featured in the EVE Project played with Graham’s tropes with varying degrees of success. The second half of the new dance “Deo,” choreographed by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith, was shown at the Gala. This choreographic duo took Graham’s feminist thesis to heart, but too much so. As Eilber explained beforehand, the piece was about “the role women play in our understanding of morality” and it was loosely based on the myths of Demeter and Persephone. It featured huddles of women squatting and hitting their breastbones, or snaking around in a chain, and rising and falling to the floor as the electronic music—by Lesley Flanigan—droned at a deafening level. It felt as if I was sitting on the tarmac at JKF while planes passed overhead. The eight women in the cast, in muddy scrim-like dresses by Karen Young, resembled zombies as they thronged in a smoky haze. Eventually seven of them exited and the statuesque Natasha M. Diamond-Walker was left alone on the ground, forced to butt-scoot towards the wings like a shamed terrier. Martha Graham works are generally not subtle, but they are deftly crafted and aesthetically compelling. “Deo” was clunky and entirely message-driven. And though that message is catnip to me, I wasn’t moved.
Nor was I moved, exactly, by Pam Tanowitz’s new tribute to Graham: “Untitled (Souvenir).” But I was engrossed and awed. Tanowitz took the opposite approach of Doyle and Smith. She opted to strip Graham movement vocabulary of its narrative and pathos. It was fascinating to see how certain steps intrinsically convey some emotion (strained bent-leg attitude devant poses, the foot held in the hand, the gaze up) and others don’t (slow and low—I mean floor-grazing—à la seconde promenades). It was an intelligent, multi-faceted ode to Graham without being at all derivative—even though she quoted Graham directly at times. Even the costumes, by Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin of TOME, were a perfect homage. The dancers wore long pleated gender-neutral dresses and jumpsuits in earth tones that lived somewhere between Graham’s iconic dresses and fancy Eileen Fisher loungewear.
Tanowitz cleverly alluded to Graham’s Greek penchant by posing her female cast on some borrowed pedestal scenery in a corner as they dispassionately watched the men dance. They resembled pillars, the muses on Mount Helicon, and bathers on rocks. Similarly, Tanowitz had the full cast pose like a monument in the front corner of the stage at the piece’s end. They were bathed in a chilly light (design by Yi-Chung Chen) as they stared neutrally out into the house. After so much fragmented Graham busyness their quietude read as momentous: placid faces arranged as a living Mount Rushmore. The piece was superb—an analytical and respectful deconstruction of Graham’s legacy.
In addition to the new pieces, the other big event of the Joyce season was the Gala’s inclusion of Sara Mearns, the New York City Ballet principal dancer, as a guest artist. She performed Graham’s 1933 solo “Ekstasis” as it was reimagined by former MGC principal dancer Virginie Mécène in 2017 (the original choreography was lost). Mearns pops up everywhere these days, I feel I hardly see a show that she isn’t in. Her voracious exploration continues to expand her already prodigious gifts. She was great, as usual, in the spare “Ekstasis.” The piece was set to Ramon Humet’s reimagining of Lehman Engel’s original music, and the score’s unconventional instrumentation includes Japanese shakuhachi flute and odd percussion like wind chimes, crotals, and rainstick. Mearns, bound by a tight white tube dress, did nothing much more than trace the curvature of her hip slowly with one hand and strike arced poses around the stage like the figurehead of a ship’s prow. Without the right intensity of purpose, this solo could easily look like a solipsistic drug trip. But Mearns’s heightened focus carried her through. She pushed herself to jut out her turned-in hipbones and twist her torso to extremes—surely she had the world’s sorest piriformis muscles afterwards. Eilber explained that Graham unlocked a major connection between her hips, shoulders, and pelvis while choreographing this solo. And Mearns looked accordingly engaged in a profound act of self-discovery.
The constricting tube dress Mearns wore was as much part of the choreography as the music, which is often the case in Graham’s oeuvre. This was also true of Xin Ying’s long black skirt, lined in blood red, in “Spectre-1914.” The skirt appeared to be 6 feet long, and Ying a giantess when she stood on the tiered pedestal set. It was a fabulous funhouse effect. When she was down on terra firma her steps swirled and reeled to keep the fabric off the floor, much like a flamenco dancer. Later in the piece Ying wore a white gown with a black rectangle dangling directly down from her crotch, and artful black trim around her Star Trek sleeves. Graham’s costume design was consistently spectacular. Her minimalism can be viewed as either classicism or futurism. I am always amazed at how many interesting variations of a long maxi-dress she could make.
The dress-itards she crafted for her 1948 “Diversion of Angels” were another example. This piece, which closed the Gala performance, showed off the company as a whole—but, again, particularly the women. The three brightly-costumed leading ladies were excellent. In canary yellow, the sunny blonde Charlotte Landreau zipped about with temps de flèches so arched they became poisson jumps midair. In crimson, Anne O’Donnell held strong à la seconde poses and flashed her dagger-like feet. In white, Leslie Andrea Williams serenely penchéd around the stage and used her massive wingspan to great effect in a motif in which she held her arms high and splayed behind her like a crayfish while standing on one leg. The leading men—Lorenzo Pagano, Lloyd Knight, and Lloyd Mayor—also dazzled with their cartwheels ending on one leg with the other raised high. But costumed in tan like the rest of the company, they dissolved in and out of the group. The women were the ones consistently spot-lit.
In past seasons the men have had more to do. I have fond memories of Schultz and Chien-Pott battling it out as dance equals in Mats Ek’s “AXE” the last time I saw the MGC. But this is the first time I’ve seen them post-#MeToo and there seemed to be an agenda. Eilber reiterated that the company, at 93, was the oldest troupe in the United States. Martha Graham has been advocating for women through movement for a long time, so a flash of anger is understandable. But even while showing some teeth there was an underlying respect. At the curtain calls for the Gala the men were given bouquets of flowers too—one of very few companies to do so.