Saturday, February 8, 2014

Martha Graham Company presents a distilled 'Clytemnestra' at Clowes before New York sees it

Comfortable for touring and thus able to meet audiences halfway anywhere it goes, the program the Martha Graham Dance Company brought to Clowes Hall Friday night seemed especially appropriate to renew old acquaintances with fans and to communicate its legacy to newcomers.

The Messenger of Death ominously pins Clytemnestra's cape with his staff.
The centerpiece was what artistic director Janet Eilber called a "distilled" version of Graham's interpretation of the character of Clytemnestra and the horrific events covered in Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy.

With the helpful addition of supertitles, Graham's narrative, focused on the murderous Queen of Mycenae, was communicated concisely. That way, the dancing remained free to focus on the choreography's symbolism and emotional import.

Halim El-Dabh's mercurial score, often dissonant and free-floating, seems to tap archaic roots as well, particularly in representing Clytemnestra's screams at her prophetic vision of her murder and in chorus-like narrative lines near the end. Today's association of ancient Greek art with cold white statuary cannot long remain intact once we are forced to confront the raw feelings, power plays, and sexual politics vividly dramatized by Aeschylus and interpreted by Graham in the dance terms she invented. Accordingly, the music helps paint those elements with the same sculptural clarity as Isamu Noguchi's design.

Like the music and the decor, the staging presented Saturday dependably balanced expressiveness and formality.  The sacrifice of Iphigenia, the royal daughter, was movingly presented — an important triumph in this show, as it is the triggering event for the queen's murder of Agamemnon upon her husband's return from the Trojan War. In the retrospective opening scene, Clytemnestra's protest against her destiny in the Underworld had just a modicum of deference to its lord, King Hades, while boldly asserting justifications for the acts that have confined her there. She is still every inch a queen.

Katherine Crockett, commanding the stage from her eyes down to her feet, kept the focus unimpeded on Clytemnestra as both ruler and avenger. Her characteristic gait left no doubt, kicking the lower legs outward, making the part of her dress close to the floor swirl authoritatively.

As King Hades, however, Ben Schultz was fully representative of that monarch's control of the afterlife, declaring checkmate over all human ambitions. The interplay between the two dancers set the stage for the surprising sympathy Graham intended to evoke for Clytemnestra.

By the time of "Clytemnestra" (the original 1958 version is modern dance's first full-length ballet), Graham had long since evolved a personal choreography equal to the ancient classics, to which she was often attracted. Friday's performance by the current company preserved her ways of representing abstract and impersonal fate while at the same time embodying the individualism of strong figures, particularly female. It could hardly escape notice, for instance, that the conspiracy between Orestes and Electra to avenge their father's death is impelled by the drive of the daughter, as danced by Blakely White-McGuire, toward that goal. This in no way diminished the concentrated intensity of Abdiel Jacobsen's final dance as Orestes.

Supporting figures never seemed peripheral in this performance. Action that's guided by forces beyond human control brings to the forefront such characters as the Messenger of Death and, on the earthly plane of action, the Night Watchman who announces Agamemnon's fatal return.  Both roles were memorably filled here by Lloyd Knight and Lorenzo Pagano, respectively.

On the group level,  the leaping, thrusting menace of the Furies furthered the work's theme of vengeance, as embodied by six of the women. And in one of the solo highlights, PeiJu Chien-Pott projected the anguished foresight of Cassandra, doomed to see the future but not to be believed; again, like Crockett in the title role, this was a gripping, unified portrayal from the eyes on down, with crouching, turning and grasping standing for the seer's desperate search for credibility.

With well-knit excerpts from "Appalachian Spring," broadly familiar because Aaron Copland's attractive score is in the symphonic mainstream, the company asserted the rootedness of Graham's technique and artistic vision in American themes. After all, she was — a minor but striking biographical detail informs us — a direct descendant of Miles Standish.

Eilber's onstage commentary quoted liberally from Graham's letters to the composer while he was preparing what he reverentially titled "Ballet for Martha." The excerpts were tantalizing, but the work's thin narrative leaves it with considerable integrity even in excerpted form. This was especially true given the radiance of Mariya Dashkina Maddux's Bride and the muscular dash of Lloyd Mayor's Husbandman.

Both comedy and menace infused Maurizio Nardi's portrayal of the Preacher.  His adoring female flock of four women, in virginal white as if to sublimate their desire for some of the cleric's earthier charisma, bent like willows in the wind to his gestures of  exhortation. Nardi, who had earlier shown his sensual grace  as Clytemnestra's lover Aegisthus, was likewise seductive here.

The whole company rollicked in the finale, a setting of three Scott Joplin compositions carrying the title of the best-known of them, "Maple Leaf Rag."  With a narrow trampoline as centerpiece, the work celebrates ordinary affection and extraordinary virtuosity. Witty and precise, Ying Xin and Lloyd Knight were the central duo in this comic extravaganza for couples, counterpointed by the choreographer's  dead-serious persona, portrayed by Katherine Crockett.

This late piece of a nonagenarian choreographer's infrequent sense of fun included fleeting self-mockery, much of it keyed to the billowing-costume side of her visions for female dancers. This was brought off with poker-faced elan by Crockett in several wheeling trips across the front of the stage.

Graham's farewell to her art made for a fitting farewell to Indianapolis by this company after a weeklong residency here, part of it designed to get the revised "Clytemnestra" ready for prime time in the company's hometown. We were lucky to be the beneficiaries of a masterwork's fine tuning.