Garden," "Deaths and Entrances," "Sketches from 'Chronicle'"
The layers of fascination run deep in "Deaths and Entrances," the 1943 Martha Graham work that is one of the major revivals of her company's current season. Seldom seen—it was last in the repertory in the mid-1980s—and darkly mysterious (some might say impenetrable) in its imagery and symbolism, it is significant for its position within the Graham repertory as well as its churning, volatile movement and its ambitious scope.
Usually identified as having been inspired by the Bronte sisters, though not actually representing them, it does not, in this revival, seem too keyed into the specifics of the nineteenth century. Arch Lauterer's set, featuring three significant and crucial set pieces on which objects are placed and re-positioned, does not, for me, particularly evoke drafty hallways and gloomy atmosphere of a manor on the moors, although many descriptions and accounts of the dance refer to such associations.
The new costumes designed by Oscar de la Renta (Halston had a stab at the task in the 1980s) are based on Edythe Gilfond's originals. For the Three Sisters, they retain the long, full skirts of the earlier versions, but are sleek and less fussy around the necklines. The Three Remembered Children wear pleated three-quarter-length skirts and frilly white blouses, and look very much like prim schoolgirls, complete with ribbons in their hair. The men's costumes of dark pants and dark vests over white tops maintain the general concept and silhouette of earlier designs.
My memories of the work's previous revival were dim at best, although I recalled a somber, mysterious tension-filled atmosphere and movement that reverberated with secrets and frustrations. What surprised me on this occasion is how commanding the central role, the sister originally performed by Graham herself, is. The other sisters seem like mere acolytes, their appearances fleeting and, while occasionally anguished, only joining the other figures in contributing to the whirl of emotion and memory that the central sister is confronting. Miki Orihara, in Graham's role, was a revelation, dancing with taut power and controlled intensity but without any veneer of histrionics. She gave a searing performance; whatever inner torments and past traumas this woman was confronting, she made you care deeply and follow her every frenetic contortion, swooping cave turn and desperate fall.
The role requires extremes of frenzied, almost spasmodic intensity comparable to Medea in "Cave of the Heart" and few moments of serenity. Orihara inhabited this state of tension magnificently, making it clear that this was a woman exposing her deepest emotions and doubts through movement. Some of the action could easily slide into melodrama, particularly such Graham clichés as a stiff-legged walk with a clenched hand clamped to the forehead. The music, by Hunter Johnson, erupts in bursts of stormy ferocity; it's almost an invitation to go over the top.
The intense attention, even devotion, paid to the objects that are placed on the three set pieces, at times verges on the melodramatic. Early on, while Orihara reclines downstage, one of the Remembered Children—presumably the one corresponding to Orihara's adult character, although specifics of characterization are not Graham's primary concern here—places a goblet on the altar-like upstage set piece, and Orihara reacts viscerally; you know that goblet has major significance. At the climax of the dance, when Orihara has just gone through her final, riveting solo, it is her decision to take up the goblet that ends her fury and allows her some sense of peace. When she places it on the chessboard where she and her two sisters (Katherine Crockett and Virginie Mécène) begin and end the work, they react viscerally to what is clearly a momentous move, and Orihara rises with a calm focus that suggests she has arrived at a hard-won inner peace.
Fueling her journey through her past are remembered encounters with the Dark Beloved (Christophe Jeannot) and the Poetic Beloved (Tadej Brdnik). With the former, she often seems to melt against her will, and their duets evoke traditional male strength and domination overcoming female resistance. The Poetic Beloved seems the more complex, emotionally ambivalent role, but Brdnik's brusqueness did not allow for all its possibilities to emerge.
It is intriguing to contemplate "Deaths and Entrances" in light of another major dance of deep psychological insight, also with three sisters as central characters, that premiered a year earlier-"Pillar of Fire." Tudor and Graham take vastly different approaches, but one wonders whether Graham had seen that work. What's even more significant is that "Deaths and Entrances" can be seen to launch an amazing burst of fierce creativity from Graham. One of several program inserts the company provided with background information tell us that, at the time she was formulating this work, she was "afraid that her creative impulses were dried up." "Deaths and Entrances" launched a five-year spurt that progressed through "Herodiade," "Appalachian Spring," "Dark Meadow," Cave of the Heart," "Errand into the Maze," "Night Journey" and "Diversion of Angels." One profound, insightful work after another, in quick succession! Watching "Deaths and Entrances," I caught reverberations between the choreography and moments in several of those later works. Graham found such diverse ways to employ similar phrases or formations, each time making them resonate with truth to the onstage moment.
Given the effort that must have gone into this revival—everyone in the cast of ten was making a New York debut—it is a shame the company opted to give only two performances of this program. It opened with a familiar cast in "Embattled Garden," Graham's stylized ménage-a-quatre in which Adam and Eve are ensnared in the sensual traps laid by a stealthy Stranger and a vampy Lilith (a touch too glamorous as diva-like as portrayed by Crockett). There are witty moments in the way Graham incorporates touches of flamenco in the costumes and posturing, and Carlos Surinach's score is insinuatingly appropriate. But this is one Graham work that does tilt towards melodrama in its excessive stylization. The program closed with a demonically intense, awe-inspiring performance of "Sketches from 'Chronicle'" that ratcheted the work's power up quite several notches over the opening night performance. Erica Dankmeyer, making her local debut as the leader of the central "Steps in the Street" section, helped bring the work into sharper focus, and in the concluding "Prelude to Action," all fourteen women vividly conveyed the visceral power and bold surprises of Graham's groupings.
Photograph: Virginie Mécène in Graham's "Deaths and Entrances." Photo by John Deane