Monday, March 4, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook, Martha Graham Edition

Ben Schultz and Miki Orihara in Errand
Some more bad luck on the part of Martha Graham Dance Company led to what might be a fortuitous paradigm shift. Hurricane Sandy flooded the company's new storage space at Westbeth, which in an odd twist of fate, it had just taken over from the now-defunct Cunningham company, along with the studios. The flooding ruined some sets and costumes beyond repair, or at least in time for the troupe's two-week Joyce season that just ended. So it performed Errand with replacement costumes and minimal elements—a lucite "yoke" and a stocking pulled over Ben Schultz, the Minotaur's, head). Rather than feeling bereft, the power and emotion in the movement were emphasized, particularly when danced by perennial powerhouse Miki Orihara and Schultz, who exudes authority. 

The classic ballets—Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet—like operas, are remade from era to era. Generally, the story, cast, and structure are kept, or perhaps reordered or modernized. The sets and costumes are updated, transforming it to a different period, or reframing the story as a parable. I just saw Pacific Northwest Ballet's Roméo et Juliette by Jean-Christophe Maillot, a sleek, modern interpretation that contrasts with Kenneth MacMillan version for ABT, so near to my heart , as well as Peter Martins' recent version for New York City Ballet, which is serviceable. But all of them essentially represent Shakespeare's story, even if the Maillot twists and expands the Friar's role.

Katherine Crockett and Schultz in Night Journey, with Noguchi's sets 
To my knowledge, it's rare for a work of non-ballet to be made into a new production. Paul Taylor Dance Company had Santo Loquasto design new costumes for Mercuric Tidings a few years ago. Otherwise, I can't think of another instance—can you? We seem to be so trained to hew unwaveringly to an artist's original vision or collaboration, most likely from respect for artists and their creations. Or it may be that we have a sense of history being made and we don't want to tamper with it. (We certainly don't have qualms about fiddling with Ivanov, Perrot, or Petipa, who seems to be the Shakespeare of choreographers. Is it a statute of limitations?). 

In some cases of modern dance companies, the collaborators can be as famous as the choreographers: Rauschenberg, Warhol, Donald Judd, Alex Katz, Noguchi. How could you possibly desecrate a gesamtkunstwerk by eliminating one element by a famous artist if you didn't have to? You wouldn't.

Enter Hurricane Sandy, and exit Noguchi's sculptural elements that have defined Errand into the Maze for decades. It raises the possibility of stripping the non-dance elements out of certain works, and either commissioning new ones, or reducing the work to the dance alone. Obviously if you're talking about constructions of primarily formal, abstract movement, there wouldn't be much of a departure. 

But take something like Graham's Night Journey, which relies heavily on Noguchi's designs (which incidentally caused several snafus in the performance I watched last Saturday). Remove all but the bits necessary to the drama, such as the staff, a simplified plinth, and the deadly rope, and focus on the dance. It might be a revelation and offer a renewed epiphany of Graham's choreography, which currently suffers from several layers of must. Rotate the productions so the audience can check out both versions. With no new choreography to come, this black cloud might just have revealed its silver lining.

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