NEW YORK — LARGE claims and petty deceptions flew around the City Center stage during the first week of Martha Graham's fall season last month. The company has achieved enormous visibility, in part because of the famous personalities who have lent their services in its behalf. More important, in recent years the company has shifted its emphasis away from the harsh and austere messages in Graham's choreography to play up the erotic, histrionic, and glamorous aspects. A new audience is discovering Graham now for a whole new set of reasons. I don't like this new style. It seems to be all surface. Not that it isn't visually gorgeous. The bodies look sleek in their sexy costumes; the dancers carve out sculptural, intricate body shapes and precision group formations. It's the movement itself that seems desicated: a string of gestures executed with equal punch and no sense of what current of momentum or desire is holding them together. The dancers look strained and straining, but not moved or moving. More and more, Graham's repertory looks like those TV ads for sensuous sweat at the gym.
Graham has relinquished narrative as a choreographic mode and now works with a standard movement vocabulary as a series of tropes to convey symbolic or ritual meaning. ``American Document,'' billed as ``neither a revision nor a revival of the 1938 ballet,'' is so dissociated one wonders if it's a dance at all. The original work marked a turning point, Graham's first choreography for a man, Erick Hawkins, and the transformation of the company from a concert group to a theatrical touring attraction.
The dance flew high on patriotic pre-war feelings by invoking fervent texts, selected by Graham from American history, as did lots of plays, musical works, and movies at the time. According to the Monitor's dance critic, Margaret Lloyd, the piece was a bit of a comedown. ``It was almost too explicit,'' she wrote. ``The stripped, clean, poetic words said all there was to say, so that the movement phrases served chiefly as illustrations.''
For this new nonrevision-nonrevival, Graham has added some texts, the most recent from Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and scrapped virtually all the original movement. Far from being too illustrative, the dance ignores the words and makes them seem pretentious. As actress Cecilia Peck demands, ``What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered?'' Joyce Herring and Julian Littleford grapple softly in a love duet. Members of the large ensemble do standard solo bits as Peck announces ``Mississippi! Susquehanna! Allegheny!'' Maxine Sherman stands by as a watchful womanly presence, and Peck marches across some art-deco platforms uncredited to any designer. In order to be heard above John Corigliano's noisy score (his 1975 Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra), Peck wears a body mike and shouts most of the time. Loud electronic pops create frequent unintended punctuation.
When Peck gets to the ``I have a dream'' speech, the company is arranged in a decorative tableau on the steps. Then it disperses, only to come flying across in the same leaping processional with which it first appeared. Graham's formidable gift for pageantry sustains whatever interest this ``American Document'' provides.
THE ``real'' revival of the season is ``Steps in the Street,'' a short section from the 1936 ``Chronicle.'' An excellent film of this fragment was made in the '30s by the ethnographic filmmaker Julian Brien, and Graham has used it to recover the linear, severely regimented choreography. A group of 12 women first stalk in backward, then pass through the space and go out, leaving a solo figure, Laura Jimenez. They re-enter in a diagonal behind her, each with a different shape of the arms and step design. Later they form two clusters, five against seven, and make upper-body patterns in counterpoint. They run in frenzied little skip-steps to an upstage corner, turn, and file out across the back in two rows, with Jimenez once again left behind and facing another way.
In the context of the larger work, Margaret Lloyd called this ``a dance of terrible urgency.'' The dancers now look tense and determined, but hardly tormented. If the program note hadn't provided us with promptings about unemployment and homelessness, it would have been hard to zero in on this contemporary metaphor, rather than, say, ``exodus'' or ``outsider.''
I had some difficulty viewing this dance because, in lieu of whatever its original music had been, Graham has shamelessly appropriated Wallingford Riegger's 1935 score for the Variations and Conclusion of ``New Dance'' by Doris Humphrey. Humphrey was Graham's greatest rival, and ``New Dance'' was a most ambitious and masterful work, totally different in feeling and scope from ``Steps in the Street.'' Humphrey died in 1958, just on the brink of the dance boom, and Graham's audience today probably never heard of her. I think it would give her a good, ironic laugh to think Martha finally needed her help.