The Martha Graham sense of drama. Still a pioneer of modern dance at 90, she reaches far beyond mere novelty
New York — ``It's not curiosity we're after, it's the revelation of beauty.'' That remark by Martha Graham, in a recent published interview, referred to her use of unadorned dancers as well as lavish costumes. But considered in a broader sense, it helps explain one quality that marks a good deal of her current repertoire: an adventurous sense of drama tempered by choreographic delicacy. Novelties of movement or emotion are never pursued for their own sakes, or allowed to draw a work beyond its intuitively correct boundaries. Beauty is revealed, not forced.
It's hard to generalize, of course, about a choreographer with such a long history. Just as one mentally lists her distinctive traits -- the angular movements, hieroglyphic stances, relentless rhythms, et al. -- an exuberant exception comes along.
Accordingly, the troupe's spring season at Lincoln Center did offer some dances in which ``curiosity'' seems proudly present, a felicitous byproduct of ``the revelation of beauty.'' One such is the 1935 tribute to pioneer women, ``Frontier,'' in which Graham's exquisitely pared-down choreography and Isamu Noguchi's simple setting (the first of 20 he has created for her ballets) prefigure the minimal musings that are so popular in postmodern dance. Another is last year's ``The Rite of Spring,'' which finds its savage beauties in an aggressive exploration -- not just exposition -- of primal gesture and grim ritual.
But in most of the dances I saw at the New York State Theater, the unfoldings of form and meaning were still more allusive, making their visual discoveries so organically that cause and effect merged into a seamless whole. The last mysterious moment of ``Herodiade'' grows from everything that comes before, seeming as ineluctable as it is inexplicable. ``Episodes'' -- based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots -- evokes a tennis match as well as several vivid personalites in an unbroken stream of images. ``Circe'' turns a colorful Homeric myth into an introspective study with dreamlike overtones.
For all their subtlety, Graham dances tend to hold up as sheer entertainment, too. Sometimes this element threatens to become cute or cloying, as in the opening gambits of ``The Owl and the Pussycat,'' with its sprightly narration (from Edward Lear's poem) and animal characters.
Yet this work gathers in nerve and verve as it goes along, spicing its simple story with bravura dancing by dolphins and mermaids in bold Halston costumes. Other dances strike an ideal balance between appealing surface and churning subtext, as in the classic ``Appalachian Spring.'' And some simply revel in the love of movement, as do ``Frescoes'' and the ecstatic ``Diversion of Angels.''
Perhaps ironically, Graham dances sometimes have the most mythic impact when they don't seem to be trying: The down-home settings and American characters of ``Appalachian Spring'' and ``Frontier,'' for instance, are at least as archetypal as the legendary Egyptiana of ``Frescoes'' or the ancient Grecian trappings of ``Circe.'' This reflects the all-embracing grasp of Graham's talent, the sweep of her interests, and the versatility of her collaborators.
A nonagenarian now, she remains a sturdy and inspiring talent. And she looked deservedly radiant at curtain calls of her troupe's latest New York season. Next stop for the Martha Graham Dance Company is Denmark, where several of its dances are to be filmed. It will play in Syracuse, N.Y., next September and then embark on a European tour.