A poet's mind takes flight in movement. Martha Graham revivals were paradoxically dimmed by star power

YOU can always count on a Martha Graham opening to provide a large helping of camp, and the fall season at City Center got plenty with veteran Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya's ``Dying Swan.'' A huge box office draw, Miss Plisetskaya offered her services to this benefit again as a tribute to the doyenne of American modern dance. We're not supposed to mind the distortion of values represented by plunking this tutu-clad chestnut into a program of Graham's best works from the 1940s. Plisetskaya insisted on milking the applause up to encore strength, and dragged another two flamboyant bows out of the crowd after that.

The Graham organization has a genius for applying famous-name personalities to unsuitable roles, and it's a tossup whether the star ego trip is preferable to the star misplaced in an ensemble number.

Kathleen Turner as guest

Movie actress Kathleen Turner's idea of Emily Dickinson in ``Letter to the World'' clashed with the rest of the newly restored production. ``Letter,'' choreographed in 1940, is possibly Graham's most innovative achievement in theatrical narrative. She conceived both a dancer and a speaker in the role of Emily, and together they reveal the poet's mercurial temperament.

Graham's selection of Dickinson's lines allows the dance a wonderful fluidity, as the poet's mind takes flight, plummets in despair, shrinks in fear of death and tradition, and finally accepts the dual task of living and writing.

Terese Capucilli's dancing poet was fast and intense, a bit charmless but impressive.

Miss Turner, however, didn't seem to grasp either the lightness of Dickinson's spirit or the surprising linkages Graham engineered by uncovering the double meaning of the words.

For example, after a playful romp that might have taken place at a country festival, Emily expresses her happiness - ``I'm sorry for the dead today!'' - and immediately thinks darker thoughts. Turner delivered this line gloomily, turning Graham's inspired transition to the funeral scene into an arbitrary cut.

Turner moves well, and you soon forget she's too big-boned and solid to be the fragile Capucilli's alter ego. The real trouble with her is her modernity, her dry and forthright interpretation of the rapturous, elegiac, whimsical, profound 19th-century poet.

Though the dance hasn't been done in more than a decade, with every line I remembered the melodious, meditative voice of Jean Erdman, who played the role in the revivals of the '70s. Turner's brassy, often aggressive readings made a monument out of a luna moth.

Baryshnikov in `El Penitente'

These one-time-only cast interpolations (Christine Daykin took over the One Who Speaks for subsequent performances) must be as disconcerting to the dancers as to the audience. At this premi`ere, I found Peggy Lyman's Ancestress curiously bland and unthreatening for a symbol of all the dark forces that haunted Dickinson, and though the corps of villagers and celebrants was lively, I couldn't warm up to the principal men, Donlin Foreman as Emily's lover and Kenneth Topping as the antic playmate, March. The dance is a masterpiece, and I'm sure it jelled later in the season.

One Graham guest who puts his interpretation at the service of the role he's playing, rather than the other way around, is Mikhail Baryshnikov. In ``El Penitente,'' Graham's version of a mystery play enacted by American Indian flagellants, he conceives the penitential sinner as a naive, almost bumbling peasant. His character is probably too realistic for what Graham had in mind in 1940, but the dance in recent renderings had grown stiff, and Mr. Baryshnikov considerably enlivened the rhythms and the interactions with his fellow-players, Joyce Herring as the Virgin/Magdalen and Pascal Rioult as the Christ Figure.

Camille Brown stood out

Amid the competing claims and attractions of the evening, I appreciated some of the younger dancers, such as Camille Brown, who did a brief solo in ``Letter to the World,'' and was one of the excellent female ensemble in the lyrical ``Diversion of Angels.''

After this obligatory spectacle of opening night was out of the way, we had the rest of the three-week run for a calmer look at the company and the repertory.

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