By Walter Rutledge
The recent all too-short season of the Martha Graham Dance Company at New York City Center was a resounding artistic success. The company performed two programs of Graham classics and stunning new works by Nacho Duato and Andonis Foniadakis. The Saturday March 22 evening program included two Graham classics Appalachian Spring (1944) and Rite of Spring (1984). Both works reinforced the fact that Graham was not only as a master craftsman, but also as an artist with a strong sense of classic form, structure and design.
At first glance the Isamu Noguchi set, with its sparse flat look established the boundaries of the performance space. The “house” structure with the downstage “porch” set on a diagonal stops short of center stage. The flat fence placed downstage left, and the preacher’s pedestal set upstage on an angle from the fence completed the set design.
These configurations of objects create the converging lines; the lines that produce the classic perspective used by artists to direct the eye in paintings. Noguchi’s house mimics Brunelleschi’s drawing of perspective almost exactly. This is not an accident, but a conscience decision by Noguchi and Graham to subtly frame the choreography.
Most of the primary action takes place within the converging lines. Very little group choreography is designed behind the fence and nothing is set stage right of the house. Without obvious overkill Graham was able to effectively direct the viewer’s eye the primary movement conversion.
Appalachian Spring (excerpt)
The close proximity of the downstage porch and fence to the audience builds closeness/empathy for the characters (especially the husband and wife). When these characters look out past the audience we can see the splendor of the open prairie on their faces. And we see it in the glorious “Technicolor” of our individual imaginations.
The universality of the experience extends beyond the American Prairie. This is the story of new beginnings, the optimism of youth, and the promise/hope for the future. Graham’s technical prowess creates a clear and unfettered moving picture, combine this with her ability to convey the humanistic elements of her characters and it becomes apparent why the public has endeared Appalachian Spring for over 70 years.
Graham was in her glory when confronted with the tribal and ritual elements of Rite of Spring. Here a simple two-tiered platform upstage elevates the horizon line. This gives the person/persons residing in this area a deified quality, lifting them above the mundane and ordinary. It also gives the action that take place in this area greater visual importance.
Instead of a linear set to delineate the converging lines Graham use bodies in a mandalic semi-circle pattern. The group shapes were Jungian in their physiological intent and enhanced to primal elements of the choreography through the symbolic use of symmetry and circles. Visually it was a Stonehenge, a temple forge from human beings.
One of the most visually satisfying moments occurs when the Shaman circles the Chosen One encasing her in rope. As the Shaman circles around his victim and the rope gets shorter his movement creates a spiral pattern moving inward towards her. This action depersonalizes the Chosen One making her a totem- a ritual symbol of the clan for the sacrifice.
This is heightened by Graham’s masterful use of theatre and choreographic design. Her manipulation of the Stravinsky score puts her movement and message first. She is reverent but never subservient to the music.
Rite of Spring
Graham choreographed Rite of Spring at age 89. It possesses a vividness and freedom, and although the movement remains within the Graham vocabulary, she seemed to defy her own choreographic canon. In this work her acute dance making acumen allowed her to explore new avenues of artistic expression, while staying true to her individual aesthetic.