Friday, June 11, 2010

A Nation's Past Reaches Into Its Present

Sussing out what is an American, left, in "American Document 2010." Below, Jennifer DePalo saber-rattling in "Sketches from 'Chronicle'" and Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch as a tired, poor worker in "Tenant of the Street." Top photo and middle photos by Costas Cacaroukas. Bottom photo by Kerville Cosmos Jack.

IN the 21st century we are a much more informal nation. So it is not surprising that the reconceived “American Document” opens without preamble when Kelly Maurer walks on stage carrying a suitcase while the lights are still up and the audience is still chatting. Some on Tuesday night are not aware that the actor's unassuming entrance marks the start of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s 84th season with the “Political Dance Project.” The season closes on 13 June.

At one hour, “AD 2010” is a sprawling piece that uses dancers from the Graham company, as well as actors from SITI Company and poetry from Walt Whitman, and diary entries from Iraqi War soldiers. This 21st century update of the 1938 classic directed by SITI's Anne Bogart and written by Charles L. Mee is more theater than dance. Still, though, it wonders, “What is an American?”

This is not a piece that the minds accepts quickly. For now, however, I can say it is interesting. And interesting is not code for dreadful, though a couple of sections aren’t my cup of drink. Because it is not often that one sees such a melding of dance and theater from a dance company – unless it’s the Graham company, of course – it takes a little time for the brain to make the paradigm shift.

In the opening section of “AD 2010,” the atmosphere is jaunty with a narrator in the spirit of P.T. Barnum. It’s morning in America. The players are moving around the stage, with carefree leaps and exaggerated movements of the hands. In a couple of clipped taps of the narrator’s drum, however, morning turns to evening. The dancers’ arms are heavier, their feet plodding where they were once barely touching the floor. The narration is more foreboding, rather than insouciant.

Yet, that question remains. In a funny bit the narrator asks several people who all respond in a foreign language. A couple ponders the essence of an American as they cartwheel about the subject. It’s distracting and Pollyannaish. Elsewhere, a “feminazi” is reading a screed about Muslim men and Muslim women, along the lines of shape up or ship out. While the sentiment is real, its manifestation here is contrived. Perhaps, these issues are too current, feelings too raw to be dramatized in this way.

The variation on the question invoking the diaries of U.S. soldiers in Iraq is the most engaging section of “AD 2010.” During the narration, the dancers twist and contort their bodies and crumble to the floor in starkly real death poses. An actor recounts a soldier’s tale of killing an Iraqi woman. Those were his orders. His anguish is palpable. It also raises the specter of soldiers who kill civilians. Should they be exonerated if they are following orders, as many claimed during World War II? Equally disturbing is a soldier’s account of killing everything that had life in one family’s house – not only women and children, but the dog, cat and goldfish.

After the soldier narratives, which ends with a chilling, tongue-in-cheek take on torture, the dancers embark on a series of abbreviated grand jetés, a strong and welcome counterpoint. "AD 2010" closes with the dancers and actors reconvening to assert, “What is an American.” Final answer.

“Sketches from ‘Chronicle’” opens with Jennifer DePalo sitting, her substantial black and red skirt covering her seat. She sits regally. Hers is a superior bearing. The score here and throughout the other two sections is foreboding like that of horror films and action scenes in Westerns, TV crime dramas and biblical-themed films. Danger is here, near and imminent.

Before the performance Graham company artistic director Janet Eilber reads the letter that Miss Graham wrote to Hitler’s administration, declining an invitation to perform in Germany around the time of the 1936 Olympics. That episode spawned “Chronicle.” The dancers – all women and clad in black, except for JDeP – convey the run-up to war, war itself and its aftermath, and the response to war. The contortions, sharp movements, arm and leg extensions and abbreviated grand jetés are breathtaking. The dancers are of one mind like The Borg. Their rigid synchronicity, chignons included, brings to mind the goose-stepping German soldiers. It’s a command performance.

With an oeuvre comprising nearly 200 dances, Martha Graham is likely to have created a number of classics. “American Document” and “Chronicle” are among them. So, too, is 1942's “Appalachian Spring,” which seeks to capture the imagination and optimism of America near the end of WWII. It debuted Wednesday night. The dancing is so persuasive and articulate that one imagines that it is speaking with tongues instead of a series of turns and arm extensions that can end in a deathly still posture of prayer. The weak link in this exquisite entertainment is Samuel Pott. His dancing is too restrained throughout and pedestrian in a few sections, particularly a few sautes, which lack conviction. To his credit, though, he lifts Blakeley White-McGuire (or she leaps) as if she is as light as a feather. In one section during a series of lifts, she is so high in the air that it looks as if she might sprout wings and fly about the stage like a butterfly.

Wednesday night opens with “Dance is a Weapon,” a series of solos about the power of the people to make change. Each piece was preceded by helpful and welcome images on a huge projector screen, as well as voiceover about an event(s) that inspired it. “Dance/Weapon” is wholly engaging. In “Tenant of the Street” choreographed by Eve Gentry, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch’s zombie-like movements to the sounds of traffic evoke the image of a locomotive, toiling to move the big train as the workers toiled to line the pockets of the bigwigs.

The most haunting of the nine solos is Jane Dudley's “Time Is Money.” Maurizio Nardi robotic pendulous leg and arm movements are in perfect sync with the ticking of the clock and the Sol Funaroff poem read by Margaret Klenck. He’s gaunt and dishevelled. His working stiff is little more than a serf or sharecropper – approximately one rung removed from slavery. His is a dreary existence in which all life deigns to offer is overly long work hours in less than ideal conditions for a pittance. No time for sleeping. No time for sleeping. Gots to make money for the robber baron ... Listen: Are those the faint calls for unionization?

For tickets, schedule of performances and more information about the Martha Graham Dance Company’s “Political Dance Project,” visit and

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