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In a Martha Graham Evening, The Women Take Command

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page C01

Katherine Crockett, a statuesque dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, doesn't just walk onstage. She glides with the resolute serenity of the Queen Mary coming to port, possessing enough stage presence to fill a harbor. Her portrayal of the Pioneering Woman in Graham's "Appalachian Spring" -- the very essence of maternal calm -- was one of the great distinctions of the company's luminous program Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

The evening -- a collection of Graham's classic works -- was bookended by Crockett's mesmerizing grandeur; with partner Martin Lofsnes she danced the jubilant Couple in White in "Diversion of Angels," which closed the program. Though her towering height and unhurried grace made Crockett the most commanding of the Graham women, she was by no means the only standout.

The Martha Graham Dance Company rehearses "Diversion of Angels" for its performances this week at the Kennedy Center. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

This company is chockablock with strong women. Take the elastic, indomitable Terese Capucilli in the role of Medea in "Cave of the Heart," whose fierce dark eyes suck you into the poisonous cavern of her imagination.

Capucilli is also one of the company's two artistic directors, sharing duties with Christine Dakin. Both women labored to keep the troupe intact during its nearly three-year hiatus as a federal court sorted out the rights to Graham's legacy, a near-collapse that had the dance world holding its breath. Both Capucilli and Dakin danced under Graham, who died in 1991, and they absorbed from that pioneering woman not only her choreography but also an unshakable devotion to the revolutionary vision that produced it. It is thanks to their fidelity and strength of purpose that the company emerged from the ashes two years ago able to attract funding and put Graham's work back onstage. No doubt that heat in Capucilli's eyes stems from the sheer joy of dancing again.

The company's current tour is an effort to reacquaint audiences with Graham's most fruitful creative period of the 1930s and '40s, including her most loved work, "Appalachian Spring," a hymn to the settlers of the American wilderness accompanied by the famous Aaron Copland composition. (A warning on the music: The evening's one drawback was the sound quality, which blunted the lilting beauty of the Copland and marred the other dance scores.)

Graham's work is rightly acclaimed for its astutely stylized characterizations and tightly focused dramatic force. Unique among the performing arts, however, is its treasury of powerful roles for women. The Graham dancer is something of a monument herself. Take tiny Miki Orihara, slender as grass and just as resilient, whose fluttering, airy expression of breathless delight and heart-racing nerves as the Bride in "Appalachian Spring" lit up the stage.

Of course, you'd expect modern dance to present a more realistic view of humanity than, say, ballet, which evolved as an expression of an ideal realm. But with the Graham company arriving at the Kennedy Center on the heels of American Ballet Theatre, one can't help but be struck by the differences in approach. In the two full-length ballets that ABT presented in recent weeks, "Giselle" and "Swan Lake," the heroines stand by powerlessly and watch their men fail them, with no alternative to their ruined fates except death.

Turn now to the Graham women. You expect Medea to suffer her beloved's infidelity by weeping on the sidelines and flinging herself into a lake?

It's not for nothing that the ancient sorceress is one of the greatest flawed heroines, reviled through the ages for taking her sons' lives out of revenge for Jason's adultery. But Graham's Medea, as interpreted by Capucilli, is an awesome figure, as eerily majestic in her blazing anger as she is cruel. This is not a hysterical vision of pure evil but a nuanced map through the emotions that leads a proud and self-sufficient queen to bloodletting. In the end, wearing Isamu Noguchi's gleaming, spiky sculptural tree (part of his evocative, minimalist set design) like an imperial robe, she seems both aflame with her overwhelming feelings and trapped by them.

Also on the program was a trio of solos for women, remarkable for their compact expressiveness and cutting edges. "Deep Song" and "Lamentation" are twin abstractions of tragedy, both quietly seething with struggle, while "Satyric Festival Song" is a quirky, weird and funny tour de force that proves Graham wasn't all seriousness.

Let us not overlook the men, particularly Tadej Brdnik's big-hearted, weighty Husbandman in "Appalachian Spring." His performance in this virtuoso role has grown gorgeously richer over the five years since I first saw him in it. Brdnik combines the kind of forthright muscular dependability you'd want on the frontier with a touching purity of heart. He's just the kind of guy that you could believe a sensitive, keen-eyed woman like Orihara's Bride would choose for a mate. When he looks at her, it's as if he sees a lifetime of dreams coming to fruition. In "Cave of the Heart," Lofsnes made it clear his Jason was as immovably wedded to his destructive path as Capucilli's Medea was to hers.

The other male dancers have a ways to go before they attain that kind of authority. Capucilli and Dakin have nurtured a stately and energized new generation of Graham women (who far outnumber men in the 28-member troupe); their male counterparts require the same intensive direction.

What is clear, however, is that the shockwaves from Graham's singular invention are still in force. This program repeats tonight, with some cast changes.

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