'Clytemnestra' Still Appeases The Gods at 50

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Your married sister runs off with a guy and causes an international incident, which happens to be the Trojan War. To get her back, your husband volunteers your daughter to be sacrificed. When he comes home (a full decade later), after overseeing a victory campaign of lavish raping and pillaging, he brings an enslaved concubine with him. To live in your house.

And you're supposed to be okay with this.


No wonder Martha Graham felt that Clytemnestra's story was ripe for the retelling. The Greek queen has come down on the wrong side of legend because she killed King Agamemnon rather than overlook his misdeeds -- and an act of regicide trumped all else in the ancient code. Fast-forward to pre-Betty Friedan 1958, when Graham creates an evening-length dance-drama, "Clytemnestra," a feminist view of the back story to the crime, with the choreographer herself (at age 64) in the title role.

Yet was it the ancient matriarch, or Graham, who needed to be justified?

Audiences have the chance to mull this question anew with the Martha Graham Dance Company's handsome reconstruction of "Clytemnestra," which had its American premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday. This dusting-off marks the work's 50th anniversary and its first performances since 1994.

If it's not the most emotionally wrenching theater event -- it chugs along in staccato bursts, and you observe the characters, rather than live their stories -- it offers several pleasures. Among them is the sheer beauty and scale of the Graham technique, in which you get a thorough grounding over the work's two hours -- the extreme, flung-out expansion and the sucked-in constriction of the human form. To carry it off, there are the Olympian Graham dancers, whose muscular, athletic abilities give the work a toughness that feels absolutely contemporary.

And yet, with its spare, sculptural sets by Isamu Noguchi and Graham's own minimalist costume design, "Clytemnestra" is a living example of vintage American chic, the mid-century modernism currently in vogue with "Mad Men," the cable series set in the early '60s; the film adaptation of the 1961 novel "Revolutionary Road"; and even the Design Within Reach catalogue.

In view of the drive for conformity and security in the decade that brought us "Clytemnestra," as well as McCarthyism, Graham's argument in this work is especially interesting. "Clytemnestra" expands on one of her favorite themes: the individual in conflict with society. From the beginnings of her career, Graham saw herself in this role -- the nonconformist, weathering public skepticism and rejection. Even as she created this piece, she was still pushing boundaries. The tale of the Greek queen is Graham's single biggest undertaking and one of the first full-length works in modern dance.

The story begins in hell and ends in hell; the rest offers glimpses of lust, fear, deceit and violence. We start with Clytemnestra in Hades after she has been murdered by her son, Orestes, to avenge his father's death. To make her case to the gods that she has been wrongfully dishonored, the queen begins recalling key points that led her to her crime, and the dance unspools as a series of flashbacks spilling from her memory.

Graham performed the work for years and, despite arthritis and limited mobility, is said to have been magnetic. That she identified with her heroine is clear; she created a role in which a grieving -- and calculating -- woman chose her raging feelings over societal duty and then has the guts to stand up for her actions and suffer for them. In the end, Clytemnestra finds honor on her own terms.

But absent that kind of blazing personal motivation, Clytemnestra felt on Tuesday like more of an art object -- something to be admired -- than a woman on fire. You couldn't fault Fang-Yi Sheu's laser-precise performance in the role. The coolness of the whole production is more a function of how this work was conceived. This highly stylized, deadly earnest "Clytemnestra" does not have the sentimental richness of Graham's earlier, more lyrical works ("Appalachian Spring," for example).

In addition to Sheu, standouts included David Martinez as King Hades, Tadej Brdnik as Orestes and Maurizio Nardi as a wonderfully buoyant Aegisthus, Clytemnestra's lover (the role originally danced by Paul Taylor, before he became the Paul Taylor, the choreographer).

The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Aaron Sherber, performed the commissioned score by Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh. Jennifer Lynn Waters and Nathan Herfindahl were the singers who gave occasional voice to Clytemnestra and Orestes.

Graham's creation took different forms over the years; first it was 2 1/2 hours long, then she cut it to 90 minutes for a PBS airing in the late 1970s. The current revival restores some of those trims. Also largely restored is Graham's original, simple color palette of black, white, red and gold.

Most helpful to the audience is the addition of a few discreet surtitles to describe the action. At one point they offered a bit of unintentional comic relief, when the text read, "The women of Mycenae celebrate the victory over Troy," and the women onstage grimaced, clawed the air and appeared to be in the grip of abdominal distress. But they know what we've forgotten: There is no conquering death. Tragedies don't disappear; their ghosts catch up to you, sooner or later.

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