Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"Phaedra," the Martha Graham work seen in its new revival at Wolf Trapp Thursday night, may be the only dance piece to have the distinction of having been accused of obscenity by two United States congressmen. In 1963, the year after the premiere, "Phaedra" became the fulcruf of a controversy about government touring funds for Graham's company, as a result of the legislators' charges. Much to its credit, the State Department backed Graham, and Reps. Peter Freylinghuysen and Edna Kelley lost their bid for suppression.
At this remove, with so much sexual liberationism behind us, it may be hard to see what the ruckus was about. Even so, it's still plain enough what aroused the bluenoses on the Hill. "Phaedra" is about eroticism run amok. It's an abstraction, to be sure, but it's also quite anatomically explicit in its theme.
"Phaedra" belongs to Graham's Greek mythological cycle. The goddess Aphrodite, infuriated by Hippolytus' indifference to her, revenges herself by instilling in Phaedra a blinding passion for the young man, who happens to be her stepson. When Hippolyus rebuffs her, Phaedra resolves to kill herself, but first she tells her husband Theseus that Hippolytus, his son, had ravished her. Theseus kills Hippolytus in a mad rage before learning the truth.
The grinding hips, flailing legs and wracking pelvic thrusts Graham uses as the oasis of her choreographic exposition have since become cliches of dance eroticism. Isamu Noguchi's Freudian props reinforce the atmosphere of obsessive lust, as does Robert Starer's tensely writhing musical score.
"Phaedra," for all its theatrical ingenuity, is not first-quality Graham. She had dealt far more brilliantly with a related theme in "Night Journey" (1947) and in any case, whole sections of "Phaedra" involving the goddess Artemis and Phaedra's mother, Pasiphae, obscure rather than amplify the work's central notions. Still, there are some typically trenchant passages, particularly for Aphrodite, Theseus and Phaedra, and they were effectively danced last night by Diane Gray, Tim Wengerd and Bonnie Oda Homsey.
This was the Graham company's debut at Wolf Trap, and it found the troupe in reasonably good shape, though with the departure of Takako Asakawa, a few seasons ago, there's no one in the present lineup who commands the incentive power of earlier Graham exponents.
Nevertheless, Graham masterworks like "Seraphic Dialogue," and "Appalachian Spring," also on Thursday night's program, have more than enough esthetic fiber to withstand viccssitudes of interpretation. In the former work, Graham's paean to Joan of Arc, Elisa Monte was especially compelling as the Warrior figure, and Peter Sparling was an aptly fervent St. Michael. The striking thing about "Appalachian Spring" was how natural the Noguchi set looked amidst the timbers of the Filene amphitheater.