Nothing in the evening quite equalled its conclusion. The curtain had rung down on the final work of the opening program of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which will tenant the Kennedy Center Opera House all this week. The artists of the troupe had taken their bows. Then the curtain rose again, and standing midstage, alone, in a gold lame gown that swept like an arpeggio of glitter from neckline to floor, was Graham herself -- inimitably vibrant and majestic, for all her 86 years. The house rose to its feet in accolade.
Simply as a presence, Graham dominated the stage. She spread her arms, draping the gown to a full arc, and the motion had the old grandeur. But it was the head that held one's gaze -- that bony face, with its hollows and ridges, the heavy-lidded, globular eyes. It's the face of a prophetess, and at the same time, a proclamation of radiance.
Yet everything that preceded this sovereign appearance had the double edge of paradox. In renewed contact with Graham's choreography after several years hiatus, one frequently sensed those powerful, strange, brilliant and disturbing elements that make it manifesty the work of genius. But genius can engender its own kind of tedium, and through much of the evening the same work seemed leaden, immobile and uninvolving. How much of this response may be ascribed to contradictions inherent in Graham's art, and how much to the personal sensibilities of an observer -- myself -- who has never completely fathomed the Graham mystique, remains moot. m
The newest work on the program, "Frescoes," underscored another Graham enigma, namely, how oddly static her creations can seem for a medium that defines itself as an art of movement. It is impossible to view Graham as a plastic artist by instinct, who simply chooses to choreograph (i.e., extend into time) her essentially sculptural and architectural visions. In any case, the new opus is full of passages which proceed by stop-start-stop, with the accent on the punctuating imagery rather than the intervening flow.
At the crux of "Frescoes" is a duet for Antony (Tim Wengerd) and Cleopatra (Peggy Lyman), framed by a pair of duets for Isis (Christine Dakin) and Osiris (Charles Brown) and a terse coda. There are also handmaidens, a chorus, and props suggesting thrones and a temple wall (the work had the reconstructed Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan as its original backdrop). The music, recorded from Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra," seemed at odds with all this -- its lush, almost tropical neo-romanticism would suit Brazil better than this antiseptically spare, bleached, idealized antiquity.
In any case, the choreography has an embalmed look about it. One wonders how much of the work's magniloquent atmosphere is due to suggestion (imagine, for instance, the main characters being called Molly and Bert instead of Antony and Cleopatra -- how much would our perceptions change?). The characters are not very clearly established in dance terms; they strike one more as icons than as personnages.
The jubilantly lyrical "Diversion of Angels," which opened the program, had the great advantage of the returning Takako Asakawa as the woman in red, demonstrating a degree of intensity that mostly eluded the rest of the cast. Except for Asakawa, the performance looked more dutiful than inspired. c"Night Journey" was stronger, but lost much of its tragic ferocity because Yuriko Kimura was too pallid to carry the central role of Jocasta. Bert Terborogh's Tiresias, portrayed like a medieval grotesque, was way off key, and Tim Wengerd's superbly heroic, early Oedipus only emphasized the imbalance of the casting.