The second program of the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night introduced "Judith," another in a long series of Graham dances centered on a tragic heroine -- in this case, a biblical beauty who uses sex as a weapon to free her people from the oppression of the Assyrian tyrant, Holofernes. Couched in the familiarly touch, angular, percussive Graham movement idiom, the work has, in its peak moments, a characteristically ferocious power. Yet, over its full extent, it seems curiously one-dimensional, bereft of the deeper psychologiacal currents that might invest it with the universality toward which it strives.
This is Graham's third version of the subject. The first, in 1950, was a solo for herself, with music by William Schuman: the second, in 1962, was a group work with new music and set. The "Judith," premiered last year, returns the original Noguchi set pieces to the stage -- bold, startling abstractions, one a large, stylized lyre, the other an oddly animalistic structure (Graham calls it "the Abyssinian beast") that serves multiple dramatic uses. The new version also has striking new costumes by Halston, and music drawn from the works of Edgar Varese.
It stands to reason that this story of womanly courage and sacrifice would have great appeal for Graham. The difficulty with the new "Judith" is that in trying to strip the drama down to essence, the choreography reduces itself to a lengthy, redundant seduction scene, capped by Holofernes' murder. There's nothing in the dancing of either soloist or the choral ensemble to fill in the context -- Judith's ties to her Hebrew brethren, for example, or Holofernes' cruelties. The men, Holofernes' included, are given little but macho posturing, and Judith's metamorphosis into a calculating seductress also has scant spiritual resonance. Nevertheless, the role of Judith provides a strong vehicle for the tall, serpent-limbed Peggy Lyman, and Tim Wengerd, as Holofernes, works up a convincing degree of brutal rapacity.
The evening began with a splendid accunting of "Seraphic Dialogue," with Takako Asakawa as the searlingly fervent Joan of Arc, David Hatch as a sympathetic Saint Michael, and Christine Dakin, Elisa Monte and Susan McLain as the three symbolic embociments of Joan as maid, warrior and martyr -- McLain's portrayal was the only watery one. It's a testament to the work's enduring sublimity that the choreography doesn't pale beneath the brilliance of Nonguhi's inspired linear set construction. Also on the program was a repeat performance of "Frescoes," more nobly impressive this time than on opening night.
One may quibble over this or that Graham effort, but her greatness isn't open to dispute -- the entire phenomenon of "modern dance" would be unthinkable without her, and her influence on the arts of this century has gone well beyond dance. Yet, in a city that prides itself on its cultural savoirfaire, a Graham program -- one of the treasures of the age -- still doesn't attract a full house. Something's wrong somewhere; maybe if her name were Marya Gramovsky she'd sell like hot cakes.