Martha Brings Marni Wood Back

7 Feb

As a footnote but also evidence of the Graham historic influence, the Martha Graham Company provided the opportunity to bring Marni Wood back to the Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies Program at U.C. Berkeley where she and her husband, David Wood, had started the dance program in 1968. The week prior to the January 30-31 performances an invitation from the U.C. Berkeley’s Department sent an e-mail invitation for a pre-theatre dinner with Marni Wood before the January 31 program.

For those unfamiliar with dance history at U.C., Berkeley a two-line letter in 1968 from Travis Bogard invited David and Marni Wood to come west and start a dance department. “It was right timing,” Marni commented before dinner, “We had three children and it was difficult in New York. Here was space, free schools. There was no question. When we arrived, the floor of the chapel [an old Unitarian Church at the edge of campus along Bancroft Way near Bowditch] was a mess. It had been used for the theater production set construction. We were delighted. We were starting from scratch to build something.”

The warmth and exchanges included the U.C. architect who had worked on the Zellerbach Complex, one of the Wood daughters, Marni’s sister, and June Watanabe, recollections of the E.O. 9066 Japanese-American relocation , performances, family updates in the foyer of Zellerbach Playhouse. The
actual performance seemed a bit anti-climax.

The Graham program was three fold, representing three eras according to artistic Director Janet Elber, former Graham dancer and the company’s artistic director: Appalachian Spring , 1944; Cave of the Heart relating to Medea 1846; and Maple Leaf Rag, a 1990 production to the Scott Joplin music.

Appalachian Spring, with its beautiful set by Isamu Noguchi, spare poles outlining the house, a bench, a chair on a porch, the suggestion of a fence, with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra Aaron Copland’s and Samuel Barber’s music [Cave of the Heart] sounded fine. Marni Thomas had remarked that both chair and bench had been so designed that the dancers perched, the construction not permitting lazy muscles.

Dennis Nahat brought Yuriko to Ballet San Jose to mount Appalachian Spring,; my memory was that the ballet company made it livelier, warmer. This performance was accurate, meticulous but didn’t seem to penetrate the surface. There’s not much around these days as a frame of reference for urban-trained dancers with cell phones, alas.

This was my first viewing of Cave of the Heart,; once again, Noguchi’s sculpture, its mobile metal tentacles provided a marvelous symbol of Medea’s mental process as she contemplated the loss of Jason to the white clad blonde princess. For a man thoroughly full of himself, Graham as costumer chose a red cod piece to announce Jason’s self-absorption. It was easy to picture Graham in the role skittering along the stage, shoulders hunched over her solar plexus, eyes rolling and body writing as she plotted her revenge. Michael Smuin’s use of the same score and the same theme includes the sons’ murder; Graham only suggested it in Medea’s torturous solo before she provides the princess with the fatal crown.

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Marc Shapiro on stage at the grand piano, with the portable ballet barre provided Graham’s 1990 parody of her lengthy choreographic career. Snippets of works wafted on and off stage; sometimes the dancers surged on like an army, arms and legs angled, bodies in three-quarter torso position; other times one or another skittered. For those familiar with the repertoire it was fun identifying the source; the only one I clearly identified was David Wood’s stage walk from right to left as the Death figure in Clytemnestra.

At the intermission Janet Elber mentioned, when asked, that the Graham costumes and sets were victims of Hurricane Katrina’s lower Manhattan flooding. Difficulties in removing the water left everything water logged for two weeks. The sets have been restored; much of the wardrobe required replacing.

I wonder about the dancers’ ability to develop their own understanding of Graham’s works, something necessary to keep the repertoire more than an archive. Could there be revivals of works by some of her dancers who had separate careers? An archive of the work Graham inspired in members of her company over her fifty year career would be a little like Lee Theodore’s American Dance Machine.

Knowing many Graham dancers who went on to choreograph and create their own companies, licensing work for other companies, my speculation is extravagant, an unwieldy fantasy, if understandable. The Graham lineage encompasses so much of twenthith century modern dance and there was this double pleasure of the January 31 evening.

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