Dance / Radical Graham Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
The stalls were showing a disappointing amount of red plush. This may simply be an inevitable consequence of performing in Edinburgh's cavernous Playhouse or it may be that the theatregoing public feared that Martha Graham's early work would be statuesque, rather earnest and ever so slightly dusty. This week's programme of "Radical Graham" from 1916 to 1948 proved far otherwise.

The slow, earthbound solos and the minimalist sculpture are offset by episodes of humour and vitality. Humour in a surprisingly foxy little solo like 1932's Satyric Festival Song, and vigour in evidence every time the chorus leaps into the air with a collective twitch of their sturdy flexed feet. The dancers display fantastic precision but the uniformity of the ensemble has an organic not a mechanistic quality because the movement springs from the same source - the Graham technique, once affectionately dubbed The Temple of Pelvic Truth by her disciples. Graham's dancers were invited to the 1936 Olympic celebrations by the Nazis (an honour she took huge pleasure in refusing) but you can see the attraction. A Graham company in full flight, with its lithe bodies flicking across the stage, is nothing if not strength through joy.

On the whole, the men were weaker than the women. Not physically weaker, of course - indeed the muscle definition was sometimes almost absurd, notably on the gleaming torso of Peter Roel in El Penitente, a work whose high kicking leaps and convulsive contractions could probably account for most of the muscles single-handed. Where the men fell down was in their ability to resuscitate some of the depth of feeling that makes the few surviving films of old performances so powerful. Graham fans who remember her company's visits in the 1950s and her own extraordinarily powerful performances may cavil at some of the revivals - notably at the decision to include men in Celebration. This is probably inevitable. Any great theatrical experience is better the first time and Graham was the kind of dancer who probably only comes along once in a century.

Never mind. Many of the women (notably Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli) danced with a ritualistic force that did justice to the family of weird sisters that constitute Graham's heroines. Besides, Graham's technique is too surely conceived and too well taught to disappear within a generation. A leg extends sideways then the knee suddenly flinches inward as if the body were guarding a hidden pain. Long balances are maintained, not by reaching upward and outward for the spotlight as a ballerina's are but by negotiating a solid deal with the earth that forever pulls the dancer downward. So long as these cornerstones of Graham dancing are still firmly in place the temple cannot fall. Graham's surviving company showed Edinburgh the prescient genius of a woman whose influence abides in every dance created today and reminded us that the avant-garde ain't what it used to be.