Martha Graham: It's such a drag being an icon

The dance legend Martha Graham lives on... in a slightly taller body
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The Independent Culture

Had he decided to be a jobbing contemporary dancer like his student dance programme colleagues, Richard Move – despite the Happy Families surname – is unlikely to have attracted attention. But as it turns out, his unorthodox career choice has won him some very high-profile fans. Merce Cunningham has been a regular at his New York performances. Mikhail Baryshnikov too. Mark Morris has hailed him "a genius". Why? Because when Richard Move dons a Halston gown and lipstick, cranks his voice up half an octave and adopts a certain terrifying glare, these major-league movers and shakers delightedly quake in their shoes.

For the 90 or so minutes of Move's cabaret of which he is both MC and star, he eerily inhabits the skin of the late great Martha Graham: epicentre of the modernist movement in 20th-century American art, arch glamour-feminist, godmother of contemporary dance. Never mind that Graham was five foot nothing and Move is six foot four. Move's cabaret, which takes over the Criterion in Piccadilly for two nights as part of Dance Umbrella, is more than just a drag send-up for those in the know. The show is a living memorial to Graham's mythic status, an introduction to her life and work, and a concise dance history lesson laced with laughs. Its detailed satire is of the kind only the most loving devotee could deliver.

Meeting Move fresh from his tech rehearsal at the Criterion ("Some theatre! So ornate, like Martha!" he whoops) it's hard to reconcile this lanky, five o'clock-shadowed male with the glossily coiffured icon he presents on stage. It's equally hard, I tell him, to imagine him hanging around makeup counters with serious intent. He gives that gleeful whoop again. "Oh, the look is just something I have to do, though getting it right has been interesting. The hair, the warpaint, and of course the gowns. Martha was the great costumier, a fashion icon as well as a pioneer of the latest fabrics like stretch jersey. All my dresses are based on hers."

Move's Martha incarnation, like a good vintage, has taken time to evolve its full and complex flavour. It began in 1994, three years after Graham's death at the age of 96, as a cabaret turn at a tiny nightclub in downtown Manhattan. Originally part of a "dance legends" night ("we had someone doing Nijinksy's faun, someone else as Ruth St Denis"), Move's outsize Martha proved unexpectedly popular and took over as a kind of hostess-with-the-mostest MC. In 1996 the dance night was relaunched as a monthly Martha Graham fixture, christened "Mother", with Move writing monologues based on Graham's priceless sayings, and concocting Graham-esque dance numbers for each new show. An early spectator noted drolly that "at last, Martha is in a body that lives up to her stature".

The Mother cabarets might have remained an obscure Manhattanite secret but for an un-looked-for publicity coup that arose out of a crisis. Even before Mother opened its doors, Move received a "Cease and Desist" writ from the Graham estate. "They thought they could stop us," says Move. "But we said no you can't. Not if we print a disclaimer making clear that it's not an official Martha Graham production, affiliated neither to the school nor the company. The legal thing made me pretty skittish, I have to say. But my business partner saw it as an opportunity. Within a week we were in every New York gossip column." Soon after, the show was so popular it decamped to Manhattan's 1,500-seat Town Hall.

Another surprise has been the reaction of the Martha Graham Company dancers. "When I first heard that some of the great old-timers were coming to see the show, I was so scared," remembers Move. "These were people who'd spent their entire careers alongside Graham, dancing Graham, teaching Graham technique. But they embraced me. They were happy to give me friendly advice, even sit in on a rehearsal or two. There was no sense that I might be desecrating Martha's memory."

The ultimate seal of approval has been the infiltration of ex-Graham dancers into Move's show. To date he has covered more than two dozen truncated Graham works – "de-re-constructions" he calls them, sourcing material from old videos, films, and his own memory. Sometimes, as in Appalachian Frontier which features in the Criterion show, his dances bastardise two classic Graham works into one. All aim to give the gist of Graham's intent at a fraction of the length.

"We're gonna open the Criterion show with Clytemnestra," Move announces. "Martha's version is three hours long. Mine is 15 minutes. It's a synoptic approach. I eliminate all the minor characters and we cut to the deaths. I find music that I think is within the feeling of what Martha was doing. But the vocabulary is all hers, and I guess that's why it works."

Get him talking about Graham technique, its "contraction and release" principle, and you'd believe Move's intentions were high-minded indeed. But, I say, he surely can't deny a certain mischievousness. The subjects Graham explored – the Greek myths especially – are deadly serious. Isn't there a sense in which Move is pulling their pants down?

"Yeeees, in a way. But the Greek stuff is total soap opera. So the potential for humour is kind of all there for me if I tweak it up a notch. As for Martha herself, you have to remember she was an egomaniac, a diva of the Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson school. So, yes, I lightly send that up. But in her writings and pronouncements on art and life there was a good deal of intentional humour, very dry and deadpan. So I'm able to speak her words verbatim, and it's funny."

I point out that as the years go by, fewer and fewer people in the audience will have seen the Graham company, still less the great dame herself. Education, he says, isn't his focus, "but it's a definite by-product. If people come away having glimpsed a broad cross-section of Graham's art and life, and wanting to know more, I'm happy."

'Martha': Criterion Theatre, London WC2 (020 7413 1437), tonight and Monday