Dance: Still radical after all these years


Those who crowded into the Edinburgh Playhouse to see the Martha Graham Company divided roughly into two camps: the nostalgic and the curious. Two programmes under the title "Radical Graham" exhumed works from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, with the aim of showing how fresh Graham's ideas remain today. For the majority, half-familiar with the notion of "Graham technique" as the basis of most modern dance, it was to be an education. For those with white hairs and long memories, it was a chance to stir the spirit of an artist once compared in stature to Picasso and Stravinsky. But five years after the death of the grand old American lady, could the company that bears her name deliver the authentic flavour of works so strongly identified with Graham's own presence on stage?

Her personal style was such that once seen, it was never forgotten. Now we must rely on the muscle-memory of company veterans and whatever designs and notes survive. The opener, a little solo from 1921 - safely out of memory's reach - mapped where Graham came from as both a dancer and a dance-maker. Like an art deco lampbase in bronze pleated skirts and bare, bangled arms, the seductress of Serenata Morisca shimmers and stamps and shakes her ankle bells in what must have once seemed a deliciously audacious foray into the aesthetic of the East. It's still a charmer.

But only a decade later Graham had staked out her own haunted territory. In the solo Lamentation, harrowing grief is expressed through the angular lines of tension created by the dancer's costume - a long, clinging tube of mauve jersey. A mourner's hood, a son's shroud, even a woman's intimate body parts are vividly suggested in a mesmerising sequence of a stylised movement. Yet on a more prosaic level the piece arose from Graham's gift as a fashion designer and a keen awareness of new fabrics. Stretch jersey was hot from the mill in 1930.

Similarly hard-edged, iconic design was at the centre of all the ensemble works that followed, from the weird religious rites of El Penitente - inspired by an American sect that acts out the crucifixion as a penance for mild misdemeanours - to the myth-psychology of Errand Into the Maze, which takes the Greek story of Ariadne and the Minotaur to explore a specifically female experience of fear.

Here was fundamental Graham technique laid bare - a system of contraction and release inspired by the simple human act of breathing: contraction (curving the chest inwards and rounding the neck) to suggest fear, sorrow, introversion; release (expanding the chest) for affirmation or ecstasy. The dancer Christine Dakin achieved a spine-bristling exposition of terror in this study of intimidation, finally taking triumphant refuge in the embrace of Isamu Noguchi's stark sculpture from the original production. One might have taken this object for a blasted tree but for a programme note which described it as having been modelled (this in 1947) on a woman's pubic bone.

For all the historical interest of Graham's work, it is still radical in the best sense. No dance-maker alive today speaks with such directness. Her unadorned symbolism leaves much of our self- consciously modern dance with its cultivated obscurity looking tame. And for accessibility it has no match. In Sketches from Chronicle, a powerful triptych from 1936 on the theme of war, female armies gallop, surge, almost fly across the stage at speeds that leave the spectator gasping for breath and dizzy with joy. And when it's over, you know it's because there is nothing more to say. Freud, fashion, feminism: Martha Graham could do it all - and she has left a company fully at one with her legacy.

As a parting shot from Edinburgh, it remains to temper my fulsome praise of Mark Morris last week. As a choreographer uniquely inspired and inspiring when he chooses his own scores (anything from Bach to Bombay film music), he'd do well to resist the flatteries of festival directors who would plonk him in front of an opera. In the case of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice (fully reviewed by Michael White), not only was his outlandishly hands- off opera direction a dismal failure, but his choreography was a mess. Yet they cheered. His fans do him no service with such adulation. Last week I asked of the Festival: "How will they ever let him go?" Now I think perhaps they should.

But lo, up he turns again a few nights later at the London Coliseum, where the great Mikhail Baryshnikov - a close buddy - is dancing a solo recently commissioned from Morris. The event is a visit by the White Oak Dance Project - a collective of mature American dancers devoted to cultivating serious new works. But the audience is there for the Russian - who at 48 is triumphant proof that dance no more depends on dynamo-driven youth than the sun needs the moon to shine.

True, the work is carefully chosen. Morris's Three Russian Preludes homes in on the dancer's impish side, giving a giddying dual-impression of a boy's excitement at a popular show and the spectacle itself. Clowning walks, classical spins and Fred Astaire sashays meet in a wild mix of styles spun into a single silver thread of experience. And he's still a world-beater.

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