MARTHA GRAHAM'S CLYTEMNESTRA

(image, of Fang -Yi Sheu as Clytemnestra, by Dominic Bracco Li from Washington Post)

Last night Martha Graham Dance Company, the oldest dance company in the U.S. — and one of the most esteemed — opened at Skirball Center at NYU. I love opening nights because they’re so perfect for people watching. Practically all the critics were there as well as several bloggers (Philip has some beautiful pictures), as well as many dancers, from Merce Cunningham (two of whom I met through gracious Apollinaire Scherr!), Jose Limon, and Paul Taylor. And Damian Woetzel from NYCB was there. Happily, I nearly smacked right into the mesmerizing Jonathan Frederickson of Limon a couple of times in the lobby — at least I think it was him — (and, like most dancers and actors, he is far more petite in person than onstage!). And I spotted Michael Apuzzo dashing upstairs to the balcony at the end of the intermission. If you didn’t see it, he actually commented here — how sweet! — but I was still far too shy to say hello, though my friend Alyssa told me I should have…

Anyway, the company opened with Graham’s only full-length evening work, which is highly regarded by many critics (except for Arlene Croce who didn’t have much to say about it, and when she did, sounded pretty lukewarm). Clytemnestra is the tragic Greek story of the title character and her sister, Helen of Troy, who are married to two brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaus, the sons of the king of Mycenae. Helen, of the gorgeous face that can sink ships and raze buildings and all, is seduced by Paris and carted off to Troy, and, when her husband, Menelaus, takes an army and tries to get her back, thus starts the Trojan War. Clytemnestra is left alone in Mycenae (manless, the program notes feel the need to make clear), which she rules as both king and queen.

And then all manner of atrocities break lose. Agamemnon, whose ship is stopped by the gods before getting to Troy, is told he must sacrifice their daughter, Iphigenia, which he does, to Clytemnestra’s obvious grief. Clytemnestra embarks on an affair with the sprightly Aegisthus (my favorite character in the whole thing, danced by my favorite dancer from last night, Maurizio Nardi), they then plot to (and eventually do) kill Agamemnon on his return, in revenge for the sacrifice of her beloved daughter. Clytemnestra’s other daughter, Electra, awaits the return of her brother, Oreste, who, together, plot the death of their mother and Aegisthus, in revenge for the death of their father.

Oreste sits trial, judged by the goddess of wisdom, Athena, and Apollo, the god of strength. Oreste is found not guilty, all are forgiven, the curse on the house of Mycenae is removed, leaving Clytemnestra to wander the underworld reflecting back on her life and seeking resolution to “the terrible conflicts of her life and heart.”

The story here begins in the underworld, with Clytemnestra already dead, and is told in flashbacks. All is seen through her eyes, as she remembers the various events. Opera-like supertitles (shown on a screen above the stage) tell you what is going on, which part of the story you’re seeing and when. There was a lot of animosity to the supertitles, which I know from attending a press conference last Thursday are a new addition. The company felt not enough people today were familiar with the story. I didn’t know how to feel about them personally. I have to admit I’m not tremendously familiar with the play, so they helped me, although they were shooting up a bit too often, and I think it might have been better if it would have been more silent-film-like, where the words flashed, then we saw the danced drama unfold. As it was, often your eyes were flashing between the words and the action beneath, trying not to miss anything. I think supertitles as such work better in an opera, which is mainly aural than visual. You’re not missing that much action by looking at the little screen in front of you.

Anyway, Graham created this dance in 1958 and she danced it herself — another video I’d love to see, if one exists. I’m sure there aren’t many who saw Graham dance this live, ’58 being over 50 years ago now, but I’d to hear their thoughts. I liked Fang-Yi Sheu and thought she was definitely very beautiful and had a compelling stage presence. And I don’t know what Graham had in mind or how she danced the role, but I didn’t think Sheu was formidable enough. I didn’t believe she could have ever plotted her husband’s murder. And I didn’t think she was angry enough over her beloved daughter Iphigenia’s death. (Iphigenia was danced stunningly by the small but captivating Miki Orihara, by the way). I definitely saw hair-pulling grief and horrible sorrow, but no fuming, murderous rage. I wanted to see a Clytemnestra who was a powerful but vulnerable Queen Elizabeth I type, both an agent of destruction and its victim.

Interestingly, Graham’s men seem somewhat one-note, but in a rather amusing way. My friend, Alyssa, who’s never seen Graham before, even noticed. They all move like spears, their bodies shaped like spades. They all seem to announce their presence by heavily hopping one-footed onstage, approaching another character, each foot flexed, each muscle as tight as can be, as if they’re about to attack. When they jump, their feet are always flexed and the movement is so staccato, so heavy, so harsh. It’s as far from the feathery fluidity of ballet as you can get. They’re like soldiers, like toy jumping jacks but frightening ones with the ability to destroy. They’re all warrior-types — almost all.  (In contrast, the women’s toes are often pointed and their movement is sometimes harsh as well, but it’s far more varied; they often glide around stage making soft, graceful arm and hand gestures.)

Which is why I think I liked Maurizio Nardi’s Aegisthus so much — the one who seduces (although I hate that word because it makes the woman sound so passive, but that is the word they used in the supertitles) Clytemnestra and plots with her Agamemnon’s death. Amusingly (to me), Aegisthus is described in the program notes as “womanly.” He is very different — he is the one man who moves with fluidity, with some grace, his toes are often pointed when he does these sideways cat-like leaps, and he often whisks Clytemnestra off her feet in some really sweet lifts. He smiles a lot, and maybe this is meant to be mischievious, to forecast danger and deviousness, but I find it charming, at least in light of all the other war-monger men. I’m actually sad when Oreste throws his dagger across stage and Aegisthus meets his demise.

I also think it’s interesting that Graham clothed her women in these long, dramatic dresses (Clytemnestra is covered neck to ankle in dramatic black with regal golden lines snaking throughout; the underside of the long, flowing skirt is blood red so when she turns, it’s a quite suggestive image), but the men are wearing practically nothing. Not that this was anything approaching a feminist outlook, but is probably harkening back to Greek Olympian aesthetics in which the male body is celebrated.

Maybe. I don’t know entirely what Graham was thinking regarding male / female power dynamics (I know she took a deep interest in Freud and wanted to focus intensely on character psychology; Arlene Croce thinks she and (fellow dance pioneer) Ruth St. Denis were haunted by nasty relationships with the men in their lives, so Clytemnestra and Helen are on some level personal evocations). Anyway, I definitely want to think more about this and may write more as time permits (I just had to get my initial review out now, lest, with ABT and NYCB I get ridiculously behind!) Suffice it to say, my first viewing of this very important work made me very curious to see more of Graham’s oeuvre, and, if a lot of people felt the same, MGDC’s revival was highly successful.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Tonya,

    I actually worked on the supertitles, so it's helpful to hear this kind of feedback. Also – if you didn't get a chance to take a look at the Clytemnestra Remash. We'll be announcing a winner on the site VERY soon | http://clytemnestraproject.com

  2. Hi Tonya,

    I actually worked on the supertitles, so it's helpful to hear this kind of feedback. Also – if you didn't get a chance to take a look at the Clytemnestra Remash. We'll be announcing a winner on the site VERY soon | http://clytemnestraproject.com

Comments are closed