The genius of Martha Graham

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

Swan Lake

Bolshoi Ballet, via Marquee TV

Martha Matinees: Hérodiade


If eight weeks in lockdown have brought out my baser impulses (biscuits by the sleeve, total renunciation of waistbands), it’s also deepened my appetite for culture at its plushest, liveliest heights. It’s not just beaches and brunches I’m craving as spring turns to summer and I round off my second month of working supine on the couch; it’s the sheen of studio lights on the Rothkos at Tate Modern, the whooshing sound when a dancer catapults herself across the Sadler’s Wells stage. Fortunately, watching the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake on Marquee TV last week — the world’s favourite ballet by the world’s foremost company — went some way in filling that void.

Yuri Grigorovich’s 2001 production is performed to perfection here, with a consummate turn from prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. But the real triumph is the show’s faith in its own brilliance — the easy confidence of the choreography, the assertive grandeur of every set piece, from the fairy-tale castle (complete with a high-flying harlequin) to the moonlit lake where Prince Siegfried meets his Swan Queen. Even flashy character touches like the courtiers’ Lord Farquaad hairdos are paraded with aplomb.

Conviction matters in a narrative as fragmented as this one. There are a few departures from tradition in Grigorovich’s version: it takes place over two acts instead of four, and the prince’s role is expanded to the extent that his plight outshines Odette’s. This is down to a woolly psychological conceit that recasts the villain as an agent of fate and the lakeside as a figment of Siegfried’s imagination. The ensuing toggle between real life and fantasy would be more annoying if the dancing wasn’t so exceptional.

Zakharova and Denis Rodkin wear their leading roles like a second skin. The latter looks every inch the Disney prince as he doles out quadruple pirouettes, his golden locks flowing, while our heroine is lightweight and long-limbed, craning her neck in creaturely trepidation. It’s a shame Odette’s role is so diminished — her swap to the evil Odile is almost immaterial to the script — but Zakharova makes her stagetime count with musical port de bras and spotlight-commanding extensions. Her acute sense of theatricality brings tension to an otherwise underwhelming struggle against the black- swan brigade.

An upside to Grigorovich’s rewrite is the enhanced corps action, which this 2015 recording hails with kaleidoscopic views of palace parades and pinwheeling swans. The beloved Act Two pas de quatre is especially fetching on screen, the camera zigzagging along with the springing cygnets. There are lovely look-ins at the character dances too, including Rothbart’s claw-handed fouettés and an early frolic between Siegfried and two yellow-clad belles.

Far less grand, though no less remarkable, is a new film from Peter Starling that celebrates a 1944 work by his mentor Martha Graham, that giant of modern dance. Drawing on Stéphane Mallarmé’s like-titled poem, a foray into the Salome myth, Hérodiade (originally called Mirror Before Me) depicts a fraught encounter between a suicidal woman and the attendant who tries to calm her. Starling has paired a 1940s recording of the duet starring the dancemaker herself with a 2019 restaging, linking the two with some rare footage of other Graham Company performances over the years.

In just 20 minutes, with zero trace of melodrama, Hérodiade invokes an impassioned saga of mortality — such is the genius of Graham. The early recording here bristles with twitchy timelags, amplifying the ghostly symbolism of Isamu Noguchi’s set, with its black cloak and mirror made of bones. Graham, assuming the role of the woman, alternates solos with protégée May O’Donnell, their skirts swishing as they spiral their torsos and strike poses in parallel. Graham’s expression is reserved, almost wry, as if she’s amused by her own vulnerability. O’Donnell, on the other hand, lets her ambivalence infiltrate her dancing. She lunges one way only to double back, leans into a tilt and retreats just as swiftly.

Of all the steps Graham introduced into the modern dance lexicon, her strides are some of the most exhilarating — crisp, sweeping marches performed with one arm raised and cocked at the elbow. The choreographer executes them here with cool tautness — you couldn’t touch her if you tried — while PeiJu Chien-Pott brings more fire to her 2019 interpretation, anguish bursting from her breast. Natasha Diamond-Walker is likewise heated in the modern rendering, radiating quiet fury in her hunched pliés and twisted hips. Where O’Donnell halts, this attendant hovers, chest trembling in apprehension.

In both versions, the finale is as swift as it is inevitable: the woman snatches the cloak and spirits herself away into blackness. There’s no editorialising in Starling’s frills-free edit; the fatal climax speaks for itself.

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