Martha Graham Dance Company
by Carmel Morgan
December 10, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, Washington, DC
The Martha Graham Company’s recent revival of “Clytemnestra,” a work that premiered fifty years ago, showed off a terrific mix of Graham’s modern dance technique with live music (Halim El-Dahb’s original score performed by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, directed by Aaron Sherber), a sleek set by Isamu Noguchi, gorgeous costumes originally designed by Graham and Helen McGehee (recreated by Karen Young), powerful voices (singers Jennifer Lynn Waters as the “Inner Voice of Clytemnestra” and Nathan Herfindahl as the “Mouthpiece of Orestes”) and stirring Greek mythology. All of the elements together added up to a unique blend of both sumptuousness and austerity that suited the epic tale.
For those unfamiliar with the story and unable or unwilling to “read” the movement of the dancers, opera-style text floated above the stage recounting Clytemnestra’s torment in short sentences. This flourish, while it may have been helpful to some, seemed an unnecessary gesture. My neck became sore from straining to look up, and I quickly threw in the towel. I imagine that many ignored the written language in favor of paying full attention to the dancing. In this modern dance classic, the movement trumps the story anyway.
Guest Dancer Fang-Yi Sheu took the title role in the evening-length performance. The tale of Clytemnestra’s suffering and redemption came mainly though reminiscences. The work began in the underworld, with a parade of figures being introduced. During these sequences, Sheu relived and reviewed the significant events in Clytemnestra’s tragic life.
Sheu moved with grandeur and strength. While she lacked Martha Graham’s star quality, one nevertheless felt Sheu’s imposing presence, even when she was still. Doubtless the central figure, she clearly outshined the men in the cast. Expression poured from her broad face. The sculptural quality of her movement perfectly complimented Noguchi’s curved set and the elegantly simple costumes in a palette of black, gold, gray, and red.
As one would expect of Graham, dancers moved primarily from the gut, frequently with cupped hands. Angular arms chopped the air overhead. Mouths occasionally hung open in grotesque portraits of pain. Seduction also played a part. There were whips, tormented smiles, and legs twisting in the air. The suggestion of murder exuded seduction, too. An embrace sealed the pact between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (Maurizio Nardi) to kill Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon (David Zurack).
Muscular Lloyd Knight stood out as the Night Watchman, as did Jennifer DePalo as the emotional Electra. One of the furies unfortunately fell to her knees in a dreadful spill, but she spun around and recovered nicely. Overall, while the men were manly, the women were even more “manly.” Clytemnestra is a role for a diva, and the other roles for women call for incredible vigor as well. Graham’s female dancers did not disappoint. Despite the repeated incidents of violence and misery, they emerged victorious, refusing to bow to the disgraces to which they had been subjected.