Review: ‘Cave of the Heart’ By the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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“Archaic/Modern” is not only the title of the estimable exhibit of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi mid-20th-century works at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Archaic/modern describes the archetypal and incalculably influential choreography of Martha Graham, one of our nation’s iconic founders of modern dance. Friday evening, in conjunction with the Noguchi exhibit, the Martha Graham Dance Company gave a riveting performance of the iconic Cave of the Heart, one of Graham’s Greek tragedies told from the woman’s point of view.

The 1946 work is imbued with coiled energy, heightened passion and jealousy restrained until bursting. Based on the myth of Medea, a sorceress in love with Jason, she is awaiting his undivided attention after he has gained the Golden Fleece. Instead, he betrays her with King Creon’s daughter. Graham begins the 30 minute work as Jason returns from his battle. Distilling the complex mythology into a four character ballet, elemental emotions of jealousy, betrayal and revenge are laid bare.

Noguchi’s iconic set with its naturalistic shapes, stepping stones, an amoeba-like green stone snake, a large throne-like centerpiece of black basalt-like material and the formidable spiky spider dress. Distilled to four characters, Graham’s ability to bare emotions through sharply etched contractions of the torso and stylized hand gestures allows each character to speak dynamically through the choreography. Medea, the exquisite compact powerhouse Xin Ying, is like a pot ready to boil over, her energy barely wholly contained. Broad-shouldered Ben Schultz epitomizes a Greek god and as Jason, he’s a typical Graham male lead: with his body-builder’s muscles and pervasive tattoos he fills the stage with heel-stabbing arabesques, and deep lunges his arm cocked as if to stab the air with an arrow.

Creon’s daughter, The Princess, the lovely Charlotte Landreau,  gets carried, suported, lifted and straddled by Jason. The contrast between the two women, Medea, who asserts her strength and holds her ground and The Princess, who acquiesces and follows Jason across the stage on Noguchi’s stepping stones, representing the islands he traversed on his quest.

With her blonde hair flowing and clad in a short white tunic, Landreau paints The Princess as a carefree converse to Medea’s edgy sorceress. But Landreau is not wilting, she exhibits her power through her flirtatious jumps and girlish skips, still assertive in their space engulfing Grahamesque manner.  It’s clear this Princess has her eyes on the stunning Jason, wearing briefs and black straps suggestive of bondage across his chest.

The choreography remains consciously specific to Graham’s eye-catching movement language. As if peeling this ancient tale of lovers jealousy and betrayal from antique Greek vases, Graham maintains the flattened two-dimensional quality in some of her movement motifs, most particularly Jason, who seems more a stereotype of muscular machismo than an archetypal warrior. For Medea, a role Graham created for herself, she allowed nothing to rein in the burning rage that lies of a cuckolded woman. While Ying is provocative, in the way she splays and tumbles to the floor, drawing a red ribbon from her heaving chest as if spilling out her guts before devouring the stage space with a series of hip thrusting contortions of the waist.

Graham’s choice to begin this ballet – yes she called her pieces ballet, even at the dawn of modern dance – at the moment in the myth when Medea discovers Jason’s betrayal, provides a gut-wrenching reversal. The commissioned score by Samuel Barber builds to a climax of pulsing, sawing orchestrations that raise the pulse and clarify how growing anger might sound, like itchy strings that accelerate into a grand orchestral gesture as Medea becomes overcome by her unrelenting rage – her eyes narrowed to slits, her fingers splayed like claws, her torso contorting as if she is being eaten from the inside out.

The one calming force in the work appears in Graham’s conception of the Greek chorus, here danced by a one woman, the role serves as both the soothsayer and penitent. She warns of sorrows to come her arms stretched wide, or one hand cupped against her mouth as if calling to calm the impending rage. Leslie Andrea Williams is a lanky and soulful dancer as she spreads her limbs, her fingers trembling, her foot cocked in an angular flexion, that simultaneously heightens and assuages the building tension. There’s a stoic statuesque demeanor to her character that contrasts to the relentless rage that fills Medea and the vapid trust of The Princess.

Cave of the Heart provides a stunning example of the deep and fruitful collaboration between Graham and Noguchi – working on 21 pieces together. They both drew on ancient and archaic elements – Graham in Greek tragedy, Noguchi in natural carved formations – reinventing them for their era. Crafted amid the turmoil of World War II, this highly dramatic psychodrama that delves into the dark and vengeful passions of love at its most destructive, there is much that remains captivating about this 71-year-old work. This most recent rendering in the intimate  shows that the Graham company continues to breathe life into its mid-20th-century classic works, with exacting stagings that capture the elemental emotions that captivated Graham and became central to so many of her works over her more than 70-year career. It was wonderful to hear the dancers breathing for breath lies at the core of Graham’s dance technique: an expulsion of the breath contracts the pelvis and sets the body in motion. Cave of the Heart lives on in the very lungs, bones and sinews of this new generation of Graham dancers.

Running Time: Approximately 30 minutes, plus a discussion with company Artistic Director Janet Eilber and Noguchi exhibit curator Dakin Hart.

Martha Graham Dance Company performed Cave of the Heart March 3, 2017, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, in Washington, DC.

Here is more information on Martha Graham Dance Company this season.

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