Two Journeys from Darkness

The Village Voice 7 Nov 1968English

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New York's first large-scale, wide-angle lens modern dance festival has begun at the Brooklyn Academy. It began, quite properly, with Martha Graham. For the occasion, Miss Graham revived Errand into the Maze (1947) and Dark Meadow (1946).

In both dances, Graham's use of myth and mysteries seem more deliberately metaphorical than in works like Cave of the Heart and Night journey, which were created around the same time. There is something potently non-specific about both Errand and Dark Meadow, especially the latter. They are drenched in meaning of an almost prelogical sort; the spectator can shift contexts and landscapes as he likes. In both dances, a female protagonist seeks identity, an artist explores the dark sources of creativity. In Errand, she is more her own mistress; in Dark Meadow, the cyclic ritual unwinds her on its inexorable cord.

Errand into the Maze has some of the trappings of the minotaur legend, but it's best not to get too involved with thinking about Theseus and Ariadne. A woman possessed by nameless terror prepares to confront it. She follows a snaking rope path, passes through a horned portal, lashes herself inside. Until she has harrowed her particular hell, she will not allow herself to come out. The bull-monster that lies in wait for her is a strange adversary. For one thing, his arms are bent up over a stick laid across his shoulders; he is strong, but he must move his whole torso in order to reach anything with his hands. He is compelling - sternly erotic - and dominates her easily. Perhaps this, in the end, is what is not to be borne. She kills him, unlashes the doorway and leans against it half in, half out, but looking outward again. Seeker continues her seeking, perpetually hungry, already at the verge of new winters. This driven woman experiences love and loss, spring and winter, life and death as if she were being dragged through them on a leash.

It is interesting to observe the shape that performances give to a dance. A long time ago at Jacob's Pillow, I saw Helen McGehee have her first go at the woman in Errand (originally, of course, done by Graham herself). McGehee was very pure in it, as I remember, very much the chosen maiden on a sacred mission. Her fear was taut as a bow-string. She performed it this season also, with Clive Thompson as a partner, and I'm sorry I missed it. Instead, I saw Matt Turney and Dan Wagoner, and I'm also glad I didn't miss that. Turney is a soft, remote, but extremely feminine dancer. The mission seemed almost beyond her; her fear the sort that turns one's insides to jelly. She emphasized the desperation, the increasing exhaustion. Dan Wagoner makes a good bull-a lumbering, groping creature nuzzling at the woman-almost as blind as she in the darkness. Wagoner is also an oddly lovable monster, recalling Jean Marais in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast or the minotaur that the Incredible String Band sing of, who bellows that he "can't sleep well because of his horns." One fancies that the woman regrets slightly having to kill so appealing a spectre. I suppose one's own fears are attractive in a way.

Dark Meadow is a great difficult desert of a dance. The protagonist is called "One Who Seeks," and her search is arduous and eternal. The other principal figures are "He Who Summons" and "She of the Ground." Five men and four women are "They Who Dance Together." The set, by Isamu Noguchi, suggests the herms of fertility ritual. There are other fertility trappings too-mostly handled by Matt Turney as the Earth Mother figure. It is she who turns the herms to reveal a more brightly colored side, she who brings in flowering branches to plant at the summit of one of them or makes leaves pop from the side of another, she who whips briefly through with a bowl of some red stuff (blood? pomegranate seeds?). It is also she who at the end of the dance spins in a green cloak, spreading out a vernal joy and affirmation, while the seeker continues her seeking, perpetually hungry, already at the verge of new winters. This driven woman experiences love and loss, spring and winter, life and death as if she were being dragged trough them on a leash.

Again, the performances are interesting and important in terms of what they do to a dance. I found the most beautiful sections of Dark Meadow those that were performed by the "chorus." In the first place, into the absorbed stamping of the girls and the cleansing sensuality of the male-female parts, Graham has put some of her most beautiful and powerful choreography. It is the dancing of "They Who Dance Together" that creates the ritual and acts as its fulfillment. Matt Turney's "She of the Ground" was warm and gracious, slightly abstracted as she performed pre-ordained tasks. Beautiful Mary Hinkson (she alternates with Linda Hodes) danced the "One Who Seeks" with a hard, rapt drive. Bertram Ross as "He Who Summons" gave his part the weighty dignity of a high priest.

Basically, a dance work becomes for a spectator the particular performance that he sees. It is difficult and, for the most part, pointless to speculate about the work separated from the performance of it. In the case of Dark Meadow, however, I have the strangest feeling that something was missing somewhere in the performance of the three principals. It was as if there was some important direction that was never given them, some vibrations between them that were never set up. Patches of puzzling aridity kept cropping up in what was a beautiful and important work. Is it my imagination? What was Dark Meadow in 1946? I know one thing: I've seen a picture of Martha Graham in the role of the seeker. She's not wearing a long dress, but a sort of pajama affair with one arm covered by a great sleeve. Her arms and legs are flailing, and she looks possessed. I know pictures are deceptive, but I can't help wondering ...