at Ravinia

August 14-17

It hasn’t been fashionable in certain circles to like Martha Graham for a good 10, 20, even 30 years. To the postmodern mind she’s too literal, too oriented toward narrative, insufficiently interested in movement for movement’s sake. Of course now that she’s gone–she died last April, at the age of 96–people may be kinder. And besides, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward dance that tells a story or makes a point.

It’s also true, as two programs of four different dances each made clear at Ravinia last week, that the Graham stereotype really only fits certain works, not her entire oeuvre. Indeed, that may have been the point of the programming. These eight works spanned 54 years, and a good half–most of them relatively recent–were lighthearted, abstract, or both.

Yet even these showed traces of Graham’s fanatically controlling intelligence, the impulse to give her subject a fixed and permanent form. And it’s that entombment, that instinct to arrest what might otherwise be fleeting, that makes her dances seem rituals: reenactments of emotion several steps removed from the emotions themselves.

Take El Penitente, a work from 1940. Based on the rituals of a religious sect in the American southwest, it’s divided into ten short sections whose meaning is described in program notes. The notes also compare Graham’s dance to a medieval mystery play, and point out that we see not only the play itself but the players stepping in and out of character. So without even a glimpse of the work we know it’ll have Christian elements and elements from the art of the Middle Ages and the American southwest; we know that we’ll see a dance within a dance.

This is a woman at home with the artificial, with representations of representations. When the female dancer, in her role as Mary Magdalen, seduces the Penitent by offering him what may be one-half of an apple or a heart split in two (of course it resembles a vulva), the moment resonates with meaning quite apart from the movement itself: switching the object back and forth from its whole to its cut side. El Penitente also offers up long mimed sequences–the Penitent whips himself with a hairy rope in his first scene, for instance. And then there are Graham’s stylized ceremonial walks. When the players enter, they walk with an everyday heel-to-toe motion, but Graham has added a hesitation to each step and a strongly flexed foot that thrusts the heel forward, emphasizing the walk’s matter-of-fact strength, its purposefulness. A similarly ordinary step in the final section, “The Festival Dance,” has been made so big it embodies triumph.

Graham choreographed Acts of Light in 1981, more than 40 years after El Penitente. Though it has a subject–Graham herself, or more accurately her dances–it does not tell a story. Yet it has the same elements of ritual and mime that mark El Penitente so strongly. Acts of Light opens with several male dancers in a pose of invocation, looking up, arms to the side and scooped upward, hands contracted into an angular cupped shape like ornamental hooks. The men’s slow, ceremonial entrance is like a waltz box step, with the result that they continually face us: step to the back, to the side, to the front. The duet that follows, called “Conversation of Lovers,” is often close to mimed lovemaking, a ceremonialization of lovers’ gestures. The man caresses the woman’s leg from toe to hip, then touches her chin and eventually cups her face in his hand. Later he places her hands over the curves of his chest, and they embrace. In the section’s final image, he lies on his back and holds her aloft in a swimming pose above him: shades of Gerald Arpino.

Such easy stereotypes of male-female interaction also infect Graham’s last dance, Maple Leaf Rag (1990). Five couples perch on a stylized, sagging ballet bar like so many birds on a wire, obviously quarreling and making up, embracing and even kissing. The work ends with a man ripping off a woman’s skirt and her pouting, chin on fist.

Graham made Maple Leaf Rag when she was 95. It’s musical, often clever, and determinedly cheerful. It seems hard to complain about it. But the insipidity of its vision of men and women and its degradation of mime to mere mime, without transforming gesture to ritual, are hard to take. Especially compared to the uncompromising savagery of Cave of the Heart (1946), based on the Greek myth of Medea.

Because Graham ritualizes experience instinctively, it’s natural for her to sharply distinguish the characters of men and women. In Cave of the Heart she goes even further, embodying women’s roles in three separate female figures: Medea, the Princess, and the Chorus. Jason is the only male. Their characteristic movements bring to vivid life, usually in a few simple strokes, the essences of male and female being. Jason moves with large, stiff motions, like a windup doll without many joints: to walk he swings his leg out stiff and straight, then bends it sharply at the knee, then steps. He’s strong but also rigid, with the kind of vulnerable, monolithic strength that relies on oversimplification.

His lover, who has supplanted Medea, is the Princess. She’s everything pliable in woman, everything that revels in devotion to another: her movements are light, plastic, legato; scooping motions suggest gathering and offering; her gaze continually returns to her lover, who watches her. Medea overflows with herself, her own feelings. Jealousy, rage, and a mad triumph literally shake her; convulsions are her most characteristic motion. What’s important to her finally is not love or sex but power and control. The Chorus seems to be Graham’s foil to Medea, a sop to conventional morality. She looks worried, indecisive, constrained–compassionate but helpless.

Graham is so consumed by the need to set psychological truths in stone that she leaves herself wide open to parody, even ridicule. At the beginning of Errand Into the Maze (1947), when the woman’s abdominal contractions–Graham’s choreographic embodiment of fear–coincide with the drumbeats of Gian Carlo Menotti’s music, you almost have to suppress a snicker (must be the overlap with striptease cliches).

I believe that as time went on Graham turned her talents at ritualization to questionable ends. Self-glorification marks the 1981 Acts of Light. Its solo for a woman, in quintessential stretchy Grahamesque garb, seems to deify Graham’s artistic agonies: the dancer staggers forward, both hands clasped against one cheek, clearly weeping. The section with some 20 dancers in golden costumes sweeping through classic Graham floor exercises is surprisingly beautiful, like waves rolling in at sunset–but what is it after all that Graham’s glorifying? Her own dance lexicon. In some ways Acts of Light seems the perfect ritual for late 20th-century America: a ritual with no gods but the Self.

A much earlier work (the earliest on this program) shows a side of Graham with which we may be less familiar. Steps in the Street (1936), subtitled “Devastation–Homelessness–Ex- ile,” shows the individual at odds with her culture, literally moving against the herd. Its stiff, abrupt, spare motions are utterly pared and purposeful; the visual composition is simple but striking, with the 12 female dancers divided sometimes into two groups, sometimes into three. It’s a very short work, part of a suite called Chronicle, recently reconstructed by Graham and the company’s current associate artistic director, Yuriko. And it’s beautiful.

Why couldn’t we have seen more dances like this one? This program made plain that the later works, however expert, are lesser works. Graham’s career was so long, why bother with things like Maple Leaf Rag, which Graham herself clearly characterized as a departure from her own legend? Of course when a dance hasn’t been performed for many years, reconstruction can be costly. It’s a matter, I suppose, of allocating resources. And a matter of what the current artistic director, Ronald Protas, thinks audiences would like to see. But I for one would rather have the early and middle Graham, who turned her attention outward in the process of honing her craft, than the late Graham, who seems so absorbed by the myth she herself created.