29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 70

Missing Martha

Giannandrea Poesio

Martha Graham Dance Company Sadler's Wells Theatre

I:st week, in the middle of one of Martha Graham's most famous creations, a mobile phone went off at Sadler's Wells, shattering any dramatic tension that a lukewarm and unimpressive performance was striving to create. In the darkness, an eminent dance scholar remarked audibly: 'It is Martha, She is calling from beyond to tell them off.' The number of giggles which followed confirmed that others were sharing my disappointment.

A lot has been said and written about the 'return' of the 'legendary' company. Yet there is little that is exciting about this comeback, for only a few of the dance works performed had the powerful, neoexpressionist drive which they had when the matriarch of American modern dance was still alive. Much as I hate going down memory lane and creating parallels with the 'beautiful old days', I could not help comparing what I saw last week with something that is still very alive in my memory.

When the project for a European Graham centre in Florence started shaping up in the early Eighties, I was working at the Teatro Comunale in that city, and had access to all the rehearsals and company classes I wanted. The project, alas, flunked after two years, but by that time I, and many others like me. had been closely in touch with one of the greatest dance phenomena of the 20th century. The great lady was there, too, exuding charisma and sheer magic (in the dance world, she was known, respected and feared as 'Martha the Witch').

Graham is to 20th-century dance what Picasso is to 20th-century art, namely someone you cannot easily mess with artistically. Her choreographic experimentation with gravity, falls, and the narrative! metaphorical possibilities offered by the human body are still the enduring tenets of an art form which owes her a great deal. Her dance expressionism, and the utterly modernist solutions she adopted to convey what she wanted to say, had, among her contemporaries, the same effect as 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' or `Guernica'.

It is a pity that most of what was presented within the two different programmes seen last week at Sadler's Wells was only a pale reflection of what those dances once were. The dancing was indeed competent, and all the steps were there, but the action looked persistently and wor

ryingly weightless. Which is a great problem, given that a theatrically effective and incisive use of weight is a core feature of Graham's technique and style. It should also be said that those in charge of the 'reborn' company should be brave enough to consider whether some ideas are still valid today.

On the opening night, some giggling was also prompted by the vision of a rather beefy guy moving his pees and abs in a tragically failed attempt to characterise the heroic prowess of Oedipus. Irreverent as they might have sounded to stalwart Graham fans, those giggles showed clearly that, at the beginning of the 21st century, people look and perceive bodies in a different way, and the image of Oedipus skipping around in a pair of trunks similar to those worn by some 1950 beefcakes impinges greatly on the choreographic exposition of Jocasta's tragedy.

There is also a new way of perceiving body movements, which needs to be taken into consideration, particularly when the definition of the movements in question are flawed and blurred, as they were on this occasion, I am not maintaining that one ought to alter masterworks such as the immortal Night Tourney, one of Graham's most popular creations. What I am saying is that more attention should be devoted to the way movement is presented to contemporary audiences, to dispel the risk of sending out the wrong messages.

A good directorial eye is also needed to make sure that synchronous action is achieved in powerful choral dances such as the splendid Diversion of Angels. Lack of unison was, together with the absence of 'weight' mentioned earlier, a constant flaw in the ensemble dancing. Luckily, some real 'Graham drive' was shown here and there by Graham veterans such as Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, and in memorable solo works, such as the still breathtaking Lamentation, the enigmatic Deep Song and the humorous Satyric Festival Song.