Dancers sharing the stage with actors; movement mingling with text; passages from Walt Whitman and Sinclair Lewis juxtaposed with quotes from Bitch Ph.D. (a popular feminist blog) and references to Twitter. Irony. Interdisciplinarity.
It all seemed out of character for the Martha Graham Dance Company, whose founder pioneered a language of the body, not the spoken word—and took it seriously. But that was, in part, the point. On a mission to breathe new life into Graham’s masterpieces, MGDC invited Anne Bogart, director of the genre-bending SITI Company, to reinvent her 1938 American Document for the 21st century. During its June 8 premiere at the Joyce, American Document (2010) struck just the right chord between historical and of-the-moment. It suited the performers beautifully, all 16 of them—the 10 dancers of MGDC and six actors of SITI (who, it turns out, really know how to move).
Even the original American Document was a bit of a departure for Graham, her first work to incorporate spoken text (though it involved just one actor, in the role of “the interlocutor”). Posing the question, “What is an American?” she sought answers in the Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, among other sources. For American Document (2010), writer Charles L. Mee replaced those with a collage of Americana past and present, taking us from Whitman’s rolling farmland, to Jack Kerouac’s open road, to the battlefields of Iraq. (The patchwork score was just as varied, ranging from Aaron Copland to Tex Ritter.) What resulted was a sometimes trite, but often clever and poignant reflection on American identity, with all its contradictions.
Amid the head-scratching on democratic ideals, perhaps Graham’s vigorous movement stood for equality, performed as it was by actors and dancers alike (at least sections of it). All relished the iconic contractions, cupped palms, and deep second-position pliés. They didn’t frolic, necessarily, but you could picture them doing so. Their initial entrance brought them parading diagonally downstage with heel-first gallops, waving “howdy,” and looking small-town-America quaint in James Schuette’s colorful frocks and plaid shirts.
Some history resonates on its own, without refurbishment—like Sketches from ‘Chronicle’ (1936), which came after intermission. The opening, “Spectre—1914,” began with Jennifer DePalo seated on a three-tiered pedestal, the seemingly limitless fabric of her skirts (designed by Graham) cascading over it. Like a monument coming to life, struggling to uproot itself, she evolved into a fearsome embodiment of impending war, shrouding herself in the blood-red cloth. With every viscous, guttural motion, she punctured the blackness around her.
The dancers in “Steps in the Street” and “Prelude to Action” were just as startlingly visceral. As factions of them pounded through space, time and place and historical context seemed not to matter anymore. They had enveloped us in the now.
SIOBHAN BURKE writes for the New York Times and Dance Magazine. She teaches at Barnard College.