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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Totentanz

In my more than irregular column for the Oxford Gazette,I wrote this time about Thomas Ades and Paul Taylor and Noguchi, so why not put it here too, and it began with being sent to write up the Martha Graham dancers for Performa:
THESE DANCES MERGING IN THE MIND
For Performa 2015

Mary Ann Caws

Here was last night: seeing the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance company at the Koch theatre, in its classic and very moving Aureole set to music by Handel,  had you listen to the music even more closely. It  felt FIGURED by the dancers, if I may put it that way.

But what overcame me later in the program was the quite amazing presentation of  the world premiere of Paul Taylor’s  Death and the Damsel,  with the Cello Sonata No. 2. of Bohuslav Martin,  with all its resonances of past death dances from long ago and more recent times.  
They add up exponentially, here augmented by the startling neo-expressionist sets by Santo Loquasto, where the roofs slant down so drastically upon the scene, the music, and the dancers.  You are remembering Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” surely. And yet just as strongly for me – having just seen last week Thomas Adès directing the New York Philharmonic in his own Totentanz, which premiered at the London Proms of 2013 – all the dances and sets and workings out of the ah so deadly serious play started to take on their own rhythm of convergence. Dreadful and magnificent at once. 

The Adès piece is based on a frieze painted on a cloth that used to hang in the interior of  the Marienkirche of Lubeck,  dating from around 1463,  subsequently destroyed by the bombing on Palm Sunday of 1942. Every detail about it speaks loudly, and every broad view of it speaks with a muted tone – for as Adès says, about the descending order from pope to babe as it is each one’s turn, the babe is everyone. This symbolic dance is, in his words, “ terrifying, leveling, and absurd “ – comically grotesque.  The inescapable resonance with other deathdances haunts every occasion.

And it sent me back to the Martha Graham rendering of Lamentation, performed by Janet Eilber after Martha Graham herself, and of the his guest company - Shen Wei.
 year’s Performa festival. Since Paul Taylor was so strongly associated with Martha Graham, and since the sets for her dances by Isamu Noguchi so haunted my mind in their stark simplicity, like so many white bones, like the bones to be played on in the Adès piece,  the sets of the Paul Taylor Death and the Damsel began to develop that layering of memory that deepens and widens all our associations with these differing spectacles and sounds. When the scene changes from the Nosferatu-type roofs to the Dance Club Café with its enormous sign so garishly red overhead, so opposite to the damsel in her flimsy pink dress on her virginal bed, before the deadly embrace, we are swept up in the mental dance, entangled no less than the damsel.


In this last piece, the rings of dancers in their terrible circling, as they came and went around the maiden, brought back all those other friezes of death dances, how they come for all. Panicked  and legs outstretched, she was victim recalling the Rite of Spring, which the Shen Wei dancers enacted during the Paul Taylor Company appearances -- what remains remarkable, just as inescapably remarkable as the enacted scene itself, is the way in which each of these pieces, each of these groups of deadly revelers, and each of the dancers in their individual poses and performances,  all relate finally to each other in the viewer’s mind, as we are all partaking, all of us, in a chorus and dance of lamentation.
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