I have to admit that on the face of it, the idea of a serious drag impersonation of Martha Graham doesn’t strike me as all that interesting. In fact, had I not known dancer Catherine Cabeen, a former Graham Company dancer who performs with and had previously praised Richard Move’s act to me, I probably wouldn’t have been all that interested in Move’s Martha@…the 1963 Interview at DTW (through April 2; tickets $20). And, predictably, that would have be the wrong response on my part. Because the show, which I caught last night, is a fascinating and compelling time capsule that, in keeping with some of the better performances I’ve seen recently, serves to bring to life major works of modern art, making them read to audiences for the sheer, electrifying power that made them monumental, a quality that’s all too often diluted and lost through reference and historical contextualization.
Based on a 1963 interview between Graham and critic Walter Terry at the 92nd Street Y, the show plays tight and fast at just over an hour. Move, who began performing as Martha as a drag act at the Mouth, a former Meatpacking District club in the mid-Nineties, gives a pitch-perfect performance. I certainly can’t attest to its historical accuracy, but Move has long since stripped away the camp normally assigned to drag performance, the result being a loving tribute to an epochal artist. More for the sake of consistency than camp, Terry’s role is played by actress/playwright Lisa Kron.
The interview text itself is a brilliant find. Terry’s questioning, which often as not comes off as downright sycophantic, nevertheless leads Graham through a series of thoughtful responses to questions about her work, particularly with regard to the mythological heroines who occur throughout her oeuvre. That’s one of the many meta-subtleties of the piece: a larger than life character herself, Graham proves willing and able to explain the small, very human motivations behind her characters’ movements, even as she, herself, is being performed and humanized onstage.
If the show has a fault, it’s that Move’s performance is so tame and gentle. Graham herself was enough of a diva that, given the serious rather than campy context of the current show, he chooses not to add too much, not to play it over-the-top and overwhelm the substance of the piece. In terms of the Graham-Terry dialogue, in fact, it’s Kron who usually plays for laughs, such as a reaching across the table to sniff Graham’s glass for booze as Graham meanders off through a lengthy explanation, more than one of which digresses far from the initial question, though all are, in their own way, deeply revealing.
The point isn’t that Move’s performance is bad or weak–it’s wholly appropriate to the material–but the result is that the dance performances by Cabeen and Graham Company member Katherine Crockett, despite often being rhythmically slow, nevertheless totally upstage him. It might seem ironic for a drag performer to actually be upstaged by straight-forward Modern dance, for dancers to have so much more presence than a diva, but in a sense, I think that was the point.
The selections of some of Graham’s most famous works–intelligently edited from the originals by Move himself, and which are performed to the left and the right of the interview setting–not only serve to illustrate the ideas Graham references, but, in their raw, electrifying power, remind us why Graham was Graham. Here, the audience is asked to see, is why twenty years (to the day; April 1 is the twentieth anniversay) after the artist passed away, we’re still dealing with her legacy. A lot has changed in the world of modern dance, but Graham still towers over the field, and it was nice to be reminded why. Recontextualized and explicated in Graham’s own words, you get a taste of shock of the new these pieces had back in the day, and this in turn refocuses us on the artist in the moment she’s speaking.
As Move told me in a telephone interview (to come shortly), 1963 was a interesting juncture in Graham’s life, as she approached the first of the two deaths she famously said every dancer dies. And no matter how occasionally self-absorbed or even loopy she comes off in the interview, by contrasting it with the work itself, Graham never really comes off as just a diva. Her personality is itself a mark of how deeply she lived what she preached, and the performances are the proof of the pudding. If she seems grandiose, in other words, we can just look at what she did and perhaps understand something of the deep and passionate emotional connection she had to her choreography, something all too easy to forget.
As she herself comments at one point, “Maybe the younger dancers don’t realize that…[the] submission to a terrific ordeal.”