RICHARD MOVE with Ryan Wenzel
Martha Graham, the mother of American modern dance, showed a deep affinity with the “dark ladies” of Greek mythology: Jocasta, Phaedra, Clytemnestra. To honor that tradition, the Martha Graham Dance Company’s upcoming season at the Joyce Theater (titled Myth and Transformation) will include several of Graham’s Greek works (including Night Journey, Phaedra, and The Errand into the Maze) alongside mythological works by contemporary choreographers. One of them, Richard Move, famous for his performances as Graham in the Martha@ series, has remounted his hour-long work The Show (Achilles Heels), a retelling of the Greek hero’s rise and fall that fuses the Graham vocabulary, popular culture, voguing, and original music by Deborah Harry and Blondie. The piece, commissioned by White Oak Dance Project in 2002, originally starred Mikhail Baryshnikov as Achilles; it was revived at the Kitchen in 2006 with Rasta Thomas.
Move spoke to the Rail’s Ryan Wenzel by phone on a Sunday afternoon about restaging the piece with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the timeless themes in Graham’s work, and why postmodern dance is becoming dated.
Ryan Wenzel (Rail): How did restaging on the Graham Company come about?
Richard Move: It came about through Martha Graham Dance Company Artistic Director Janet Eilber, who thought it would be a great fit for the upcoming season. There aren’t so many choreographers around now who work with Greek classical mythology as a point of inspiration. It was also a natural fit for the company because they understand dramatic narrative and character development, even if it is non-linear. It was destiny.
Rail: Was casting the piece on a new group of dancers a challenge?
Move:Katherine Crockett was Helen of Troy in the White Oak production, so that was a no-brainer, and Blakeley White-McGuire was in the 2006 version at the Kitchen. So I had two roles already cast in the eight-person production. The question was who could play Achilles, not only because he’s filling Baryshnikov and Rasta Thomas’s role but because this restaging isn’t exactly how it was for either White Oak or the Kitchen. I needed a dancer who could be all of the things Achilles is meant to be—young, beautiful—and someone with natural gifts as a warrior, which translates to superior technique. It was a big deal. And this incredible young man, Lloyd Mayor, an apprentice with the company, revealed himself to me early in the process. He has two or three years of Graham training and came from the Ballet Rambert School. He has it all. This will be his New York debut as a Graham company member, and that’s also very exciting.
Rail: How have you changed this production? How has Mayor?
Move: Lloyd is making it his own—that’s inevitable—and we’ve made some significant changes to the choreography. It is not a duplicate, fill-in-the-blanks conflation of Rasta Thomas and Misha. We’re making changes that best suit him and his body. He has two great role models to always refer to, but it’s his now, he owns it.
Rail: You’ve mentioned that reality TV was a source of inspiration when creating this work, and that you recast the goddess Athena as a TV host. What shows do you refer to in the piece?
Move: Pick any one. MTV’s The Real World. Anna Nicole Smith. Whitney Houston melting down before our very eyes. Our culture is obsessed with seeing our heroes fall from grace. The more elevated, beautiful and gifted they are—like Achilles—the harder they fall, which creates the best ratings.
Rail: You spoke before a preview performance about your Greek heritage. Has that helped you relate to Graham’s Greek works?
Move: I was very close with my mother’s side of the family, the Greek side. They essentially raised me, these glamorous, eccentric, exotic Greeks. My grandmother was Miss Athens—no joke. Growing up with them was high drama. I had a point of entry into Graham because all things Greek were immediately accessible to me, and it was the Greek works that turned me on to Graham when I was a teenager; the sex, and violence, and eroticism. And they are my favorite pieces in all the Graham repertory. My least favorites are Maple Leaf Rag and stuff like that. I think the company should do a weeklong Wagnerian cycle: one Greek tragedy after another. Most people would be taken out on stretchers, but I would be in heaven. And the themes of the Greek works are timeless. Anyone who thinks that Medea’s vengeance is reserved for a Greek epic or a Graham ballet is out of his mind. Everyone has thoughts of revenge and jealousy. Everyone falls in love with the wrong person, like Phaedra did. Who doesn’t face down fear on a daily basis?
Rail: War is another of those timeless themes that appears in Graham works.
Move:When I started to restudy my piece, which is inspired by the Trojan War, I thought, “Holy shit, II have grandfathers on both sides of my family who have fought in World War II, and my brother recently returned from fighting in Afghanistan.” War is all around us. I know people don’t like to talk about 9/11 and can’t wait for the Sephora to open in the shopping mall at Ground Zero, but our own city was attacked! This is not old—this is now.
Rail: Have Greek works by other choreographers moved you?
Move: One of the reasons I got into this mess called dance was Karole Armitage. I was very lucky to be able to dance with her when she was still onstage. This was in Europe, when her company was called the Karole Armitage Ballet. She did a very beautiful Orfeo Ed Euridice, which comes more from the Balanchine tradition because of her background in his work.
Rail: Do you think that, in 2013, it’s difficult to keep Graham’s work relevant?
Move: I don’t think it is. What we categorize as “postmodern” people have finally realized is old-fashioned, so we have more of what we call “performance.” It’s a merging of art forms, and Graham was already doing that through her interdisciplinary collaboration with Noguchi and music composers. If people view Graham as dated, they don’t understand the trajectory of what’s happened since. Merce Cunningham is the only exception to what I refer to as “the datedness of the postmodern,” because every single piece of his was a revolution. BIPED still trumps anything done with new technology onstage.
Rail: Why do you see postmodernism as dated?
Move: We’re in the seventh decade of postmodernism. Most people would say it begins with Judson, but I place it in the summer of 1953, when Cunningham and John Cage really had their aesthetic together at Black Mountain College. Most of the dance world today is just reliving the postmodern thing, with choreography stuck in that rut. People are fearful of narrative, fearful of retelling an ancient Greek classic, but I’m obviously not of that school.
Rail: The first time I saw you perform, in Martha@…The 1963 Interview at New York Live Arts in 2011, I was amazed by how much I learned about Graham and her philosophy. Is it your intent to educate when performing as Martha?
Move: That wasn’t my intent at the beginning. My intent was to explore this rich character. The history of Martha Graham is the history of 20th century art, and performing as her satisfied all of my desires as performer, producer, director, and writer. But what was interesting was that, almost immediately, people at the highest level of professional dance would say to me, “I never understood Martha Graham until I saw your show. What bibliography do you recommend?” Now there’s almost an ethical obligation to make sure today’s top dance practitioners know about her. Educating isn’t the dominant impetus, but I think it’s important.
Rail: [Long pause] Sorry, my dog is trying to climb onto my lap.
Move: Oh, you have a dog?
Rail: Yeah, a Boston terrier.
Move: Me too. Mine is an exotic mix. Primarily black lab with a chocolate lab undercoat on a greyhound’s body, with a chow’s tail and tongue.
Rail: I’ve seen photos of you walking a dog through Manhattan while dressed up as Graham. Is this the same dog?
Rail: How did pedestrians react to your stroll?
Move: I’d like to think that everyone who saw me that day thought, “Oh, there’s Martha Graham. I thought she was dead.” But I doubt that was the case. But no one would dare approach Martha Graham on the street. She’s too intimidating.
Martha Graham Dance Company will perform The Show (Achilles Heels) at the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Avenue // NY, NY) on February 20, 23, 24, and 28 and on March 2 and 3; and at a gala performance on February 21.
About the Author
RYAN WENZEL is Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He also writes about ballet, modern, contemporary, and traditional dance on his blog at http://www.bodiesneverlie.com. Find him on Twitter at @rpwenz.