Martha Graham was arguably the most influential, iconic dancer/choreographer of the Twentieth Century, recreating dance as something new and absolutely original. Born near the close of the Nineteenth Century, she was productive her whole life through. She danced her final performance in 1970 at the age seventy-six and continued choreographing until she died at the age of ninety-six in 1991.
It is no small thing to embody a great artist on a stage in a solo performance. With a smart script by Ellen Melaver, Christina Carlisi brings Martha Graham vividly to life. In interviews, Martha Graham spoke in paragraphs, her words clear and sharp with never a hesitation or a hem or a haw. Ms. Carlisi, captures the great dancer perfectly, speaking in the same decisive way with humor and thoughtfulness as she reveals Martha’s life journey. The play begins with the seventy-four-year-old Martha Graham more than miffed with New York Times critic Clive Barnes. Just after a performance of her “Clytemnestra,” he had the gall to suggest that it might be “well advised…for her to relinquish the role.” She has many rich and pointed comments in response to that suggestion.
As the play continues, Martha Graham recounts how came to dance, who she learned from, and why she developed the way she did. She attended her first dance concert at the age of fourteen when she saw Ruth St. Denis perform in Los Angeles. Later she trained with the Denishawn Company founded by Ms. St. Denis and Ted Shawn and eventually she established the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance in New York City. Martha Graham has much to say about ballet, most of it negative and she reveals her passion for dancer Eric Hawkins to whom she was married for a time. All the while Ms. Carlisi moves seamlessly into dance mode, demonstrating the iconic Martha Graham style, while smoothing changing costumes from an onstage rack. Always moving the text, she perfectly captures the fluid, sometimes angular movement that made Martha famous.
Simply and elegantly produced, the play boasts excellence in both the direction by Stewart J. Zully and the choreography of Camille Loftin. Lighting by Derrick McDaniel is smoothly nuanced and costumes by Candice Cain are ideal.
Martha is simply great theatre. See this show while you can. It runs through April 16 at Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks.
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Martha Graham follow this link to a beautiful film of Martha’s dance staging of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. I hope you will be as thrilled as I was.