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Divine Martha

Photo by Joseph Astor

In a career that spanned the 20th century, the petite 5-foot firebrand Martha Graham — legend, icon, Mother of Modern Dance — was indeed larger than life. This weekend she returns from the grave — at least her doppelgänger, Richard Move, does — for Divine Normal, an all-Martha evening at Highways featuring his distillations of signature Graham choreography and irreverent monologues. On the bill is Move’s version of the Medea solo from Cave of the Heart, complete with a two-person Greek minichorus composed of dancers who either are or were members of the Martha Graham Company. At 6’4”, Move may not be the spitting image of the diminutive protomodernist, but many in New York City, where he curates and presides over the semimonthly Martha@Mother, have marveled at his uncanny ability to evoke Graham’s essence, in all its feisty grandeur. Bedecked in her trademark faux Halston gowns and Noguchi jewelry, Move serves up a Martha cocktail that is equal parts homage to and send-up of the diva whom Move calls “the Bette Davis of the dance world.”

Move has performed internationally in the companies of Karole Armitage, Mark Dendy and Pooh Kaye, among others, as well as presenting his own dance-theater works and co-founding the legendary late-night cabaret Jackie 60. Although he continues to lead a rich creative life (recent projects include a dance installation at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with the opening of the Francisco Clemente exhibition), Move is irrepressible at channeling the defiantly regal Martha. Martha@Mother has grown to become such a cult favorite amongst the East Coast culturati over the past four years that tickets now sell out five weeks in advance of each show. The gritty downtown Manhattan club has, during recent seasons, featured performances and premieres of new work by Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as performance artist John Kelly impersonating Pina Bausch (“whoever that is,” Move-as-Martha quips). For the lucky few who make it in the door, these evenings also offer rare moments of history come alive. In an intimate tête-à-tête with “Martha,” the (real) Merce reminisces about his tenure in Martha’s dance company. Isaac Mizrahi accompanies a new compression of an early all-women Graham repertoire with a monologue that bounces between the political and cultural scene of the ’30s and Martha’s obsession with the perfect costume. Martha squares off in a modernism-vs.-postmodernism debate with manifesto-slinging Judson Church member Yvonne Rainer.

Move’s panache reflects his almost scholarly enthusiasm for historical accuracy and absolute devotion to his alter ego. In a telephone conversation earlier this month, Move spoke to the Weekly about what Martha Graham has to offer our oh-so-postmodernist world and the fuzzy line between reverence and irreverence.

 

So, Richard, tell me how you really, really feel about Martha.

I adore her religious and mystical approach to art. I think it’s very brazen and brave, and it is something that most of my generation doesn’t touch upon. We live in an age of cynicism, [with] this notion of “don’t succumb to your passions” — and you certainly don’t present them on the stage. We live in a post-, post-, postmodern world, and she thought dancers were “divine normals.” She thought she had a gift from God and that she had to use it. She called dancers acrobats of God. I find that really funny, because it is so dated and unfashionable, and at the same time I think it’s absolutely true. But most people are too afraid to go there, because it really puts you out there for criticism — all the dark side, the emotion, the lust, the longing, the terror, the fear. And she put all that very eloquently: The creative artist’s search for meaning. She thought that her dances had to speak to the human condition and to the soul and reveal an interior landscape.

 

I am reminded of something I read that said almost every one of Graham’s dances contains a bed or a dagger.

Yes, that’s true of her Greek period. It wasn’t her fetish. I think it’s perceived that way, but it’s the subject of all those myths. They were all fucking the wrong person and killing themselves or killing someone else before they killed themselves, only to be reborn. It was all sex, violence, love, lust and revenge. They’re fabulous! They might sound dated — something Martha did in the ’50s — but they are universal themes that everyone can relate to. And she was just crazy enough — or brilliant enough, depending on how you see it — to make that the focus of her work and her life.

 

She wasn’t afraid of being flamboyantly herself.

She wasn’t afraid of addressing that psychology and putting it out there for the world to see. There is a soap-opera kind of element to her work, and a high, high drama — which then of course is high camp.

 

Essentially, doesn’t all camp have an element of homage to it?

It has to. It can’t just scratch the surface. I feel like I have to go pretty deep within my character study of Martha to reveal some very serious points she made, some very profound points. And at the same time she was also quite funny. She did have a sense of humor about herself. And she was not afraid of appearing egomaniacal. She thought she was the one — period, end of story. And she basically dismissed everyone else. Which is funny, and at the same time is how she really felt. There is a simultaneity to the humor in this show, but it is all steeped in a real person, in this amazing career that spanned almost the whole century. And she did almost single-handedly invent an art form.

 

What do you feel is the lasting value of Martha Graham?

Besides, of course, the technique, which is the basis for all modern and contemporary dance, her commissions are the great masterpieces of modern music — Copland’s Appalachian Spring, et cetera. When Noguchi started making sets, it was a completely different way of looking at the dance and its relation to scenery. She paved the way for how we perceive choreography in relation to music, costume, setting. She was the first to use stretch fabrics — all these things that we take as givens, she totally paved the way for.

Every choreographer in the modern contemporary realm is really indebted to her, whether they care to admit it or not. On all counts, she really was the first.

DIVINE NORMAL | Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica Thursday, May 25, through Sunday, May 28

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