With the Church Street garage available only by prior reservation, people who cut it close getting to Northrop on Thursday night found themselves facing a multiblock trek from the Fourth Street ramp with only minutes to spare before the curtain rose on Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra. My girlfriend, who parked in that ramp, reported that a few women there were so desperate they actually threw themselves at a passing car to beg a ride to the auditorium.
Those women were among many at the sizable (though not near capacity) audience at Northrop who didn’t want to miss a minute of the rare performance of Graham’s only full-length work, revived by her company for the composition’s 50th anniversary and now touring the country. Authenticity is the watchword for this production, which features Isamu Noguchi’s original set pieces, recreations of the original costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee, and a recording of the original score by Halim El-Dabh. You’re not going to come much closer to experiencing this masterwork as it was seen at its 1958 premiere.
Most of Thursday night’s audience—including the students holding eye-rollingly earnest discussions at intermission (“Why do you think Graham felt the need to tell this story?”)—hadn’t even been born when the work premiered, and for a generation raised on the indulgent ironies of postmodernism, Clytemnestra is a hard pill to swallow. It dates from a time when the avant-garde still took itself very seriously, and with good reason: Graham’s dense stew of flashback and fantasy and symbolism was unprecedented. In 1958 Modernism was pushing so hard that it was about to give itself a hernia, but when Clytemnestra debuted it was still full steam ahead for atonality, asymmetry, and Spartan decor.
Excuse me, I’m in the wrong city-state. Clytemnestra takes place in ancient Mycenae, where the chickens of lust and revenge are coming home to roost for the eponymous queen and her feuding brood. I won’t bother describing the story in detail, since it’s quite complex and if you’re trying to pick it up from a review, from the program notes, or from the surtitles projected above the action, you’re already behind.
The company’s decision to use surtitles in this production was controversial, and I’m not sure which side of that debate I come down on. It’s certainly helpful, but Graham seems to assume a basic knowledge of the narrative, and trying to catch up by reading surtitles, as I put it to a friend at intermission, is like trying to follow an episode of All My Children when you’ve never seen the show before and someone is whispering in your ear trying to explain what the characters’ backgrounds are. Maybe it would be best just to enjoy the piece as it presents itself and then go home and rent Troy if you need Cliffs Notes.
As it does present itself, Cytemnestra is bracing. The toned-beyond-belief troupe members enact Graham’s choreography with an almost brittle precision, jerking about quasi-mechanically like the puppets of the gods they, of course, are. The seduction scenes (there are multiple) are stormy and eruptive, the scene of redemption (there is one) is oblique, and the Furies march around enacting curses like it’s nobody’s business (in fact, it’s everybody’s). “Are all Martha Graham pieces so dark?” asked someone behind me.
Northrop Auditorium, the Twin Cities’ grandest dance venue, was the right place to stage Clytemnestra: in Northrop’s cavernous expanse, Noguchi’s minimal set elements look even more minimal than they’d be at, say, the Southern. Our seats were more than halfway back on the main floor, and at that distance, the dancers’ physicality all but disappeared: what you saw were not bodies but gestures. It would be interesting to see the piece at closer range, but not all dance is appropriate for intimate venues (it’s hard to concentrate on the magic of Christmas when the Nutcracker’s sweaty ass is in your face), and Graham’s tortured characters serve very well as the abstracted archetypes they appear from afar.
I’ve long wished to see a recreation of the Nijinsky ballet Rite of Spring that caused a riot at its 1913 premiere, but after seeing this faithful revival of Clytemnestra, my guess is that a 21st century audience would be about as affected by the Rite‘s primitive rhythms as they would be by the “surprise” timpani hit in Haydn’s 94th symphony. We’re just too far down the road for those pieces to have the visceral impact they once had. Modernist classics have become, like Classical classics, something you have to live with, digest, and study to appreciate the depths of. Those who’ve done so were among those who leapt to their feet to applaud the Clytemnestra dancers at the work’s conclusion. Those who haven’t were among those who leapt to their feet to leave.