Canticle for Innocent Comedians by Martha Graham in Three Movements

Apr 11, 2022 | 0 comments

First movement – The program note written by Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Company, with interpolations and elaborations by NB: Martha Graham created Canticle for Innocent Comedians in 1952, taking the title and inspiration from the 1938 poem by Ben Belitt, her old friend and colleague at the Bennington School of the Dance.  The multifaceted work was built around eight virtuosic vignettes for the stars of the Graham Company, each celebrating a different element of nature: Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars and Death.  The work was well received, reputed to have been magical; however, there is only a fragmented record remaining, and it is considered lost. This 2022 Canticle for Innocent Comedians is a reimagining of the original.  The choreography is completely new but draws upon Graham’s stylistic blueprint.  The vignettes have been re-made for today’s Graham stars by eight dance-makers from diverse backgrounds.  Fortunately, Graham’s staging of “Moon” was filmed in the 1950s and is included in the new production. A lyrical, percussive, ruminative score has been created by the great jazz pianist, Jason Moran. The lead choreographer, Emmy and Tony award winner Sonya Tayeh, has designed the connective tissue for this eclectic assemblage – in the words of Belitt’s original poem, “that binds the halves of first and last/To single troth, in time” — for the dancers of the Ensemble, weaving in and out of the sections in a manner reminiscent of a Greek chorus, and resonating with many Graham classics. The costumes by Karen Young are inspired by voluminous, swirling shapes that Graham often used for the costumes she herself designed.  They are fabricated from recycled plastic bottles to add to the conversation about the eternal values of nature — and our responsibilities to the planet.

Second movement – NB in the audience at the City Center, Sunday, April 10th 2022, responding to the thing itself: Settling into my seat after Appalachian Spring and the intermission, reflecting upon the eternal classic that renders up new moods no matter how many times I see it, the joy, yes, and also the conflicts, the ambivalence of the fresh-faced Bride and the attendant distance of the Husbandman; the aloft insouciance of the Preacher surrounded by his adoring, fluttering Followers; and the advice and counsel of the Pioneering Woman who can only give so much, after which the young hopeful couple are left to face the future, their own “Prelude to Action”

& the curtain rises on Canticle, smoke-wreathed, intertwining bodies, an underwater organism in translucent gowns, lit as if from heaven, with music for dance simultaneously dance for music, Jason Moran’s soundscape moving in echoes of Claude Debussy to Henry Cowell to Chick Corea, the sheer instinctive reciprocity of his score with the labored-to-make-it-natural patterns of the dancers, an ensemble of individuals, each voice joining the chorus at one instant then soloing in natural harmony with itself, and reaching arms pull up and out while lunging legs find further terrain, and the time-based art, about ten minutes in, sheds conventional duration to become a trackless, wordless incantation, a ritual only Martha Graham can inspire, and the dancers transmute into being less like persons and more like  essences, and the space around me is so quiet, the silence is expectant, hanging on every paced step, awaiting for the next to fall or elevate…

…until we move into a time of indeterminate time, forget we are breathing, and the masks don’t matter — and Canticle does not so much end as evaporate — and the roof of the theatre blows off with cheers, whoops, and ecstasies — and the dancers, in their last performance of the final show of the run, gaze outward, with mixtures of  surprise, relief, and joy…

Third movement – NB emerges, staggering, onto 55th street wondering if New York City is the hallucination and the works of Martha Graham, and her past and present Company are the realities, the technicolor shower that penetrated my skull persisting as I turn left at Sixth Avenue and begin to walk down town, realizing that in the half hour before the show started, I had dropped into the Museum of Modern Art, and was greeted by a huge yellow sign in the lobby announcing in black lettering that CHANGE IS MODERN

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