Martha Graham's great and simple version of the Joan of Arc legend
Amid all the novelty and hoopla currently setting the dance scene in a swirl, one suddenly touched base again with the essential elements - embodied in this case as ''Seraphic Dialogue.''
The occasion was the opening of the Martha Graham Dance Company at the City Center. On this opening night there was no customary speech by Graham and none of the mystique her appearances usually provoke. Instead, the curtain rose on Noguchi's fabulous sculpture of shimmering steel, which is supposed to house the Saints who preside over Joan of Arc's trial of the soul. We were immediately down to the main business - a great dance.
One reason why ''Seraphic Dialogue'' is a great dance is that it is always down to business. Although elaborately conceived as a production and composed of a lush vocabulary, ''Seraphic Dialogue'' creates the illusion of austere strength because every gesture means something. Even the simple act of a dancer crossing the stage from right to left means something - or so the dance persuades us to believe.
Every moment is pared to the bone, but not every moment is understandable. Why is it, for example, that Saint Michael dances with Joan the Warrior, but not with Joan the Maid or Joan the Martyr? Why does the Maid's solo seem more agitated than exuberant?
These actions don't make literal sense, but it matters not a penny. That a dance, or any work of art, can move one simply by the power of its conviction in itself is one measure of its greatness.
''Seraphic Dialogue'' is about Joan just prior to the moment that the tale has her achieving sainthood. Aided by three Saints who await her enshrinement, Joan reviews her life, represented by the Maid Joan, the Warrior, and the Martyr. Through dance imagery alone we come to understand the pride and fears of the woman. Has her life been worthy? Is she one woman of many parts, or has she driven herself into pieces? Shall she claim responsibility for her life? And who is she anyway? Is she Joan this and Joan that, or is she simply Joan?
By a simple thrust of the arm forward and a slight lift in the back, Joan finally announces herself. Yes, she seems to say, this is who I am and this is what I have done. With this act of recognition, beautifully conveyed by Takako Asakawa, Joan then chooses her fate of sainthood. As the curtain falls, she steps into the sculpture.
The point is that greatness is not bestowed upon Joan, nor can it be given to anyone. One must choose it, as Joan does. ''Seraphic Dialogue'' is ultimately about free will. It's as much for Graham's iconoclastic mind as for her powerful composition that one keeps returning to her dances.
Created in 1955, ''Seraphic Dialogue'' is probably the last of the Graham masterworks. Yet she keeps making new things, as most artists are wont and as any director of a company must. Opening night of the Graham season presented two new pieces, ''Acts of Light'' and ''Dances of the Golden Hall.'' Like much of her recent work, these have more show than substance. (Halston's costumes, not incidentally, are a lot more revealing than the ones Graham designed herself back in the good old days.)
''Dances of the Golden Hall'' looks something like a Folies Bergere act, the major difference being that Graham's chorines don't kick their legs. ''Acts of Light'' begins interestingly with a love duet impressive for its ambiguity of feeling, but most of it is simply a choreographed class in Graham technique.