“Óye Oyá”

ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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Musical tempest on a small island

Milagro Theatre negotiates the troubled waters of Cuban identity in a new musical

The waters of a troubled past are explored in Óye Oyá, a buoyant new Cuban musical presented in Spanish with English supertitles at Milagro Theatre. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest, it has a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, airline pilot by day and prolific and acclaimed composer by night, whose music and lyrics for the show create a moving soundscape to explore modern-day Cuban identity conflict.

The roots of that conflict run deep, in politics, in history, and in this show. The island of Cuba has triggered anxiety on the international political stage for decades. The early 1990s, when Óye Oyá takes place, saw a new rush of worry as Cuba’s biggest Cold War backer, the U.S.S.R., was falling apart. You may remember news flashes of refugees on handmade rafts of plastic, wood, and tarp desperately attempting the passage to Florida. For some the romance of the Cuban Revolution and its bearded heroes remained. Yet there was also a sharp divide between Cuban-American historical memory and that of people who remained on the homeland. Fidel Castro’s recent death sparked tough debate on his legacy, making way once again for a nervous tick about Cuba’s future. While the country is opening its doors for business, refugees who were burned by Castro’s government are unwavering in their conservatism. The majority of them are Republicans, wanting a strong man to hand down sentencing on the Cuban government and uphold the embargo until the island nation changes politics.

Cuban tempest: a little rhythm, a little dance, a little romance. Photo: Russell J Young

Cuba’s many aspects are best felt in its music. Óye Oyá delivers a sample of the intricate rhythms and melodies that captivate hearts and pull feet onto dance floors, the mysterious arresting passion and ache that is born in Cuban song.

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