Last updated: March 16, 2012 2:58 pm

Martha Graham Company, Joyce Theater, New York

A revived 1939 Martha Graham curiosity was meant to be funny – but prompted only the occasional smile

On the opening night of the venerable troupe’s 85th season, Woody Allen was sitting across the aisle from me – a reminder that this grande dame of modern dance is ripe for parody, with her Greek themes, tragic queens, orgasmic shudders, dumb brutish men and panoply of phallic props. But the 1939 curiosity Every Soul Is a Circus – revived for the first time in 25 years (on two of the three programmes this week) – means to be funny.

Graham’s dances have often glimmered with humour, usually where moral rigidity or sexual frigidity are concerned. In Night Journey, the righteous Tiresias uses his cane as a pogo stick; in Appalachian Spring the bonneted maidens with hands clasped over their crotches hop after their Preacher like bunnies. Sustained comedy, however, is rare.

Every Soul describes “the circus of a foolish woman’s life”. This Empress of the Arena (Blakely White-McGuire this night) lounged around doing headstands until the Ring Master (originally Graham’s young lover Erick Hawkins, who tore up her life; now versatile veteran Tadej Brdnik) emerged to whisk his cane through the air until it whistled. She admired his power and then let him use her for a magic trick in which he conceals her beneath a sheet like so many Graham heroines, then removes it to reveal . . .  her again (oops). The Empress also adores the Acrobat, her loyal Jack in the Box (originally Merce Cunningham, with his legendary jump; now the bounding Lloyd Knight).

Nothing really happens in Every Soul – no one wins the girl. The dance is antic, not dramatic: a loose weave of “episodes and interludes”. But even Graham’s serious works do not unfold straightforwardly. They move like her principal preoccupation, desire, in fits and starts with spells of dream. In Night Journey, Oedipus and Jocasta (an incandescent Katherine Crockett, not to be missed) communicate by hiccups of the hips and angles of the arms. We peer in on their lovers’ language, fascinated by its primitive mystery. Enigma is only a problem in Every Soul because it wants to be a comedy. Wit works by expectation, which it thwarts so we may laugh. Every Soul Is a Circus prompted a smile now and then, but for anything more I would have needed a compass.

3 stars

www.joyce.org

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