Killer instinct

The Graham company gives Clytemnestra a new life.

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ANGER MANAGEMENT Fang-Yi Sheu plays Clytemnestra.

ANGER MANAGEMENT Fang-Yi Sheu plays Clytemnestra. Photograph: Costas

In Greek literature, Clytemnestra is a reviled figure: the ruthless murderer of her husband, Agamemnon, and his mistress, the Trojan princess Cassandra. But Martha Graham saw things a bit differently. (Agamemnon did, after all, sacrifice Iphigenia, their daughter, in exchange for fair winds to Troy.) In her full-length Clytemnestra, Graham transforms the complex character into a protagonist. Examining her life through flashbacks, she first appears defending her actions to Hades, king of the underworld. "It's as if she says, 'I'm not the only bad guy here—look at what everybody else did!'?" explains Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. "That's the crux of Martha's trajectory. It's got so much to do in terms of intellectual and dramatic study, and then the choreography—it's the last great work that Martha did. She never matched it. And you know me—I'm kind of a fan."

In Clytemnestra, starring the extraordinary Fang-Yi Sheu, Eilber—a former Graham dancer who performed the role of Cassandra—has made a few changes to the dance, which premiered in 1958. Along with adding supertitles to provide context, she has restored the original color palette to its former glory; in Eilber's mind, Clytemnestra, which includes sets and props by Isamu Noguchi, is not only a superb illustration of dance-drama, but a glittering example of American modernism. "I was really aware of a reappreciation and interest in the '50s," she says. "People are looking back at this subculture. You think of the '50s as Eisenhower and the idea that everything's happy and wonderful, but there was a counterculture going on. I really believe that Clytemnestra is a precursor to the feminist movement of the '60s."

In the '70s, the dance was televised for PBS and extensively edited by Graham; additionally, the costumes, originally designed by Graham and assisted by Helen McGehee, were updated by Halston, the choreographer's frequent collaborator in the latter part of her life. "They continued to Halstonize it for our productions in the '80s," Eilber says. "Martha colorized it. Helen of Troy suddenly had a red costume and Cassandra was in purple. There was a lot more gold onstage, and I'm not saying that for the '80s that was a bad thing, but she wasn't far enough away from her original intention with the palette, she didn't have enough distance to see it as a master work of modernism. She was still fiddling with it. Fifty years later, we can see how powerful the original was." The palette is now mainly black, white, gold and red. Additionally, Eilber, who brought several former dancers into the studio (Linda Hodes, Peter Sparling, Donlin Foreman, Peggy Lyman, Marni Thomas and Denise Vale, the company's senior artistic associate), has restored some of the cuts that Graham made for television, including a spear-crossing scene in the first act.

Along with a return to the original design, Eilber—as she has done in recent seasons—has worked with the dancers to pinpoint the essence of the movement. "That's what is so fantastic about the company right now," she says. "They are learning to trust stillness and the simplicity of the movement and to let it read: That's how you make it modern today. If it's decorated, if you embellish it with movement and eye-rolling and scenery chewing, then it becomes of the era and it's just not pure. Clytemnestra, in general, has just been great for the company to have to do such intense dramatic roles—they've learned a lot about acting and combining the Graham physicality with the emotional projection, so there's been a lot of change. I'm thrilled that this new generation has gotten a chance to be on the stage with Fang-Yi because she sets the bar high. Suddenly, you realize what all is possible."

Sheu, in fact, returned to the company after forming her own group to dance Clytemnestra, a role Graham created for herself. As Eilber notes, laughing, "If you're going to cap your career at Graham with anything, this is the one to do it with." For Sheu, the role is her most challenging to date. "It's not just the physical challenge," she says. "Part of you has to dig inside of yourself so deeply that you believe you are Clytemnestra. I always feel that if I cannot convince myself I would do the things I'm doing, there's no way I can convince the audience. I don't know if it's not enough for the audience, but I definitely understand it's not enough for me. I have to trust my body myself, completely. I cannot have any doubt when I am onstage. I think, Whatever I do, I am Clytemnestra."

Martha Graham Dance Company is at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts Tue 12--May 16.

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