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Martha Graham Dance Company revives and reconstructs classic ‘Clytemnestra’

Last night I watched the televised 1979 Dance in America version of Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra” (the work originally premiered in 1958) in preparation for this week’s restaged and reconstructed performance of the piece by the Martha Graham Dance Company at Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota.

The 1979 version is sometimes, rather humorously, referred to as the “Halston version,” as the fashion designer created the rather scanty costumes — for the men, anyway (Graham certainly liked her men with buttocks bared) — out of metallic fabrics. So there were the robust men in gold lamé thongs, with the women (most of them anyway) in floor-length dresses swishing or conforming to their tensile moves.

The choreography was classic Graham: the absolute conformity in unison sections; the springy jumps — several in a row — without preparation and from a standing position; the contracted torsos, prostrated bodies and clawed or cupped hands; the lashing arms; the rigid, angular, dramatically demonstrative poses; the strength, precision and utter clarity of each rigorously executed movement. For a snippet, go here.

The piece is also full of phallic props (all by Isamu Noguchi) and sexual innuendoes. The choreography doesn’t really flow; instead, bodies move tautly from gesture to position. And oh, the wronged, vengeful women and the havoc they wreak. Graham’s “Clytemnestra” is, after all, an impressionist dance drama — and at almost two hours long, it was Graham’s only full-length work — about the Queen of Mycenae and the doomed House of Atreus.

The players are all here — including Agamemnon, Electra, Orestes, Cassandra, Iphigenia and Helen of Troy — rendered as Graham’s singular kinetic sculpture. The reconstructed version presented Thursday night includes the original costumes designed by Graham and Helen McGehee (the original Electra) and — gasp! — supertitles. Apparently there’s concern about whether today’s audiences can grasp the intricacies of classic mythology rendered through iconographic modern dance. Sigh.

Still, this is a rare dance event not to be missed. And how different are the goings on in “Clytemnestra” from today’s doings? Your married sister runs off with another guy, starting a war your husband feels compelled to fight, sacrificing your favorite daughter to the gods for favorable weather. Rape and pillage ensues. You take a lover. When the husband returns, he brings with him a pretty young thing, who is just a bit crazy, to live with you in your house. Meanwhile, your other two children plot to overthrow you and acquire your power and wealth.  Sick of the abuse, you kill your husband. Your children kill you.

Graham, in her inimitable way, tells this timeless story of terror, anguish and revenge much better.

“Clytemnestra,” the Martha Graham Dance Company. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Tickets $33-$65.

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