Clytemnestra, a full-length dance drama by choreographer and dancer Martha Graham originally produced in 1958, was revived earlier this month at (New York) City Ballet. Robert Gottlieb, who saw the first production, reviews the current version in the New York Times:
IS Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra one of her masterpieces, or is it Hollywood kitsch? People have been arguing about this for half a century, but I’m not the person to settle the question: As it happens, this full-evening version of the Oresteia was the first work of Graham’s I ever saw, back in 1958, its first season, (I’d spent the previous 10 years soaking up ballet), and I was overwhelmed.
Clytemnestra was a revelation—of a great imaginative genius at work, a startling new (to me) dance language, and a dance company at its zenith. I didn’t know Graham’s previous Greek dramas—Cave of the Heart, Night Journey, Errand into the Maze, all of them more compressed, more charged. I only knew I had come upon something awe-inspiring.
Since then, we’ve had to witness the tragedy of Graham’s collapse, both as a choreographer and as a responsible guardian of her own work. She herself wore out, although even during the sad spectacle of the end of her dancing career (when she was well into her 70s), she could lift her arm and thrill you. The company, alas, drastically deteriorated when she dismissed all her chief disciples, and her later works were pathetic shadows of her great accomplishments.
Despite certain vacant passages and strained effects, Clytemnestra still seems to me a landmark achievement, its architecture valid and its force undeniable. It’s been meticulously re-created (it was last seen 15 years ago), so that Graham’s remarkable reimagination of the material unfolds seamlessly and effectively. But then do we ever get over a first love?
The current dancers have achieved a remarkable level of proficiency, and have been carefully prepared. None of them is of the stature of the original cast (Maurizio Nardi, for instance, is a credible Aegisthus, but he’s no Paul Taylor). I particularly admired Blakeley White-McGuire as a flaming Cassandra and Tadej Brdnik’s tormented Orestes. Tall, severe Jennifer DePalo was an involving Electra, though radically different from Helen McGehee’s ferocious little attack animal.
The key role, of course, is Clytemnestra herself, and the performance of the remarkable Fang-Yi Sheu demonstrates the crucial change that’s come over the Graham repertory. Sheu has been the finest Graham interpreter of recent years, but although she gives us an honest and careful performance, she simply lacks the power, the rage, the passion, the intensity of Graham herself. Throughout the excellent company, in fact, it’s this diminished level of expressivity that fatally marks the difference between the way they dance and what I fell in love with in 1958. Graham, however, is not alone in this. Take today’s New York City Ballet: It’s suffered the same sea change. Wherever you look, in fact, technique is in, feeling is out.
And here's another review, with more description of the dance:
The story here begins in the underworld, with Clytemnestra already dead, and is told in flashbacks. All is seen through her eyes, as she remembers the various events [from her marriage to Orestes' acquittal]. Opera-like supertitles (shown on a screen above the stage) tell you what is going on, which part of the story you’re seeing and when. There was a lot of animosity to the supertitles, which I know from attending a press conference last Thursday are a new addition. The company felt not enough people today were familiar with the story.