The pain be­hind Noguchi de­signs

Famed sculp­tor’s cre­ations for Martha Gra­ham can be ec­stasy for au­di­ences, but they’re agony for dancers

The Washington Post Sunday - - DANCE - BY SARAH L. KAUF­MAN

With just a few lines and shapes, Isamu Noguchi’s set de­sign for Martha Gra­ham’s bal­let “Ap­palachian Spring” sug­gests a land­scape and a way of life. The out­line of a house, de­scribed with soar­ing beams, is clean and se­vere. The only fur­nish­ings are a nar­row bench and a rock­ing chair. The chair faces to­ward the imag­i­nary out­doors like a throne, from which the mas­ter of this or­derly do­main can sur­vey the fron­tier.

In this bal­let, Noguchi, an ac­claimed sculp­tor and long­time Gra­ham col­lab­o­ra­tor, of­fers the au­di­ence a vi­sion of ex­pan­sive, un­clut­tered free­dom.

But for the dancers? His de­sign is a pain.

Janet Eil­ber, the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany, re­mem­bers when Gra­ham first cast her in the role of the Pi­o­neer Woman in “Ap­palachian Spring,” Gra­ham’s 1944 mas­ter­piece. It was a great honor, calling for poise, ma­tu­rity — and thighs of steel. Wear­ing a long, sweep­ing dress, the Pi­o­neer Woman is a com­mand­ing char­ac­ter with many dra­matic mo­ments. In one of them, she slowly set­tles her­self onto that slen­der Noguchi rock­ing chair like a queen, com­pletely at ease.

Even though her quads are burn­ing.

“It’s all about the work of the thighs,” Eil­ber says. “You’ve got this huge skirt on, and as you’re low­er­ing your body, you’re just hop­ing your sit­ting bones are go­ing to land. Your thighs have got to be so sure and steady while you’re mak­ing sure you’re go­ing to find it.”

Once she has made con­tact with Noguchi’s cru­elly skinny chair, the Pi­o­neer Woman “sits” only in the vaguest way. She’s cer­tainly not at rest, and nei­ther are the four young women in the role of the Fol­low­ers, once they perch them­selves on Noguchi’s bench.

“That lit­tle bench is tiny, eight inches wide at most, and it’s on a slant,” Eil­ber says. “They are hold­ing them­selves up with their thigh power.”

This is the dark side of those beau­ti­ful Noguchi de­signs: From the dancers’ perspective, they’re kind of a nightmare.

A per­for­mance on March 3, in con­junc­tion with the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum’s ex­hibit “Isamu Noguchi, Ar­chaic/Mod­ern,” will ex­plore the dancers’ view of Noguchi’s works. The Gra­ham com­pany will per­form “Cave of the Heart,” with mu­sic by Sa­muel Barber, in the Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum’s au­di­to­rium, and Eil­ber will talk about what it’s like to in­ter­act with the de­signs Noguchi made for that bal­let. The event is sold out, but ticket seek­ers can take in an­other Noguchi col­lab­o­ra­tion on April 8, at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity. That en­gage­ment will fea­ture the sec­ond act of Gra­ham’s “Clytemnes­tra,” with Noguchi’s spears, throne, bier and other props; also on the pro­gram are Gra­ham’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and two works by other chore­og­ra­phers.

The two artists came from dif­fer­ent back­grounds — Noguchi, a Ja­panese Amer­i­can, spent his child­hood in Ja­pan; Gra­ham had a strict Pu­ri­tan up­bring­ing in Penn­syl­va­nia. But they shared a fas­ci­na­tion with or­ganic shapes, mythic themes and the emo­tional power of strict sim­plic­ity. Even be­fore she started work­ing with Noguchi, Gra­ham was ex­plor­ing space the way a sculp­tor does, as a vol­ume to be shaped through an emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful ar­range­ment of bod­ies, with dancers in ge­o­met­ri­cal for­ma­tions or el­e­vated on ramps.

In the 1920s, Gra­ham com­mis­sioned Noguchi to sculpt a bust of her­self — he was mak­ing his liv­ing at the time do­ing such celebrity por­traits — then she launched their part­ner­ship in 1935 with her solo “Fron­tier.” Noguchi cre­ated an exquisitely sim­ple set for it from a bit of fenc­ing and two ropes, stretch­ing out and up to sug­gest the empty, in­fi­nite sky of the prairie.

“It’s not the rope that is the sculp­ture,” he once said of that work, “but it is the space which it cre­ates that is the sculp­ture.”

In all, he made sets and props for about 20 Gra­ham dances.

But Noguchi’s de­signs don’t sim­ply sit there and look great. The dancers must en­gage with them — rolling around on his tilted, sharp-edged bed (in “Phae­dra”), climb­ing onto his rigid mini-land­scapes (in “Cave”), and wear­ing his bulky, un­yield­ing ac­ces­sories.

In “Er­rand Into the Maze,” for in­stance, the male char­ac­ter known as the Crea­ture of Fear wears a large curved horn on his head and bears a long staff like a yoke across his shoul­ders. That staff gives rise to some in­ter­est­ing part­ner­ing, Eil­ber says, even if it takes a cou­ple of months of re­hearsal to fig­ure out how to wield it without killing any­one.

“It’s some­thing to be tamed,” she says. “It’s like a part­ner on the stage you have to work with.”

Among the 74 works on dis­play in the Smith­so­nian’s Noguchi ex­hibit (which will close March 19) is the Spi­der Dress that Noguchi cre­ated for the char­ac­ter of Medea in Gra­ham’s “Cave of the Heart,” from 1946. The bal­let dis­tills the Greek leg­end of Medea into a few taut scenes. At the end, once Medea (Gra­ham’s role, orig­i­nally) has killed and de­stroyed those around her, she low­ers Noguchi’s “dress” over her body. It’s more of a cage than a gar­ment; crafted from brass wire, it has long, spiny blades that wave and shim­mer. Medea looks like she’s wear­ing an arse­nal of knives.

Then she climbs on top of the Noguchi sculp­ture that has been dubbed the “aorta,” be­cause it re­sem­bles a sliced-open heart with the stumps of four ar­ter­ies. In this cli­mac­tic mo­ment, Medea has to af­fix the thin legs of her brass cage on each of the aorta’s stumps, which means con­trol­ling the del­i­cate, shiv­er­ing brass while dis­guis­ing the struggle. God for­bid one side of the cage should slip off its lit­tle pedestal, or the long gown Medea is wear­ing un­der­neath gets caught around the metal legs.

Those legs “are very bendy and very will­ful,” Eil­ber says. “There’s a cer­tain way to do it. Martha used to scoot her body down in a snakey way to set the front legs, and then she’d look be­hind her in a snakey way to set down the back legs. It all has to be fi­nessed.”

Yet even with the dif­fi­cul­ties, or maybe be­cause of them, work­ing along­side those bold, eye-catch­ing Noguchi pieces forces the dancers to be big and bold on­stage, too, Eil­ber says. Oth­er­wise, the de­signs lose their emo­tional power.

“To make them art, as part of a Gra­ham chore­og­ra­phy, they have to be used in the most spe­cific and ex­tra­or­di­nary ways, and you can’t do that without be­ing in­ven­tive and re­hears­ing very care­fully.”

Of course, Gra­ham and Noguchi aren’t the only pair­ing of great artists in the dance world. Robert Rauschen­berg fre­quently cre­ated sets for Merce Cun­ning­ham (a for­mer Gra­ham dancer). Noguchi worked with other chore­og­ra­phers be­sides Gra­ham, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Balan­chine. But the Gra­ham-Noguchi pair­ing was unique.

“They were the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies,” Eil­ber says. “They broke the mold . . . re­ject­ing the dec­o­ra­tive arts of Europe and find­ing an Amer­i­can art form that was plain­spo­ken and stripped down, with stark, mod­ern ways of speak­ing as a dancer and as a sculp­tor.” sarah.kauf­man@wash­post.com

The ex­hi­bi­tion “Isamu Noguchi, Ar­chaic/Mod­ern” is at the Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, Eighth and F streets NW, through March 19. The Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pany’s “Cave of the Heart” per­for­mance at 7 p.m. on March 3 is sold out. The com­pany will per­form a dif­fer­ent pro­gram at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity’s Cen­ter for the Arts at 8 p.m. on April 28. Call tick­ets.com at 888-945-2468 or visit cfa.gmu.edu/cal­en­dar/2304.

BRIGID PIERCE/MARTHA GRA­HAM DANCE COM­PANY

Les­lie An­drea Wil­liams and Ab­diel Ja­cob­son per­form in Martha Gra­ham’s “Cave of the Heart,” a bal­let for which the sculp­tor Isamu Noguchi cre­ated de­signs.

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