The Deborah Zall Project: In the Company of Women

Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, New York City
May 21 and 22, 2015

A Review

Deborah Zall as Mary Tyrone
Photo by Steve Friedman

The Deborah Zall project: “In the Company of Women,” with guest arti­st Kenneth Topping, presented both former and current mem­bers of the Martha Graham Dance Company in an evening of solo and duet dramatic works.

Ms. Zall has been choreographing modern dance works for over 40 years. Her dances reflect the traditions of the Martha Graham tech­nique, focusing on movements grounded in the pelvis, contraction and release, a strong relationship to the floor, coupled with the dra­matic flair, power and emotion.

Some have used the term “old fashion” to describe the works of Ms. Zall, but the impact and the power presented in these historical dance pieces is anything but old fashion. The audience is able to be trans­formed to a time in history when modern dance was emerging in America, spearheaded by the power of women’s voices and the mother of them all—Martha Graham.

Ms. Zall was commissioned by Martha Graham Company mem­bers Blakeley White-McGuire, Lauren Newman, Carrie Elmore-Tall­istsch, Nya Bowman, Kim Jones and Dani Stinger to restage her solos for them. The dance works focus on the psychological journeys of the fallen women characters in these great dramatic works: Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night and Angustias in Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Although these women are all from dif­ferent cultures and social political worlds, the themes of repres­sion, family obligation , suffering and feminine weakness are all examined in these dramatic works, allowing the audience to experi­ence the hu­man condition found in us all through the different worlds of these strong women.

The dances were both technically and dramatically challenging, and all the dancers rose to the challenge, dancing with maturity, power, grace and technical brilliance. I found myself smiling at one point saying, “Yes, Martha Graham is alive in this room tonight!” It was apparent in the presentation of these dances that the blood of Martha Graham is still running in the veins of her company members, current and past.

Amanda, performed by Erica Dankmeyer
Still from video by Nan Melville

The most intriguing work of the evening was the premiere of Ms. Zall’s Miriam, set to music by Stephen Weinstock with video by Farley Whitefield. In this work Ms. Zall is caught between fantasy and reality as she comes face to face with her younger self (Blakeley White-McGuire), and what appears to be a young lover from the past (danced by Whitney V. Hunter). Watching Ms. Zall dance in nothing but pure magic. She dances with a grace, power, sensitivity and conviction that is lacking in many contemporary dance styles today. Each ges­ture, each movement, each look or gaze was executed with a specificity that gave a depth to her character that could be felt by the audience. Zall also dances like she is still in her thirties. She can still battement to the ceiling, then fall to the floor and a breath later spiral up to her feet with grace and power. My jaw was dropped watching her dance as I thought, “Some of my twenty-year-old students cannot do that.” The video pro­jections by Whitefield used in this piece by were done quite well and added a nice contemporary element to Zall’s work.

Auto Manic, choreographed by Kenneth Topping and performed by Gildas Lemonnier, offered the only male solo of the evening. Auto Manic, which explores the impact of information overload, made a nice contrast to the evening’s dramatic works. This upbeat, at times comical, work was refreshing to see in juxtaposition to the dramatic work of Zall. Mr. Topping’s movement vocabulary is a blend of his Martha Graham training coupled with his own unique style, infused with powerful leaps, falls and quirky gestures.

Mariya Dashkina Maddux as Adela
and Blakely White-McGuire as Angustias
Still from video by Nan Melville

Another outstanding performance was Zall’s George Sand danced by Kim Jones. Ms. Jones was memorizing to watch. Her technical brilliance, coupled with her musical­ity and dramatic interpretation, were outstanding. Ms. Jones starts center stage on a bench as she delicately dangles a red rib­bon, which seemed to symbolize the pain that plagues her life. The movements deftly transition from circular calming moments, as Jones gracefully rounds over the bench, to more sharp dramatic leg extensions and falls. Unfortu­nately, the power of the piece was weakened by the use of text. In fact, this happened in more than one work. The de­cision to add spoken word to dance is always a challenge. It is being explored in many companies today, and most of the time the text falls short. The delivery of text in these works was sophomoric at best. Would we ask a trained Shakes­pearian actor to pirouette or jeté across the stage with­out proper training? Then why would we expect a dancer to speak text without being properly coached?

Overall, the production value was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed each piece. The dancers danced with virtuosity, the sets and props were minimal but added to the atmosphere of the works, and the lighting was quite lovely for such a small space. I would like to see more of Zall’s work and would recommend all professors take their theater and dance students to see these great works of art.

—Lea Antolini-Lid
Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance
Centenary College, Hackettstown, New Jersey
May 29, 2015