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This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on April 19, 2006.

April 19 (Bloomberg) — What did dance icon Mikhail Baryshnikov, actress Judith Ivey and Richard Move, doing his Martha Graham impersonation shtick, have in common last night?

They were barely holding together a gala program that marked, to the day, the 80th anniversary of the Martha Graham Dance Company at New York University’s Skirball Center. The show, with no season attached to it, looked like a desperation measure.

The first segment went just fine. Backed by telling slides, Ivey narrated the legendary American choreographer’s evolution from the picturesque dances of her first mentors, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, to her own stark, ferocious modernism.

Being brief, these works, from the 1920s and ’30s, could be performed in their entirety, and the present company gave them their due. Graham’s breakthrough piece, the 1929 “Heretic,” which pits the vulnerable outsider against an implacable monolithic group, registered as if it had been made yesterday.

Then trouble set in. “Martha,” egoistically, sentimentally and tediously resurrected by Move as a handful of mannerisms, hosted the presentation of excerpts from Graham dances of the 1940s.

Bits and pieces cobbled together from “Appalachian Spring,” shorn of the exquisite Shaker-inspired Noguchi set designed to house it, could indicate only feebly a masterpiece that is perfect in its unity.

Disappointing Move

Worse was to come: Move danced the female part in a duet from the 1965 “Part Real — Part Dream.” The role was originated by a gentle lyric dancer, Matt Turney, whose name went carefully unmentioned so you could assume Move was being Martha.

The gender-bending was not so much a problem as was Move’s obvious deficiency as a dancer. Partnering him, Desmond Richardson, a distinguished veteran of both modern- dance and ballet troupes, was gorgeous, dignified and luckily equipped with a sense of humor.

An excerpt from another important work, “Clytemnestra,” was doctored as well. Wasn’t it enough that Fang-Yi Sheu, the finest dancer the Graham company has nurtured in recent memory, performed Cassandra’s solo?

Apparently not. Ivey, a fine actress (though perhaps not in classical Greek drama), introduced the piece by reciting a passage from Aeschylus. I suspect that a viewer unreceptive to the expressive choreography would not be enlightened by this rendition of the text.

`Maple Leaf Rag’

The program concluded with Graham’s last work, the 1990 “Maple Leaf Rag,” a lightweight affair that looks choreographed by committee. It has Graham making fun of her own, highly wrought style, but with none of the mordant wit with which she did just that in her “Acrobats of God” 30 years earlier.

About 90 minutes after Baryshnikov’s opening endorsement, the proceedings had managed to reveal that the Graham company is in serious distress. Granted, it is no stranger to turmoil. The difficulties have always gone beyond the money troubles common to dance troupes, though the group’s present financial straits are indeed dire.

Early in her career, Graham struggled to gain acceptance for her revolutionary dances. Later, her great middle-period works, based on horrific Greek myths, provided a heady drama of their own. Offstage, Graham’s impassioned and volatile temperament created perpetual cacophony in the company.

Long Decline

Then there was the long and terrible period of decline before Graham’s death in 1991 at the age of 96. In recent years, the company was nearly destroyed by a prolonged legal battle over ownership of the repertory with Graham’s heir, Ron Protas.

Protas had rescued Graham from drink and despair after she had to give up her first love, performing. In the course of the ’90s, he attempted to wrest control of her creations — including the extraordinary technique she’d invented — from the very dancers who had kept the legacy alive in dark times.

Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, co-directors who finally set the company back on a path faithful to Graham’s best intentions, have now been replaced by Janet Eilber. Like them, she is a former Graham star, though not of their artistic caliber.

From the look of the gala performance and her statement in its program, Eilber has newfangled ideas about how to sell Graham to today’s audience. The worry is that in the “contextualizing” she proposes, the dances themselves will be so distorted that Graham’s genius will be betrayed.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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