Today’s cougars have nothing on Martha Graham’s bulls.
The daughter of Pasiphea, the queen who was forced to mate with a bull and bear the Minotaur, Phaedra has a thing for her ripped stepson, Hippolytus. It doesn’t end well.
Terrifically restored to the Graham company repertory after more than a decade, “Phaedra” is part of “Myth and Transformation,” running through Sunday at the Joyce Theater.
On the spare stage, Graham’s legendary designer, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, provided a colorful totem pole-like sarcophagus for Hippolytus, a white-and-blood-red heart shell for the goddess Aphrodite and, at center, a jagged golden chaise for the heroine (Blakeley White-McGuire).
Lying there, her little bull’s horns curling up like sex antennae, Phaedra is anguished with lust for Hippolytus (Maurizio Nardi). He’s exposed section by section, like cuts on a beef chart, through slats in the vertical sculpture. It’s physiognomic torture.
Yet it’s not Hippolytus driving poor Phaedra crazy so much as the competing goddesses yanking her chain: Aphrodite (Xiaochuan Xie), the hot one, and Artemis (Mariya Dashkina Maddux), the serene huntress Hippolytus prefers. Head-tripping for sexual control is the real battle going on in “Phaedra.”
There’s a late, lewd appearance by mom herself, Pasiphea (PeiJu Chien-Pott), held sinuously above the action by bullish admirers back from the hunt with Phaedra’s husband, Theseus (Tadej Brdnik).
It certainly wasn’t beyond Graham to offer up beautiful bodies -- especially male ones in glittery briefs -- as eternal enticements. But technically accomplished as the present company may be, it’s hard to divine intense pelvic stirrings in women dancers as scarily skinny and sexless as the three principal dancers here.
Instead, dominance, not lust, is revealed as the preoccupation here. Anyone expecting Graham’s work to seem diminished or dated will find “Phaedra” a revelation. It remains a work of searching power, about power.
The second dance on the opening night program, Richard Move’s 2002 “The Show (Achilles Heels),” did feel like a cultural relic from the not-too-distant past.
Taking another chapter from Greek mythology, “The Show” presents the story of Achilles and the Trojan War as a reality-TV-cum-quiz-show series, complete with annoying narrator (Brdnik), a statuesque Helen of Troy (Katherine Crockett) and the Mick Jagger-ish hero (Lloyd Mayor) answering dopey questions.
Arto Lindsay’s rock score is gilded with songs by Blondie, and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Deborah Harry provided some voice-over narration.
Choreographer Move is a celebrated Graham impersonator known for parodying Martha’s angsty characters for comic effect. I guess it seemed like a smart idea to pair “The Show” with “Phaedra.” The wisdom eluded me.
“Myth and Transformation” includes many Graham classics including “Errand Into the Maze,” “Cave of the Heart” and “Night Journey.” Performances continue through March 3 at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave. Information: +1-212-242-0800; http://www.joyce.org. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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