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Left wanting more: The Third from the Left

 

Theater Review

by Elizabeth Bachner

The third place winner of Stage and Cinema's 2008 Theater Review Writing Contest

 

The five Martha Graham dancers in Jean Colonomos’s The Third from the Left don’t see their art as merely a performance or a career or even a calling—they are seeking a total “transformation of the soul.”  Colonomos, who was a Martha Graham dancer during the time that the play takes place (May through August, 1964), explores Graham’s work, modern dance, sixties womanhood and the frustrating physical and intellectual challenges involved in preparing the body to dance a difficult piece from an insider’s perspective.  The dancers are working on Graham’s notoriously agonizing “Primitive Mysteries”, and several of them have to radically change their bodies and move outside of their comfort zones to do it.  Little dance is shown, and no other character’s visit the dancers’ intense inner world.  The action takes place with no sets or costume changes—just five dancers clad in black.

 

            Visually, the staging shows the extent to which Graham’s kind of dance is ensemble work, but with an element of intense individual practice—it’s a collaboration, but also a private and internal ritual.  From the moment the audience enters the theater to find our seats, the dancers are already onstage, calmly stretching, ignoring us, locked into the time and space of their training.  It effectively pulls us into their world and thoughts.

 

            That the five women sometimes chant in unison at key moments of the play is a big flaw, though not a fatal one.  It’s a device used to show how sometimes they share thoughts and experiences, but it comes off as jarring, amateurish, stagy and a bit embarrassing.  The women’s monologues and dialogues are more organic and convincing.

 

            Two of the performances truly stand out.  Paula Christensen is magnetic as Carmen Arroyo, a talented dancer from a flashy, intellectual family who has lost a child and is compensating by trying to enjoy herself through casual affairs.  She’s funny and irreverent, but with a depth and sadness that are heartbreaking.  Of the five actors, Christensen is the only one who made me really feel the agony and rewards of the physical element of the dancing.  Even in still scenes, there’s something volcanic about the way she uses her body, as if energy is rising up from somewhere deep within.  This act of finding transformation deep within the body itself was key to Graham (and there are some quips in The Third from the Left about using the vagina and awakening kundalini), but there isn’t quite enough bodywork in this production.  Christensen’s Carmen seems like she’s dancing even when she’s not.

 

            As Amanda Cummings, a married woman who has disappointed her husband by developing a sudden and irrepressible passion for dance and for Martha Graham, Jill Marie Burke gives a mature, layered performance.  When the other dancers are fantasizing about the solos they’d most like to perform, Amanda says that she’s happy just being “the third from the left.”  Of the five dancers, her transformation is the most total.  She starts out awed by her luck and her passion for Martha Graham, but not even sure she has a right to be there.  This is an intelligent, grown-up woman who sheds her other life roles like snakeskin to change into a dancer, her real self.

 

            The Third from the Left weaves in accounts of Martha’s imposing personality, her life story and her fame, and also gives a subtle sense of the growing pains that modern women faced in the sixties—changing marriages and sexual ideals, family obligations and new independence. 

 

            The play’s deepest flaw is that there isn’t more full-on dance.  At the climax, the dancers talk and walk us through their final performance, but we don’t really see what they end up doing with their bodies, what all that struggle was about, what they end up finding.  The Third from the Left effectively gets inside the dancer’s inner lives, but so far inside that the most alluring element of the story stays submerged—the dance itself.

 

 

 
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