Paula Lobo for The New York Times
Fabián Barba performing a Mary Wigman solo at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Barba sought to recreate the ambience of Wigman’s 1930 tour of the United States.
In 1930 Mary Wigman, one of the innovators of expressionist modern dance in Germany, toured the United States. In 1973 she died, and on Friday at the Museum of Modern Art she returned.
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Or, it might be most accurate to say, the dancer Fabián Barba tried to bring the small audience at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater back to that 1930 Wigman tour by performing nine short Wigman solos as Wigman. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and each seat held a vintage-style printed program. After each selection, none much longer than five minutes, Mr. Barba gave a different bow, and then came a pause, not much shorter than five minutes, during which he left the stage to change costume. Costumes were very important here.
Since only a few of the dances were preserved on film, Mr. Barba has had to reconstruct or reimagine the works using photographs and written descriptions. It was a mark of his achievement that the nine solos seemed convincingly of a piece. The measured pacing, the slight acceleration, the circling patterns and sculptural gestures and resonant final poses all looked like the products of the same choreographic mind.
His thin limbs delineated the relationship between a curved spine and curved arms. His attention to detail drew the eye to the press of fingertips and the bottoms of palms in an attitude of prayer. His control clarified sudden stops and quick shifts of position.
In a thin-strapped dress Mr. Barba wafted his wrists girlishly. With his face and body shrouded in red fabric, tight around the neck like a napkin ghost, or wielding a pole within his costume to make it billow, he suggested what Martha Graham might have seen in Wigman. And the costuming raised other questions of history and authenticity. Did Wigman actually wear, as Mr. Barba did, a hoop dress of see-through mesh? Through that mesh Mr. Barba’s hairy chest was visible, but gender bending did not seem to be the point. His fidelity laid bare the monotony in Wigman’s work. His precision underlined its foursquare connection to the music, whether repetitive piano figures or gongs.
While Mr. Barba’s performance was true to the subjugation of ego of which Wigman wrote, it lacked the intensity and charisma that so impressed those who wrote about her. Though this lack was likely inevitable, it may also have been by design. The bows and the ritualized, unrequested encores gave a sense of distance, as though the live performance were fragments of old film carefully spliced together. History moved, but the dead stayed dead.
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