It is an easy — and a thoroughly useless — thing to be intimidated into silence or critical complicity by a “masterpiece.”

New audiences and critics may be mindful of the meanings an artwork has been given in the past. But if they’re encouraged, by anyone, to stop there — if someone convinces them that they have nothing new of value to say to a masterpiece, or no right to say it (without the appropriate advanced academic degrees) — they are swindled of their birthright, which is this: to determine, for themselves, what meanings an artwork has to them, now.

Why is this a birthright? Meanings — and aesthetics — change in a culture, over time.

Let’s consider the theater for a moment. In a space far less than the 72 years since the premiere of Martha Graham’s Chronicle, a bombastic, declamatory aesthetic once considered the apex of live theater was replaced by something very different. What’s now viewed as the artifice of the elocutionary movement was once valued as something else.

At some tipping point, a gesture on stage that once conveyed the height of drama is read by new audiences as communicating melodrama instead.

Where does the tipping point occur? The dance and theater historians don’t decide. The audiences do, at every single performance. They did it last evening in Page Auditorium. They’re doing it again, tonight.

Martha Graham‘s work has said much to many people over the years. But the all too avoidable question under the circumstances also happens to be the primary critical question:

What does this work say to us, now ? “

Could we have identified Steps in the Streets‘ “clear political message” without Janet Eilber‘s pre-show explication ? ( Come to think of it, can we identify it even with it? ) Would we have known anything of what the work was “about” without those words?

What, if anything, does this suggest about the artwork’s current ability to communicate on its own terms — without someone having to speak for it?

Were there actually three couples — or just three female leads — in Diversions of Angels ? What characterizations differentiated the three women from one another, and just how deep did those characterizations go?

Now, apply the same questions to their male partners — if, that is, we can actually remember them. Weren’t they merely universal donors — interchangeable ciphers? What, if anything, is suggested by the fact that none of the men’s costumes were different — and that the one non-couple male was dressed the same as the others?

What do the qualities of movement in these works communicate to usnot 60 or 70 years ago, but now?

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