Ballet Master, Dresden Semperoper Ballet
“I want you to imagine this – you’re wearing thigh high boots and you have a gun underneath your tutu.”
Laura Graham, ballet master at the Semperoper Ballet, was molding the young corps de ballet dancer, Sonia Vinograd, into the role of Odile, the menacing black swan in Swan Lake. In this pas de deux that Vinograd will perform in an upcoming gala, Odile is to seduce a pitifully naive Prince Siegfried, and Graham needed her to be more provocative. “Slow it down, taunt him,” Graham encouraged, “flirrrt with him! He’s taaasty!” She lowered her eyes coyly and sauntered towards Vinograd to demonstrate the manipulative character that she needed from her. And when she wanted more ferocity, she commanded, “Own it! You’re the bitch of the ball! Have a fucking good time!” then fired a deep throated grunt across the studio the moment Vinograd surged into an arabesque.
“Miss Thang,” that’s what she calls all her female dancers, “I need to see the animal in you. The poor prince, you HAVE him, you need to milk that, TEASE him.” Vinograd nodded, but fretted that one of the movements was different from advice she had received from another instructor. “Tell him to put on a tutu and pointe shoes,” Graham responded bluntly, “I don’t care. Grow some balls.” A few days later at rehearsal, Vinograd came back with the most seductive bitch Odile’s ever been, right down to the piercing gaze of her dark-lined, light-coloured eyes. Vinograd will dance a little differently from now on.
Graham left home at the age of 14 to study at the Joffrey Academy. “I was a teenager in New York City, and I worked and partied hard.” she said frankly.
It was the late seventies and early eighties, the city was at its most riotous and unadulterated, buzzing with artists, “before,” Graham says, “it became a money city.” One of her first teachers was the influential David Howard, whose critique, “dance is not a series of poses; it is movement,” underscored his kinesthetic approach to teaching classical ballet. Other teachers included Meredith Baylis, former member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and William Dunbar Griffith. “Everyone was there,” Graham said longingly of New York City at that time, “you could take classes with all the greats – Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille,” she paused, and with a slight grin she cocked her head and confided, “now she was a bitch.” Though I’ve never seen Graham perform, I don’t believe it was just the pedigree of her training that set her apart.
I met Graham for the first time on the evening I arrived in Dresden. After a few minutes at the table in an Indian restaurant, I looked around to make sure she hadn’t been seated elsewhere and that I had missed her when I came in. I later realized that would’ve been impossible. A flurry of her faux-leopard coat and blonde hair foretold her arrival. She dropped into her seat, apologized for being late – if she was late at all – she wasn’t sure. A moment of introductory niceties, and we were already diving into her experiences at Ballett Frankfurt. She dragged a strand of her long blonde hair over her face, mimicking tired dancers traveling on tour and recalled the years dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. She jumped from story to story like bursts of fireworks, never allowing the previous to fade before launching the next. As our meals arrived, hers a vegetarian dish, she recalled performing in Cuba at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. She’s been taking singing lessons for the past four years. She’s a certified rescue level scuba diver. She’s been training for her pilot’s license to fly gliders. And a few years ago, she gave a completely lucid phone interview in the middle of the night, because of time zone differences, and only remembered it partway through the following day. Her spirited giggle echoed through the restaurant.
One evening at Graham’s apartment, we watched the documentary, Ballets Russes. She gushed over her charismatic idols – a band of Russian exiles in the early 20th century with as much talent as slapdash pioneering spirit, who revolutionized modern ballet. “Freddy Franklin, how handsome was he!” Graham exclaimed at the nostalgic, black and white footage interspersed with candid interviews of surviving members. “And Alicia Markova,” Graham giggled, “wasn’t even Russian!” In fact, the British dancer, Alicia Marks, had only adopted the stage name to assimilate with the Russian troupe, which, in turn, changed its name with each management feud, from the Ballet Russes, to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and finally the Original Ballet Russe. The show went on no matter the scandals or financial troubles. Graham knew the movie by heart, like a child who never tired of her favourite bedtime story, whose heroes won over their audience every night.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s extensive tours brought ballet to towns large and small. The pay was low, bus travel was at times more exhausting than the dancing, but Graham had an incredible time. “All that mattered, was I got to perform,” she said, and as principal dancer, she danced all the coveted roles, from swan to peasant-girl to princess. Graham spoke lovingly of her mother, who lived vicariously through Graham’s adventures. “My mom wanted to be a dancer,” Graham said, “she was born in New York City and was accepted by George Balanchine to study at his school. But, her mom didn’t allow her to go at the time. So, she moved with her husband to a big country house in Philadelphia.” Graham’s father, who had never dreamed of traveling so far, celebrated his birthday one year in Beijing attending one of Graham’s performances. She brought a dash of fantasy to her family’s life.
Graham finally joined Ballett Frankfurt as principal dancer, four years after its acclaimed director, William Forsythe, had extended her the invitation upon seeing her perform at a gala. Graham must’ve been worth the wait. “Frankfurt,” Graham said, “now that’s a money city.” But she had little chance to explore it; dancing was demanding enough, particularly in learning Forsythe’s unique dance vocabulary. “Sometimes,” Graham recalled, “we’d be asked to just improv off the material right before we went onstage.” Even today, dancers of the company during that time recall Forsythe’s instructional CD-ROMs of improvisation techniques that he assigned to them, which were all but impossible to watch after long days at rehearsal. Those years were a dark time for Forsythe, who was mourning the death of his wife. “He never stopped working,” Graham remembered solemnly, “he never took a break.” No doubt it took a toll on the whole company but performances never waned. Those years were pivotal to the development of Graham’s artistry.
After a good run at Ballett Frankfurt, Graham retired from dancing due to the stress on her body. She has a condition where her ligaments don’t resist. It gives her a perfect turnout, but it also means her joints can move beyond a safe range of motion; strong muscles compensate to hold her body in the right position. Graham, resilient and habitually self-sufficient, did her own research on the proper conditioning for her body. “I don’t have a typical ballet body,” Graham said, “but I made it work.” She added, “I’ve been away from home since I was 14, I have had to figure out a lot of things myself.”
Graham freelanced for a few years. “Luckily,” she said, “I always had work.” Then, in 2006, she was asked to join the Dresden Semperoper Ballet as ballet master. Graham is one of about 20 former Ballett Frankfurt dancers who are permitted by Forsythe to stage his works. “It’s nothing like performing,” Graham confessed, “but my job now is to pass on the art form, and to make the dancers look their best.” It doesn’t mean she has receded into the background. Each morning, she waltzes into the Semperoper and delivers exuberant ‘hellos’ to the reception desk; a burst of extroverted Americana which Germans love but can never quite emulate.
“She’s a good soul,” expressed one of the pianists of the ballet. In the corridor of the Semperoper rehearsal building, Graham giggled with a dancer over a handsome musician, new to the orchestra, who asked them for directions – the poor boy was on the wrong floor. She then snapped back into a directive tone to advise the dancer about caring for his knee injury. “I joke a lot with the dancers” Graham says, “because I want to bring out their spirit and enthusiasm, but I’m also very disciplined; I take dance very seriously.” Drawing from her own experience, Graham observed, “if you have only learned ballet, and your body, mind and musicality are not fully trained, it’s like only learning math in academic school.” Dancers are fond of her; one commented, “She explains the movement in the steps, and, most importantly, reminds us to breathe!” Another dancer articulated further, “she talks a lot, which I wasn’t used to. But then you listen to her, and she has some very important things to say. I really respect her and her qualifications.” Dancers feel empowered that Graham encourages their individuality. “I believe in ‘critical thinking’ in dance. Dancers are intelligent, and they need to be given opportunities to think for themselves, to create and re-create themselves,” Graham asserted. “When they do, they are more present and aware, they show up with ideas to work with, and this is very important for them to become better artists.” She’s critical of schools who stifle this artistic voice, which she describes, create “robots going on automatic”. She always reminds her professional dancers, “you’re a human being first before you’re a dancer.”
Graham enthusiastically showed me around Dresden’s town center. She’s nicknamed it ‘Dresneyland’, since most of buildings had only been rebuilt in the recent decades, but are modeled after the baroque-styled originals that were destroyed in the Second World War. The Frauenkirche is one such architectural marvel that took 11 years of meticulous reconstruction to replicate the 1727 dated original. Where retrievable, the original stones were returned to their rightful positions in the edifice. Over half of the costs were raised from ardent individuals for whom the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche has, literally, set their memories in stone. Graham is passionate about the stories in historical buildings and also the miracles of their survival – static relics of transient time. Nearby, wire fences cordoned off an archeological dig that exposed a grid-like pattern of walls, likely of Roman structures. “Ooh,” Graham gasped, “look at that! I wonder what that was, maybe that was the kitchen, and that room must’ve been…” and she began telling me of the theories she had read.
The Lingner Castle is just outside Dresden and overlooks the meandering Elbe River. Thick blankets over our laps and the autumn sun’s weak rays were just warm enough to keep Graham and I from having our lunch indoors. “I don’t have a home to go back to.” Graham reflected. The home she refers to is that idea that we all belong to a tangible place, an idea that brings us a feeling of comfort and security. Her mom passed away recently, and it affected her more deeply than she had realized at the time. She knew no other way to handle it but to distract herself through work. Almost immediately after her loss, she went to teach a workshop of Forsythe repertory at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; she recalls that she only left the hotel room to go to the studio to teach. Graham and her dad speak nightly by phone, and they keep up to date on each other’s lives, but she has never lived at home since she left for New York City. Her brothers, seven and nine years older than her, remain distant. Finally, she took five weeks off to do something she hadn’t done in a long time, rest. It was then when she did a lot of sightseeing in Dresden, uncovering its past as she pondered her own. However, unlike the Frauenkirche, our identity is not a static monument. Rather, we are continuously constructed by our experiences.
Back at the studios in the Semperoper, a dancer from the Paris Opera Ballet had come to Dresden for the weekend to receive coaching from Graham. The dancer needed to shed her Paris Opera discipline for a Forsythe piece she will perform at the upcoming in-company competition. Graham sculpted her methodically, firing off corrections as quickly as she spotted them – hip placement, weight transfer, breath, eye contact, ribs, the angle of the shoulders – Graham is more revealing than a mirror, spotting what dancers can’t see in themselves. For a movement that required the dancer to twist her upper body and bring the arm behind, Graham asked the dancer to focus on her rear hand. She told her to “brush the curtain behind you”. When that didn’t work, she escalated it to “smack the person behind you!” Graham has a way of getting through to dancers.
In Graham’s apartment, Erte, her 19 year old cat who has moved with her to three countries, lounged lazily in her garden. After her nightly call with her dad, Graham began telling me about the next Forsythe piece, Impressing the Czar, that she was preparing for the Semperoper Ballet, to be performed in 18 months. “We start planning early,” Graham assured me, then answered the phone. “Well, speak of the devil,” Graham said. It was Forsythe himself on the other end, and he was packing for his flight to watch his company perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “You should be resting,” Graham reminded him, though she knows he won’t listen. “Well then,” she continued, “you gotta Harry Potter that suitcase, just ‘shoo-bee-doo’ it then get some rest before your flight.” After so many years working together, Graham and Forsythe seemed to have their own language between them. “You know, you should come see these dancers at the Semperoper next time you’re in Dresden, just putting a fly in your ear,” Graham encouraged, then they chatted about his schedule of upcoming works.
After Graham put down the phone, she brought out a stack of thick binders. Each was filled to the brim with papers of choreographic notation of the Forsythe choreographies that she has staged. She had painstakingly written all of these by hand, done in the evenings after rehearsals over the last years. Those marks and dashes of choreography that took Graham a lifetime of training and artistry to interpret, lay oddly immobile, confined to their positions on paper, as if waiting for dancers breathe life into them again. The binders were as heavy as bricks, building up along her shelf.