Crosby to present film on legendary dance teacher Graham

Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

Though many came before her, Martha Graham is credited as the mother of modern dance.

Graham’s staggering influence has made her perhaps the most significant dancer in the 20th century, and Chautauqua Dance Circle’s co-founding president Bonnie Crosby trained at her school of contemporary dance in the 1960s.

With that in mind, Crosby wanted to share the film “Martha Graham: A Dancer’s World” at the final CDC program at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

“The dancers who were photographed — most of them — were my teachers, so I just love it,” Crosby said.

Crosby will give a brief history of Graham’s life and impact on dance as an introduction before showing the film narrated by Graham herself.

The documentary was filmed in 1957, when Graham was 63, Crosby said. It invites viewers into her dressing room, classes and rehearsals as her company prepares for a performance.

“You see her in her full regalia, her makeup, her hair,” Crosby said. “She is an incredible creature.”

The film reminds Crosby of her own time studying the Martha Graham Technique from company members at The Juilliard School and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

She said it makes her think of how much she loved taking Graham’s hypnotic class at the Graham studios;  unlike the floors in the Juilliard studios that were covered in rosin and made dancers dirty, it was sleek and clean.

One of Crosby’s teachers and Graham company members, Stuart Hodes, wrote about the maple floors in a 1947 article about Graham’s advanced technique class. The floors were  “clean as a cutting board.”

“For me, I felt as if I could just glide over it,” Crosby said.

Graham, who was born near Pittsburgh, got a late start in dance. She didn’t start training until her late teens, after seeing Ruth St. Denis perform.

She enrolled in an arts-oriented junior college and later to the newly opened Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts where she studied mostly with St. Dennis’ husband, Ted Shawn.

Although she was first inspired by St. Dennis and later studied at Denishawn, Crosby said Graham did not want to do any choreography that resembled Shawn’s and St. Dennis’ in any way.

Instead, she wanted to create her own technique and style based on movement that reflected deep emotions.

“She wasn’t ballet trained; yet she developed a technique that trained so many dancers,” Crosby said.

Graham’s father was a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders and was interested in diagnoses that paid close attention to physical movement.

“This belief in the body’s ability to express its inner senses was pivotal in her desire to dance,” Crosby said.

Her contributions transformed the art form and influenced the course of dance in America, Crosby said.

Graham was known for her contraction and release that used the upper torso and created a new way of moving using the whole body, she said.

“She called the spine the tree of life,” Crosby said. “It became the most important element in dance and the basis for the newer style of movement.”

Many of her students went on to create their own techniques and companies that echoed her influence. She inspired Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, May O’Donnell, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and innumerable others.

She was the first choreographer to regularly employ both Asian- and African-American dancers.

Although celebrated as an artistic genius, Graham was infamous for dancing far past her prime.

“When she became famous, she was already declining in ability to dance and technique,” Crosby said. “But she didn’t want to give up any of her roles.”

It wasn’t until 1969 that Graham retired from the stage.

“She was a philosopher,” Crosby said, “but a very dramatic one.”