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News, 4-22: BERTRAM ROSS, 1920 - 2003
Martha's Saint Michael Flies with the Angels
"Verily, Martha did
the impossible: she produced onstage a sense of beatitude. Bertram
Ross's performance as Saint Michael approached holiness."
--Agnes de Mille, "Martha"
"I never missed a performance
with her from 1949 to 1973."
--Bertram Ross, to Agnes
"It is hard to say 'Bertram
was.' It is hard to say 'Bertram dies,' because those two words
don't go together. Bertram lives.... He is sitting in the apartment
now, where we lived, loved, and had a fantastic life that I am going
to miss terribly. He was the kindest man, but very dangerous, as
Martha said, for he was an idealist who never gave way."
-- John Wallowitch,
partner, in life, love, and show biz, to Bertram Ross
By Paul Ben-Itzak
and Darrah Carr
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
Photos by Martha
NEW YORK -- Bertram
Ross, Martha Graham's partner in dancing and in the creation of
some of the signature great works of art of the past 100 years,
died Sunday morning at Cabrini Hospital in Manhattan, of pneumonia,
at the age of 82.
"Bertram Ross was Martha
Graham's partner for 25 years," Francis Mason, chair of the board
of directors of the Martha Graham Center, recalled last night. "He
was present at the creation of crucial dances and worked closely
with the choreographer. In London in 1963 when Graham conquered
London, Ross was her partner in 'Judith' on opening night. The platform
on which they both performed during much of 'Judith' broke loose
from its moorings on the stage; unbeknownst to the audience, Bertram
Ross reassured Martha Graham and both of them finished the dance
as usual. That was typical of their relationship: Bertram Ross was
always there for Martha Graham."
Whether erasing a fall
as Graham continued to dance at 70 or stringing gumdrops into a
harem curtain for Louis Horst's 80th birthday party, Ross was indeed
"The Iraqi art museum
is gone and Bertram Ross is gone," said a stricken John Wallowitch,
Ross's companion in love for 35 years and his last cohort in show
business. "Gone with Bertram Ross are the subtexts and imagery of
the Martha Graham repertory, which he knew better than Martha Graham.
He'd remind Martha -- he was that kind of person."
Ross created unforgettable
roles in over 35 Graham dances, including the Preacher in "Appalachian
Spring," Saint Michael in "Seraphic Dialogue," Adam in "Embattled
Garden," and Oedipus in "Night Journey." Portraying Agamemnon and
Orestes in "Clytemnestra," he also choreographed it, according to
Wallowitch. "Martha told him he should take credit for it and he
said, 'No, no, I just love doing the work....' Of course, had he
said he wanted to take credit for it, she probably would have bitten
his head off!"
Ross in Martha Graham's 1958 "Clytemnestra." Martha Swope photo
courtesy Martha Graham Center.
Those who succeeded
Ross recalled that he not only taught the roles, but the quality
of the dance. "Bertram was of great importance to me," said Donlin
Foreman, in "the how of my dancing -- the recognition in my dancing.
After dancing with Martha for about five or six years, I had never
met Bertram. In '84 or '85 I started to take class with him outside
the studio. About the fourth or fifth class, he turned to someone
as we started to do turns around the back in fourth position, stopped
the class, pointed at them and said, 'You can't do that movement
like that -- you have to love to do it the way it should be done.'
I had until that point never heard anyone use the term 'love' in
a Graham class, and at that moment I recognized that I did love
"Bertram is and will
be a part of my day to day -- as a man dancing, as one who loves,
my fingers wrapped around the palm of my hand, shaking they open,
so slowly that flowers stand awed, so purposefully that fear retreats,
revealing not a bird that flies but devotion's fragrance. May I
love as well as he, and dance the length of living. Thank you, Bertram."
For Graham (and with
all respect to Stuart Hodes), her relationship with Ross may have
been her purest sustained male partnership, with the latter neither
clouding her mind with amor as Erick Hawkins, her first male partner
and great love, nor shadowing her like Ron Protas, the non-dancer
whose insinuations nudged Ross out as the company's associate director
In her essential 1991
biography, Agnes de Mille noted, "Bertram Ross had for a long time
been close to Martha, and Martha, he had thought, had depended on
him. He told me that he called himself her 'fantasy lover,' her
'skin.' Whether Martha physically desired him is not known. Being
a lusty woman, perhaps she did. He was very, very beautiful. But
he was not interested in women, and he had made that clear. Martha
had responded by inventing for him in various ballets every kind
of tortured death in the calendar of horrors, and these he was forced
to enact on the stage with her fervid participation. She beheaded
him, stabbed him, poisoned him, beat him, castrated him, but on
Bertram Ross the human man she dared not lay a finger.
During a rehearsal for
"Circe," Ross recalled to de Mille, as he was lying in the boat,
stomach down, his body curved along the shape of the ship's bottom,
Graham "stood behind me, grabbing my head by the hair and snapping
my head back. There was a terrible crack in the spine. I thought
my neck had been broken, and I saw colored spots. And then she threw
my face downward, smashing my teeth, and then laughed and went and
sat down, and then said, 'No man can ever be that cruel to another
man. Only a woman could do that.' One of the other dancers said,
'You know, Bertram, she's lucky. Had that been anybody else he would
have socked her.'
Ross in Martha Graham's 1965 "The Witch of Endor." Martha Swope
photo courtesy Martha Graham Center.
But Graham also respected
Ross, as much as she could be said to grant that to anybody. Casting
him as Oedipus in a reconstruction of the 1947 "Night Journey,"
de Mille writes:
"An undeniable problem
was the age difference between her and Ross.... Bertram recalls
discussing it with Martha, sitting in Harlow's coffee shop directly
across the street from the Fifth Avenue studio. (It was to Harlow's
that Martha used to send Bertram for her 'ambrosias' -- the mixture
of orange juice, vanilla ice cream, and raw eggs she liked to drink
for energy. She received physical energy from the ambrosias; spiritual
strength, zest, and excitement came from Bertram.) At their meeting
to discuss the part, Martha emphasized that she didn't want to do
anything that would be embarrassing. She did not want to dance as
an older woman with a younger lover. She had to find a partner who
would be suitable. 'And,' Ross explained later, 'since I was the
most dramatic member of the new company, she felt I could hold my
own opposite her despite my age, just as Erick had done. She asked
me if I'd be willing to attempt this, with the understanding that
if she felt it was inappropriate or offensive in any way it would
be scrapped. I said I was willing, and we went to work.'"
In 1967, insisting on
dancing at the age of 70, Graham fell to the floor during a performance
of "Clytemnestra" at the Ziegfeld Theater, de Mille recounts from
a discussion with Nathan Kroll. "Bertram Ross, who was dancing with
her, swooped her up, performed a remarkable step, and laid her on
the nearest (designer Isamu) Noguchi support. The audience had noticed
nothing, and they broke into their usual cheers at the performance's
Born in Brooklyn on
November 14, 1920, Ross entered the Graham School on the GI Bill
after serving in World War II. (He would later win a scholarship
to Bennington College, becoming its first male dance student.) After
having the cheek to sign up for Louis Horst's composition class
shortly after he started at the school, Ross had second thoughts
and sought Graham's advice, as de Mille relates:
"'Does he frighten you?'
(Graham) questioned. And Ross, wishing to seem manly and sophisticated,
replied, 'Oh, no, not that.' And she said, 'Well, he frightens me
all right,' and then Ross confessed that confronting Louis in class
was a ghastly ordeal. Louis had asked for a pavane and demanded
to know the title. Ross replied that it wastaken from a Shakespeare
sonnet, 'Not eased by Night.' But he spoke softly and Louis deliberately
pretended to misunderstand. 'Not easy at Night,' he repeated, and
he laughed and he bullyragged the boy until Bertram shouted the
correct answer. Then he performed the dance, which Louis later --
considerably later -- admitted was excellent, a first-class example
of the form. Still later he confessed, 'I find you thoroughly convincing
all the time, everything you do.' Martha was astonished at the praise,
because Louis was chary of praise always.'"
An accomplished actor
as well, Ross once told Marian Horosko, "Graham's training is a
technique for the theater. Everything has to be motivated from the
inner life of the dancer-actor, that is, from the center! When this
inner life is not involved, sterility sets in. Martha herself has
said that 'this lack of motivation will lead to meaningless movement,
and meaningless movement leads to decadence.' " (Marian Horosko,
"Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training," University
of Florida Press, 2002.)
After leaving the Graham
company, Ross went on to form one half of Wallowitch and Ross with
Wallowitch in 1984, going on to tour all over the world.
"I played the piano
and Bertram sang cabaret-style," Wallowitch told the DI last night
from the couple's apartment at 51st and Beekman Place, where they'd
moved to be close to the Graham School on E. 63rd Street. "Bertram
first sang 'Colin owes me $97,' a song from 1915, at the Ballroom
-- and the place just fell apart. Here was this Graham star singing
cabaret with a Jewish accent.... The owner of the club said, 'Come
do an act here.' I said, 'That would be nice -- when? In three months?'
He said, 'No, next Tuesday.' So I said yes, because in this business
you say yes fast, and we opened the next Tuesday. Cabaret critic
John Wilson from the New York Times came and gave us an unqualified
For their act, Wallowitch
recalled, Ross "employed all of his dance movement and he moved
like a dream. He also sang; he'd been studying singing. I'd encouraged
him to." He paused. "It is hard to say 'Bertram was.' It is hard
to say 'Bertram dies,' because those two words don't go together.
He also continues to
make dances, Wallowitch reports. "I have 30 beautiful dances he
choreographed in the house on tape, but I don't have the energy
to put a company together. Maybe someday people will see them."
Wallowitch & Ross toured
through June 1999. The two had met in 1967, Wallowitch recounted
"I always admired Bertram.
I thought he was a wonderful artist and so beautiful onstage. I'd
go see him. I loved Martha Graham's work. In 1967 Bertram was in
St. Thomas, and he met a piano player down there who said 'We'd
like to get some new piano music down here.'" In the course of his
search for piano recordings, Ross discovered a record with an Andy
Warhol cover of half faces -- Wallowitch's first recording. "I'd
told Andy, 'I want half faces because that way they won't see my
bald head, and if I'm a great success, I can get a great toupee,"
Ross, enchanted with
the record, came to ask a cousin, Maxine Hahn, if she was familiar
with the artist. "Maxine said, 'I had dinner with him last night.
I've been trying to get you two together for years.'" Wallowitch
was performing at an awards ceremony honoring Joan Copland; Hahn
introduced them at intermission.
"We went to Maxine's
house after the show," Wallowitch relates, "and found out we had
a lot in common. We exchanged phone numbers, I called, we got together
and then somehow, suddenly this amazing relationship began.... We
met in January, and in June of that year we moved in together, into
the same apartment where I am now sitting. And here we lived, loved,
and had a fantastic life which I am going to miss terribly... but
our record is there and his life with Martha has been documented."
That documentation includes
this incident, remembered by Ross in de Mille's "Martha":
It was sometime in the
sixties or early '70s -- de Mille can be a little vague on dates.
Graham had been struggling with alcoholism. Her close friend, advisor
-- "in effect, her doctor," writes de Mille -- Frances Wickes had
finally accepted there was a problem, and sternly rebuked Graham,
provoking "a temporary reform. At the next rehearsal Martha was
on time, sober, and ready. But most of the company members, who
had been used to seeing her straggle in hours late and in no condition
to work, were absent, and when they finally showed up, Martha tongue-lashed
them bitterly. Bertram Ross asked her, 'Do you know what day this
is?' 'Yes,' she said, 'it is Easter Sunday.' Nevertheless, since
she was ready, she expected them to be."
After a two-year performing
hiatus in which it successfully rescued Graham's -- and Ross's --
legacy from Protas, the Graham company is now back at work. "As
the Martha Graham Dance Company now restores so many of Martha Graham's
dances for the future," said Mason, "all of us mourn the passing
of her close collaborator for so many years."
This past Easter Sunday
at 6:18 a.m Eastern Standard Time, Bertram Ross departed this Earth.
If there is a Heaven, he was no doubt immediately put to work by
Martha. While it's not known if a chorus was there to greet him,
it will be there to send him off this Saturday at 3 p.m. at the
Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, 1076 Madison Avenue at 81st Street
in Manhattan. (Phone: 212-288-3500.) "I am going to have singers
singing songs that I wrote for Bertram," said Wallowitch. "And I'll
be playing the piano."
In addition to his beloved
partner John Wallowitch, Bertram Ross is survived by a brother,
Dr. David Prensky of Palm Beach, Florida, a nephew, Dr. William
Prensky, Dr. Catherine Prensky-Mason -- and Graham dancers all over
In October, Miranda
Music released an album, "Wallowitch and Ross." The duo also made
a film: "Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment."
This story was reported by Darrah Carr and Paul Ben-Itzak, and
written by Ben-Itzak. Thanks to John Wallowitch and the many colleagues
of Bertram Ross who found the strength to share their memories.
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