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Flash 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 de Mille

"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 Swope

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 Martha's angel.

"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!"
Bertram 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 it.

"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 1973.

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.'
Bertram 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 conclusion...."

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 rave review."

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. Bertram lives."

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 last night:

"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," Wallowitch explained.

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 the world.

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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