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Study, 4-22: Remembering Ross
When a 'Saint' Emanated Threads of Light
By Peter Sparling
Copyright 2003 Peter Sparling
Bertram Ross, the dance
legend and archetype male Graham dancer, was more than merely intimidating
to a boy from the Midwest in his second year at Juilliard. I'm thinking
to myself: Who is this flamboyant, larger-than-life man who sweeps
into the studio (as substitute for Ethel Winter or Helen McGehee
that day), parks his poodle under the piano and proceeds to interpret
the poetic eroticism of the Graham Technique to 25 awestruck aspirants?
And later that semester, learning "Diversion of Angels" from a rehearsal
film, watching Bert stubbornly, clumsily mark his part, those big
flexed feet, big hands, big head like something off a Roman coin?
But it was while touring with the Limon Company to UCLA a year later
that a few of us wandered into a dance film showing in a church
basement down the street from our hotel in Westwood, and sat down
in folding chairs to view "Seraphic Dialogue." There he was, all
fabric "shook foil" in green, blue and gold on his Noguchi throne,
emanating threads of light out of his flaming fingertips and calling
to the incarnations of St. Joan as he thrashed and spun like the
Hopkins poem through the film's flickering technicolor grain. I
was instantly converted... for life. Four years later, I was in
Martha's company, at 316 E. 63rd, learning the role of St. Michael
from the same film, trying to capture every nuanced gesture, every
turn of the head: the essential Graham fire that Bert embodied to
I remember Bert teaching
a class in the large studio; I was the only man in class that day.
He gave us a combination across the floor -- step attitude into
deep spiral plie, step contract fall into the hip -- with the added
gesture of a hand unfurling like an exotic flower behind the ear.
I think he wanted us to embrace the scent of the orchid, to exude
the heat of a tropical night. I chose to omit the gesture, thinking
it was required only of the women. He stopped the class and admonished
me for my unwillingness to embody that thing that was without gender
and free of my petty fears or insecurities. If only I knew then
what I know now.
I think I knew Bert
best through studying and learning his roles: Orestes, Oedipus,
White Duet in 'Angels,' and countless others. He got into the grain
of my bone and muscle, and I still carry that with me in every dance
I perform. There were others who knew him much better and saw him
as a dear friend and collaborator. My generation of Graham dancers
was ruthlessly compared to his venerable generation, while we desperately
aspired towards their greatness, grandeur and depth. I feared him
and his opinions of me. Bert's wit: lethal, unrestrained -- but
when the sparkle came into his eye, you knew his merriment and love
of this thing we all did for Martha and for the dance overrode any
When I had the privilege
of interviewing him at the Noguchi Museum for a Library of Congress
archival project a few years ago, he had to be helped from his wheelchair,
propped up, then powdered and primped for the cameras. Surrounded
by an adoring crew and a few of his "children" who had worshipped
him and were now there to sit at his feet and listen to his stories
of the glory days with Martha, he gradually came alive, like a slow,
steady fire. Memory stoked the flame, his eyes glowed and he was
once again our brilliant prince, Martha's prince, the body alchemist
with the big, beautiful hands, noble brow and perfect Roman nose.
Peter Sparling is a professor of dance and former chair of the
Department of Dance at the University of Michigan. Artistic director
of the Peter Sparling Dance Company, he was a member of the Limon
Dance Company from 1971 to 1973, and a principal dancer with the
Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987.
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