featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash 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 the hilt.

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 cruelty.

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.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home