Getting personal with Martha Graham by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic

May 11, 2012 marks Martha Graham’s 118th birthday anniversary.

This year as a gift for Martha, I asked for something special.  Since the mid 1910s, when she began her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, Martha Graham has been influencing dance on an iconic scale and far greater on a personal level with dancers and non-dancers around the world.

Such has been the case with our very own, Model Critic Carlos Stafford, who I begged to finally talk about how he came to know, love and thrive in a modern art form to triumph over a life changing set back as a traditional athlete with a sports career glistening in the future.

At 9 am Monday, I walked tentatively into the church on Cal Berkeley’s campus. It was now a bare converted dance space with a large beautiful oak floor and high windows, light streaming in.  First thing I see is RT, a former baseball pitcher on Cal’s great team, in a black leotard and tights. Wow!  Really!  What is he doing here?  He looks over. I was shocked.  Class was in session and I watched.

As I looked around, I was bombarded with the dancers moving across the floor in athletic unison – moves that were totally foreign to me.  It looked difficult and strange but lyrical and challenging.  There were beautiful girls, finely toned bodies, and strong men.  The teacher was demanding and energetic, getting the best from the dancers, like coaches I had all through my previous 15 years of organized baseball and football. I was drawn in.  If RT is doing it, it must be OK.  But is this me?

Backing up a couple years earlier, I was sitting pretty, everything going like magic, my college team winning, late in the game.  I was the starting fullback, felt strong, and was having a good game – the position was mine on a deep roster of players.  Forty seconds left, then pow, and awkward hit from the side.  Surprise, blown knee; that, along with bad trainers, poor advice, no safety net, see ya!  That ended it all.  Alone.

I needed something physical, hard and non-contact.  Lieing around stoned in our communal house years later, Marjorie, one of my more aware friends from NYC, suggested dance.  It was a leap of faith.  It was the Martha Graham Technique – everyone knew but me.  The program was run by Marni and David Wood, dancers from the actual company back East, which of course was the Mecca of dance I kept hearing.  Their mission seemed to be to bring this technique, in all authenticity and dedication, to the great unwashed West.

The Woods were adamant and disciplined as they imparted their ethic to the program.  They reminded me of Coach Kovacs, a former Marine, barking out commands, no hand holding. “If you don’t think dance is about bringing your complete energy to class, then leave right now,” Marni would yell.  Silence. We all got the message. Dance was serious business.

Martha Graham once said, as I remember, that dancers were like race horses, dance them or they’ll sit around eating all day.  That said a lot, and squared up with me–it was the kicking of reluctant nerves, and as the stories revealed, Martha did a lot of kicking.  So did her proteges.

I was drawn in, had no choice really.  Dance chose me.  Although a little old to be starting dance, I never cared. You started too late, you’ll have a hard time getting into a company, I’d hear.  I didn’t care, it was all white noise, irrelevant.  In those days, in my bailiwick, you weren’t searching for a career, but for something else.  Dance was part of a quest, self authenticity.

As a football player you are trained in a certain way, and it carried over. At first pass, if didn’t get a dance combination I would smack the wall.  No, not that kind of expression, this is a different emotion, slightly more subtle, please!  Had to refocus, or be embarrassed by that one, strange dignified girl who was perfect every time; the one who studied The Royal Syllabus since age nine, and had weirdly perfect feet, scary placement, and fluid.  Or Allison, who was perfect, and didn’t even realize it; however, the teachers knew better and had a keen eye on her.

The Graham Technique loomed larger and larger.  I learned about the impact she had on dance, how she was regarded as one of the most influential artist of the twentieth century, up there with Picasso, Stravinsky, Balanchine, and Frank Lloyd Wright  I became familiar with bits and pieces of her masterpieces, and began to realize her prolific choreographic output (Acrobats of Gods, Clytemnestra, Seraphic Dialogue, Errand into the Maze, Appalachian Spring, to name a few), stories of her struggles, past dancers, and those she inspired.  When we entered the studio after a time, we entered reverently and with respect. The dancers knew that precision and attention to detail were paramount, and that the contractions and releases were to be performed correctly, hands, torso, diaphragm, shoulders, head all expressing the movement. Eventually, the style and intent naturally worked its way into our psyches and bodies, and it became more and more relevant. Our bodies changed, our attitudes changed, we were getting connected to a new way of standing, feeling, moving and breathing. That was class!

Never did get into a company.  They were right. Never aspired to it, it mattered little.  But studying Graham pushed me into all kinds of dance, ballet leading the way.  Later on, Jazz too.  Yes, crazy and backward, but really perfect–it was really all about the movement, and a whole world opened up.  At the end, in Cal’s student production, my friends from our commune showed up, Carl, Ron, Marjorie, Denise and Cheryl, and I received a boisterous Bravo.  That was like scoring a touchdown. Thanks Martha, like many others, I have some special memories.

Photo (above)  from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress.