“Don’t be afraid to test your balance,” teased a short, muscular woman with a shaggy blonde bob. Laura Graham, ballet mistress for Dresden Semperoper Ballett, was spurring an ensemble of five long-limbed dancers to stretch beyond their comfort zones. “Take a risk. Make your movement say something. Dancing is exciting, and you need to be excited to do it. Or else I don’t want to be involved.”
The company was prepping for its second performance of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude at New York City Center’s annual 10-day Fall for Dance Festival. Understandably content with the enthusiastic whistles and wild applause they had received the night before, the dancers needed reminding that dancing safely would not be tolerated for the festival’s finale evening, occurring in just a few hours. Graham rehearsed various details of the piece she thought could be expressed more dynamically, sculpting her own body to exemplify the sumptuously long, diagonal épaulement lines and razor-sharp pointe work the piece required. The passionate sparks she set off demonstrating the most subtle movement made it clear she not only knew this piece inside out, but had also been a participant in its creation 14 years ago.
The ballet’s signature flat olive green tutus, looking more like oversized Pringles, lay strewn along a corner of the studio floor, testaments to the classical themes at the heart of this highly-charged work. I was there on a personal mission to congratulate the dancers on their sparkling performance, to bow to the ladies for their technical and expressive excellence, and to view those wonderfully wacky tutus close-up.
Instead, I found myself awestruck by the display of a deeper knowledge of the ballet itself through Graham’s brilliant demonstrations. Sporting a cobalt scarf wrapped around her neck that echoed the gleam in her blue eyes, she graciously agreed to sit down over coffee after rehearsals and talk about what she’s been up to since taking this role five years ago, and what it’s like setting Forsythe’s ballets for dance companies around the world.
Graham grew up in NJ and knew she would be a dancer from the age of 9. “I knew ballet could be my freedom,” she laughs. She joined a regional company at eleven and went on to study and dance with Joffrey Ballet School. A top award at the International Ballet Competition Varna in 1990 propelled her onto the world stage. She accepted a principal contract with the Winnepeg Ballet, where she danced classical roles for six years. Her subsequent decision to join Frankfurt Ballett, led by William Forsythe, who some describe as the great de-constructor of classical dance, was a huge personal and professional risk that ended up defining everything dance means for her. She stopped performing about nine years ago, but continues to reside in Germany.
Last summer she helped stage 10 performances of a full evening of Forsythe, “Serata Forsythe”, at La Scala, in Milan. In a few days, she will be in Bucharest checking in to see if the company there is ready to perform Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. All this while still attending to her full-time job coaching Dresden Semperoper Ballett. On her own clock, she has been working on getting her scuba and pilot’s licenses. “I’m an adrenaline addict,” she beams.