Face to Face: Laura Graham

One of Forsythe's chosen few

Laura Graham teaching Artifact Suite to Dresden Semperoper

Laura Graham teaching Artifact Suite to Dresden Semperoper

Choreographer William Forsythe is often compared to Balanchine for his brilliant synthesizing of the classical with the abstract. He entrusts only a select few to stage his complex ballets—and former dancer Laura Graham is one of them. In addition to guest teaching around the world, she has been setting Forsythe’s works on major dance companies for 10 years. Graham currently serves as ballet mistress for the Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Germany. Last year she set and coached six Forsythe works, including The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which was showcased at New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. A New York Times review indirectly hailed her for “making the choreography’s difficulties look like a great deal of fun.”

Born in Philadelphia, Graham began performing at age 11 with Mt. Laurel Regional Ballet Company, and she continued studying dance at the Joffrey Ballet School. After winning a top award at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1990, she became a principal with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she danced as a principal for six years before joining Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. This spring, Graham returns to RWB to set an excerpt from Forsythe’s The Second Detail (“Hula”), while also staging his Artifact Suite for Dresden Semperoper. The two premieres open days apart and reflect the kind of intense commitment that only someone with a kinesthetically fearless disposition like Graham’s could imagine undertaking.

Dance Teacher: What was your trajectory into Ballett Frankfurt?

Laura Graham: I first saw a ballet by Bill [Forsythe] on TV, his Love Songs performed by the Joffrey Ballet. I was blown away and thought, “I need to dance with this person!” Bill was in the audience at a gala I performed in, and I left him my CV through a friend. I couldn’t believe it when he actually called and invited me to join his company. I had only been principal with RWB for two years and still cherished performing leading roles, so I agreed to stay in touch. But four years later I was ready to move on. I wrote him, and he sent me a contract without seeing me since the gala. Nothing ever came to me so easily. I always had to work extra hard because I don’t have an “ideal” ballerina body and had to repeatedly prove myself. Yet sometimes it just happens.

DT: How did Forsythe influence your coaching?

LG: I’ve learned so much about movement and space from Bill. He has always been an inspiration, by constantly questioning, pushing boundaries and never being satisfied with the status quo—one learns the only consistent thing is change. To help make the intricate choreography work for the dancers, I tell them to discover what they feel is the most important “kernel” of the movement. I learned this from Bill. If you focus only on one task (one kernel) during a phrase—like leading with your right hip or simply rotating your calf—everything else will fall into place. Thinking of 10,000 things at once is too difficult and can make one’s movement lack definition.

DT: How do you help dancers communicate the intention behind their movement?

LG: I use imagery and try not to get too intellectual. I say phrases like: Be longer and bigger than you are; know why you’re here; be honest and pure in your approach; and really use your eyes. One I like is: Expand your aura. It’s feeling your body in space and allowing yourself to move expansively. We all know what it’s like to feel squeezed. This is the opposite.

DT: Do you see yourself ever leaving the professional world?

LG: I love coaching professionals, but I am reconsidering. It would be very satisfying to teach professionally minded teenagers in a school setting. Working with so many dancers from many places, I’ve found there’s not enough emphasis in training for musicality, connected movement and natural coordination. Many syllabuses concentrate more on positions than full-body awareness. Pliés are the body breathing. The hands and feet punctuate the music. I love creating illusions and passing the wealth of passion. DT

 

Giannella M. Garrett received a degree in journalism from Boston University and studies ballet in New York City.

Photo by Ian Whalen, courtesy of Laura Graham

Teachers Trending
Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.