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

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