Pat Birch on the set of Grease, choreographing the legendary Hand Jive scene, with Olivia Newton John and John Travolta. Photo courtesy Birch
Forty years ago, the movie musical Grease introduced audiences around the world to Grease lightning and an iconic hand jive. Would anyone guess now that all those unforgettable rock-n'-roll style dances were choreographed by a former Martha Graham Dance Company soloist? (Was John Travolta actually in a contraction?)
Choreographer Patricia Birch, better known as Pat, says "I was always attracted to Broadway, even when I was dancing with Martha."
Martha Graham in Deaths and Entrances (1943). Photo by Chris Alexander, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Martha Graham was the "Mother of Modern Dance," influencing generations of dance artists with her incomparable choreography and technique that featured the pioneering concept of contraction and release. But did you know...
Long before Allison DeBona took the stage as a first soloist with Ballet West, she had chosen to give up dancing to have a normal adolescence. In eighth grade she quit ballet and joined her high-school drill team. In spite of this decision, DeBona's teacher, Jean Gedeon of Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, never gave up on her and her future as a classical performer.
Jacqulyn Buglisi has a flair for drama. To encourage the students in her intermediate and advanced Graham classes at The Ailey School to open their sternums in a high release, she tells them to stretch “like a flower came out of your heart." When attempting to convey the weight of a hand gesture, she explains that they must “pull the hem of heaven from the sky." During the extensive warm-up sequence, she reminds them that this is no time for complacency: “We don't do positions. We dance the series." Despite her penchant for the Graham dramatics, Buglisi is equally quick to curb any excess of melodrama in her students. “No Swan Lake with the arms," she admonishes one whose wrists are limply crossed.
Today marks the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In honor of this day's remembrance, the Martha Graham Dance Company, based in New York City, is live-streaming a special performance of Graham's iconic solo, Lamentation, performed by principal dancer, PeiJu Chien-Pott.
When Martha Graham Dance Company soloist Xin Ying was studying at the Graham School, her teacher Yung Yung Tsuai helped her understand Graham technique in her native language.
“When I got to New York, I barely spoke any English, and she was the only one who spoke Mandarin in the school. For Graham technique, you have to understand it to learn it, so she helped me out after class by speaking Chinese. I learned the technique much more quickly, and my career moved forward much faster.”
See Xin Ying perform with the Martha Graham Dance Company tonight and tomorrow at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Photo: by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company
- Next month, in addition to having artistic advisor and faculty member William Forsythe back in the studios teaching ballet, composition and improvisation, artist-in-residence Fiona Lummis (former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer) will teach repertory by Jiří Kylián.
- Master classes with Bill T. Jones and Hubbard Street 2 will occur in March. Also, Martha Graham Dance Company members will teach a work to students, which they will perform with the company on April 27.
- To cap off their first Spring semester, students will get to take master classes with artist-in-residence Desmond Richardson (DT, January 2016) and Complexions Contemporary Ballet in April.
It’s an exciting time for the University of Southern California! In our September 2014 cover story, we got a peak inside the new USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, which boasts not only former Joffrey Ballet dancer Jodie Gates at the helm, but the coveted faculty addition, William Forsythe, who begins teaching this month. To celebrate the new dance program, USC’s arts initiative Visions and Voices hosts four renowned dance companies during its 2015–16 season.
Tomorrow, September 16, Alonzo King LINES Ballet comes to USC with a mixed-bill program including Biophony, a new work set to recordings of ecosystems from around the world.
Hubbard Street 2 performs at USC, March 23, 2016. Following the performance, director and choreographer Terence Marling will engage in a discussion with Jodie Gates.
Bill T. Jones adapts his work Story/Time for USC dance and music students in March. The piece combines storytelling, music and movement.
To close out the season, Martha Graham Dance Company performs, April 27, 2016. The performance will include one Graham work danced by USC students.
For more info about dance at USC Visions and Voices, visit visionsandvoices.usc.edu.
Bill T. Jones
Photos from top: by Todd Rosenberg; by Paul B. Goode, both courtesy of USC