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
Jacqulyn Buglisi was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance company for 12 years. In 1993, she co-founded Buglisi Dance Theatre. She is the chair of the Graham-based modern department at The Ailey School, where she has been teaching for more than 25 years.
Here, student Courtney Celeste Spears demonstrates a short phrase from Martha Graham's 1947 piece Night Journey. This combination, which Buglisi uses for across-the-floor work, employs the famous Graham contraction and works on maintaining parallel, moving in space with weight shifts and finding oppositional strength in spiral.
Though cross-training has become a necessity for aspiring dancers, it wasn’t always common for modern dance companies to embrace classical ballet training. “There was a big change in the ’70s when my generation joined the company, and we came in with ballet training,” says Peggy Lyman Hayes, former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who is now a master teacher at the school. “The basis of the technique didn’t change, but the bodies that performed it were different; more elongated with nice feet and turnout. Martha was thrilled—she loved having our legs up in the air.”
Today, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance offers both ballet and Pilates classes, in addition to Graham technique. Lyman Hayes also travels the globe as régisseur for the company, setting Graham’s work on professional ballet companies and university dance programs—many don’t offer Graham training. And while she sees the increase of cross-training as an advantage for performers’ versatility and artistry, her primary goal is to preserve both the integrity of Graham’s complex technique and the discipline it’s famous for.
“In other classes, students may wear their hair down or multiple layers of clothing,” she says. “But Graham is different, from the way you dress to the way you stand when a teacher enters the room. And you never marked in rehearsals with Martha.” Lyman Hayes is a stickler for purity, and when leading classes she often reminds dancers to keep movements precise and close to how she learned them from Graham during her time with the company. “One of my pet peeves is that the technique can get very decorated and affected,” she says. “You have to trust that the physical work is enough, without adding anything. Let your arms move as naturally as possible.”
Here, Lyman Hayes teaches a pitch turn, a step found in almost every Graham work from Clytemnestra to AppalachianSpring. While the shape looks similar to a penchée arabesque in ballet terminology, the contraction, release and spiral of its execution is indisputably Graham.
An Ohio native, Peggy Lyman Hayes joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1973, and before retiring as principal dancer in 1988, she performed many of the leading roles and solos of Graham’s repertoire, including the pas de deux of Acts of Light, Lamentation and Frontier. She has choreographed her own work for the Peggy Lyman Dance Company and in 1994 helped found the dance division of The Hartt School in Connecticut, where she was director from 2001 to 2004. Today, Lyman Hayes continues to work closely with the MGDC, traveling internationally as régisseur and teaching Graham technique and pedagogy at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Hartford in 2011.
Lucy Postell is an apprentice with the Martha Graham Dance Company.