Primally sexual, stripped down and muscular, Martha Graham’s aesthetic is here made eternally new by Madonna, who recalls her first meeting with the legend. Photographed by Peter Lindbergh
Its NBA Ali-Star Weekend and I’m sitting in front of my television, excited, full of anticipation, completely sucked in. It’s gotten to the point where I’m happy to watch NBA players simply walk down a hallway. They don’t even have to be doing anything; their accomplishments, them talent and their energy make their most pedestrian activities mesmerizing. You know that they’ve just done something great, or that they’re about to.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with anything. I just thought I’d share a subject that I happen to be completely inspired by before sharing another subject that 1 happen to be completely inspired by: Martha Graham. I’m not an authority on the NBA or Martha Graham, but I don’t think you have to be an authority to instinctively know when you’re in the presence of greatness.
I had the privilege of meeting Martha Graham and speaking with her on several occasions shortly before her death. She absolutely lived up to all of my expectations with her wit, intelligence, and nerve-rocking imperiousness. I even felt a sort of camaraderie with her pioneering spirit and rebellious creative energy. What really stayed with me (and I suppose this is true for everyone) was my first impression.
The first time I saw her in the flesh, right in front of me I had been studying at the Graham School for only a few months. I was 18 and had come to New York to be a professional dancer – to set the world on fire. What I really wanted was to dance in Alvin Ailey’s company. Though I was cut in the first round of auditions, I won a partial scholarship to study at his school, but was told that if I wanted to master Ailey’s technique, I should really study at the Graham School. Of course. I knew who Martha Graham was – in the dance world you had to be brain-dead not to. Needless to say; I arrived there within 24 hours of receiving this information.
I enrolled in beginning classes and became entranced with the Graham technique, which was taught by unbelievably beautiful – mostly Asian – women who all seemed to be clones of Martha Graham. It must have been a prerequisite of the school that instructors be small, inscrutable, and stern. I started dreaming about being flat-chested and Asian. I later learned that most of the teachers also sewed costumes when they weren’t learning or performing in her dance company. There was something very comforting about this arrangement the efficiency, the teamwork appealed to me because of my own upbringing and the work ethic my father had banged into my head. All time is accounted for. Constant productivity. Everybody pitches in. Kind of like the circus, kind of like the army, kind of like my life now and then.
I dug this place. The studios were Spartan, minimalist – lke Graham’s technique. Everyone whispered, so the only sounds you heard were the music and the instructors, and they spoke to you only when you were f*cking up – which was pretty easy to do around there.
It’s a difficult technique to learn. It’s physically brutal and there is no room for slouches. I was up to all these challenges. I was learning something new every day. I was on my way. At one time in my life I had fantasized about being a nun, and this was the closest I was ever going to get to convent life. But I wanted to meet the mother superior, the woman responsible for all this. I had heard that she was in the building a lot and that she sat in on classes from time to time. I don’t know if she was checking up on the teaching staff or scouting for talent. but she never came into any of my classes. I guess she hadn’t been made aware of my potential. In any case, she stayed pretty hidden. I had heard she was vain about growing old. Maybe she was really busy, or really shy, or both. But her presence was always felt, which only added to her mystique and to my longing to meet her. I knew she was still very active in the company, creating new works and resurrecting old ones, but she had a serious Garbo vibe about her and seemed like she really wanted to be left alone.
Not with me around, I was determined to run into her, and when I did I was gonna be fearless and nonchalant. I would befriend her and get her to confess all the secrets of her soul. I took too many classes and lingered too long afterward in the hallways. I found every excuse to go to the offices and chat with the administration. Then one day it happened. Of course, not when I expected it. I was us the middle of the 11:00 A.M. class. I had had too much coffee to drink and I needed to pee more than anything, so I violated the cardinal rule and left in the middle of class with my bladder at a bursting point. I heaved open the heavy door to the hallway, stepped outside the classroom, and there she was, right uin front of me, starring into my face. Okay, not exactly in front of me, but my appearance must have taken her by surprise: No one ever left the tomblike classrooms until classes were over!
She stopped dead in her tracks to see who the violator was. I was paralyzed. She was part Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The rest of her was a cross between a Kabuki dancer and the nun I was obsessed with in the fifth grade. Sister Kathleen Thomas. In any case, I was overwhelmed, and all my plans to disarm her and win her over were swallowed up by my fear of a presence I’d never encountered before.
She didn’t say a word. She just looked at me with what I thought was interest but was probably only disapproval. Her hair was pulled back severely, displaying a pale face made up like a porcelain doll. Her chin jutted out wdh arrogance and her eyes were like shiny brown immovable marbles. She was small and big at the same time; I waited for words to come out of my mouth: I waited for daggers to fly out of her eyes. I ignored the aching my lower abdomen. I forgot that I had a big mouth and that I wasn’t afraid of anyone. This was my first true encounter with a goddess. A warrior. A survior. Someone not to be f*cked with. Before I could clear my throat, she was gone. Flicking her long skirt with her arthritic hands, she disappeared into some secret room and closed the door. I was left shaking in my leotard, partically because I still had to go to the bathroom but mostly because I had encountered such an exquisite creature. I was truly dumbfounded.
Much has happened us my life since then. I have come in contact with some truly amazing human beings along the way, but nothing will diminish the memory of my first encounter with this woman – this life force. So while I ponder the dedication and discipline that is required to become anything great, whether it’s Martha Graham or Michael Jordan, while I muse over the discovery of how closely related to dancing basketball really is, while I wait for the All-Star Game to get started. I have to laugh out loud. Mike. Martha Graham. The NBA. Modern dance. Everything is connected. Don’t try to figure it out.
Inspiration is inspiration – go for yours.
© Harper’s Bazaar