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 fucking up – which was pretty easy to do around there.