December 14, 2017

Jean Colonomos—Dancing With Martha

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN COLONOMOS

Jean Colonomos—Dancing With Martha

Martha Graham teaching company members and students in an advanced class in 1965 when Jean Colonomos (aka Nuchtern) was with the company. The photo is from her private collection and was a gift to her from the photographer, Farrel Grehan.

You can find the history of the world in Topanga. In this case, the pioneering art of Martha Graham and her dance company.

Topanga resident, poet and playwright, Jean Colonomos, was a Martha Graham dancer (under the name of Jean Nuchtern) from 1964 to 1968 and wrote a play, “The Third From the Left,” that is a fictionalized dramatization of her experiences in the 1964 revival of Martha Graham's masterpiece, “Primitive Mysteries.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Jean Colonomos—Dancing With Martha

Martha Graham in "Letter to the World," 1940, based on Emily Dickinson's poetry.

In 2006, the play was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it received excellent reviews. In 2008, it had its American premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival. (Dance World, “Graham Dancer Colonomos' Play To Premiere At Fringe,” July 9, 2008)

Colonomos graciously offered the following essays, vignettes of life behind the scenes of the Martha Graham Dance Company to share with Messenger readers.


THE DESK DOYENNES—IN MEMORY OF GEORGIA GRAHAM SARGEANT

They had a look, those female registrars who manned the desks at well known ballet studios in New York City. Ample bodied, they’d peer over their eyeglasses at who came through the door, mentally separating the wheat from the chaff.

Miss Lee was the desk doyenne at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall where I first hitched my future to the ballerina track. In her frilly, plus-size dresses, bangle armor covering half her left arm— can still hear the Bakelite clacking—she’d almost squeal at the highly talented dancers and the ones in ballet companies. But when it came to us kids, one face was like the other. Oh, she’d happily take the checks from our mothers for lessons, but she preferred to rub up against the fame aura. And we young ones, too, were in awe of the big girls.

In the early 1950s, British teacher and guru, Margaret Craske moved from Ballet Arts to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School on Fortieth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Four of my friends and I went with her. The keeper there was also a Brit whose name I happily forgot. In a tiny cubicle, clutching her gray accounts receivable ledger sat this voluminous, under-five-foot woman who scared me.

When I’d skulk past her office, I was sure I’d done something wrong though I hadn’t. Winter, summer, spring, fall, I never saw her wear anything but black tent dresses to cover her shapeless body. This desk Grande Dame did have a lighter side as coming through the walls of the girl’s dressing room we could sometimes hear her laughing with Miss Craske. But at student dancers, she only scowled.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN COLONOMOS

Jean Colonomos—Dancing With Martha

Jean Colonomos (Left) dancing in "Dolly with a Hole in the Stocking" at age four.

I left ballet when I was sixteen. Miss Craske broke my heart when she pointed to new muscles forming above my adolescent knees that would prevent my becoming a ballerina. And her word—she’d trained the young Margot Fonteyn—was gold. For five years I was lost. But in the early 1960s I accidentally discovered Martha Graham when I was a French major at Hofstra, a commuter college on Long Island. Since I needed athletic credits to graduate, I enrolled in dance where Patricia Leong was teaching Graham technique. I had never been exposed to the High Priestess of Modern Dance, but almost from the first class, I was in love. Thus began a second dance journey on Manhattan’s East Side at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

Martha’s youngest sibling, Georgia Graham Sargeant, was the school administrator. She flooded the atmosphere with a gentler vibe than those ballet studio doyennes. Geordie, as she was called, had started out as a dancer performing with an earlier modern dance Queen, Ruth St. Denis. But when I came to study at the school, Geordie had lost her shape. Even though she had asthma, she and Martha drank. And sitting long hours at a desk was no friend to any female form. But her honey-colored cocker spaniel, which often slept under Geordie’s desk, loved her unconditionally.

Whereas the earlier registrars were imperious, Geordie was friendly. Having been a dancer, she empathized with the students, allowing alternate arrangements for those who had money struggles. Though she seemed often on the verge of being overwhelmed, Geordie ran the school well. When I became a scholarship student, I worked part time in the office. Sometimes given to dark moods, Geordie responded to my jokes. I looked forward to those moments when she’d put her hand over her mouth and giggle, as if laughter were a sin.

And there she was, always in the audience watching her famous sister with respect and loving eyes. Tensions existed between them but they made it through thick and thin. And though Georgia Graham Sargeant had a hard life, she still smiled at everyone who walked through those hallowed doors. n

AT THE MARTHA GRAHAM SCHOOL OF CONTEMPORARY DANCE

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN COLONOMOS

Jean Colonomos—Dancing With Martha

Jean Colonomos (Left) with Noemi Lapzeson in "Holy Holy" (1965), choreographed by Bertram Ross.

We are the women who climb two flights of stairs to the women’s dressing room.

We are the women who, once in that room, change from who we are into who we want to be.

We are from varied walks of life and have come from five continents to study with Martha Graham, the genius choreographer who has been called the Picasso of Modern Dance.

We are a mixture of students in training, professional modern dancers, a few from the Graham Company and older women who’ve been taking class for years.

We step out of our street clothes and into our dance uniforms, black leotards, black or tan footless tights and muted colored leg warmers or woolen overalls because our idol frowns on colorful dance attire. We wouldn’t dare show up in pastel pink because it’s 1962 and the war’s still on between Modern Dance and Ballet and isn’t over until Martha Graham says so in the early ‘70s.

We undress easily in front of one another because we don’t perceive our bodies as erotic entities but as instruments in service to art. We stand in front of the mirror adjusting leotards and tights and arrange our hair and makeup in the most flattering ways because the teacher or Martha, if she drops in, might notice us more. We women may envy and fall in love with one another’s looks—the Argentinean’s blue saucer eyes; the Japanese woman’s baby-soft skin; the Indian whose thick black hair hangs below her waist before she ties it up in a neat bun for class.

We might readjust our own buns, unnaturally made bigger by two fake falls attached to our thin hair. We believe in the mirror’s truth, which finds fault with our too-wide or too-narrow hips, our pot bellies, our nowhere abs—where’s our washboard torso?—our piano-shaped legs.

We crowd the telltale looking glass while gabbing about missed subway connections, eating too much last night, Jackie O’s new ball gown, other dancers, boyfriends, husbands, new diets and lots about how to starve ourselves.

We look forward to take class with such-and-such a teacher saying, her class opens my every pore, I love her lyrical combinations, I’m sore for two days after his class. To which the reply may be, no pain, no gain. We also complain she’s mean, why doesn’t he just phone in his class, will he be sipping gin in a paper cup and why can’t he leave his dog home?

We see it’s time and, if we’re there for morning class open to beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, we’re in the big studio often used for rehearsing when Martha’s having a Broadway season or when the company’s going on tour.

We stop talking when we enter the light-filled room whose French doors open onto a small outside garden. We put our big purses under the piano, stand when the teacher comes in and then sit and put the soles of our feet together.

We women, and fewer men, begin with bounces and proceed without much interruption through the floor work as we know the routine and the rare ones who don’t have to follow along. After floor work comes standing exercises and we grow more alive so by the end of class, which often finishes in jump combinations, we’re ready to soar.

We clap for the teacher, traipse up the two flights of stairs, go over how good or bad the class was, how poorly we did or question each other about a step we couldn’t figure out. We may be upset about an emotion that surfaced during class.

We’re fully dressed with flushed faces and wide-eyed eyes that leave for work, another class, a rehearsal, a bite to eat alone or with a friend. We women may see each other every day and though we don’t necessarily confide in one another, we’re from the same tribe, speak the same non-verbal language and meet in the boundless world where the dream becomes the dancer and the dancer becomes the dream.