THE BLOG
07/26/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

ADF 5: Learning From the Past: Duane Cyrus Rehearses Martha Graham

Rehearsal for Martha Graham's Helios, Durham School of the Arts. The usual dancer pile-up -- dancers stretching, listening to music on their headphones, even singing along. Dancers hanging over bolsters, their shoulder blades sliding apart under their skin. Dancers with taped toes flopped down in frog pose (knees splayed, pelvis to the floor). The young man in front of me is the quintessence of dance as he lounges and stretches and hums, his lanky mahogany limbs soaking up the limelight. You could draw him in two or three strokes of a fountain pen; he's enviably at ease. Behind him another dancer does a flurry of crunches, and another cracks her extension past 180 degrees, foot in hand. I see ballet boys, girls in fashionable top-knots, and some unlikely candidates -- a diverse crew, but I get the sense they've grown together in the past weeks.

Duane Cyrus enters, a deceptively quiet presence; at a glance you might mistake him for an amateur. But by the way they circle around him and by their quiet attention, I can tell he's won these students' respect and admiration. Time's tight, with only a week and a half to opening night, but Cyrus keeps his manner gentle and his voice soft. They're fine on technique, he says. "You have those things. They're coming." Now they need to work on presence: "Graham or not, whatever it is, it's dance and it's performance." His clear, calm voice holds them. He talks about breathing, dynamics ("How can you find more sharpness of attack?"), theatrical choices. He asks them to try a silent run-through. The dancers jump up, a well-oiled corps; competitive spirit crackles, but it's team spirit, them vs. whoever and whatever. They warm up.

What should I do? a young man asks Cyrus. "You should practice doing grand jetés," Cyrus says. "You have to show the back leg. Practice turning the back leg into second, then observe what's happening." He marks the jump for the young man; his forward leg, as he extends it, is pristine, independent. I've come here wondering how Cyrus will invigorate Graham's technique -- so far back in the history of modern dance by now that it almost looks like ballet -- for these young modern dancers, and this view of his own dancing is my first clue. Graham's not cool these days, but Cyrus's dancing is better than cool: it's classic. I see his effect in the statuary poses the students strike. They look like they're part of something important -- part of history.

Later, when I ask Cyrus what Graham can be for these dancers, this is what he emphasizes: dancers need to know their history. "In order to break a mold and be avant-garde or contemporary, you have to understand the forms that come before." Contemporary dancers don't emerge fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus: "You have to study foundations." He calls today's lack of emphasis on founding modern "a mistake of the dance culture." For Cyrus, "Modern [dance] informs how I am contemporary now." To help the students see further into the dance, Cyrus gives them Graham's context and inspirations, sharing articles, videos, other dances. He tells them that "they are researchers, and they will be performing their research." Also, as a former Graham dancer (among other things), he believes in Graham's work. "Graham technique is really simple in its form," he says, "and it totally makes sense. The spiral is such a beautiful simple thing."

The run-through begins. One dancer walks across stage. He looks terrified but his dancing does it -- I feel response in my nerves. Then all the dancers run out, with the tremendous, stirring sound of feet on a dance floor. As always, I'm fascinated watching them. My mind runs over with questions their dancing provokes.

Is there real lift in the torso -- breath and muscle? Can you make the dance more than pretty? Do you have to remember your foot or does it know what to do? Can you pick out what matters? I watch one dancer who knows that her elbow is the point of interest in one step. This clarity in her is intensely exciting, as if she's found a new way to think. How much line can you get out of what you have? Line will never be entirely clean, because we're human, so how do you make it look clean? Do you go on dancing in the background, in the margin? Do you go on when it's hard? My gaze is held by one young man whose dedication insists that the step he's doing -- an arduous swiveling crouch -- is crucial to the future of the world. What do you have to draw on? Most of us haven't done much by 22, haven't made (or been aware of) big decisions. Maybe that's why great dancers so often have vivid early lives -- or imaginations. Can you imagine a reason to do what you have to do? I see some students dancing in their heads and some beyond their bodies. Some dancers are good without being capable of unison; they'll never be Graham dancers, obviously, but that doesn't mean they won't excel elsewhere in the dance world. Vigor and courage can overcome a lot -- but how much? How much can you learn? What's promise? What's necessary -- what can you not become a dancer without?

Later, I ask Cyrus whether he can tell which students will be dancers. "No," he says. Let me pause to emphasize this. Cyrus, a former Graham dancer, has come here to set Martha Graham on the students. If he had a narrow view of what makes a dancer, no one would be surprised. But instead, he says "Who's to say? You never know." He's open to whatever they are, whatever they will be. Not only that: he doesn't judge their learning by what they're showing him. "How they dance is not fully an indication of how much they've learned. Maybe, in five years, something is going to click."

For now, I see moments of beauty and strength in everyone, but mostly, I see the group. Every time Cyrus gives praise, every time he gives a correction and the dancer works on the step and fixes it, the rest of the group watches and applauds -- this dedicated corps working through the past toward the future.

Next: the students talk.