If Martin Kravitz has a totem animal, surely it’s a bear. He is grace with substance: an ursine presence with an easy smile and a gentle, direct way about him. American-born but a longtime resident of Paris, he is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer whose resumé reads like a who’s who of modern dance, spans four decades, and criss-crosses the globe. We met on a rainy weekday to talk about what it’s like to find your calling at a young age and follow it where it leads you, and what life lessons might be learned from the art and discipline of dance.
The Attentive Body: Onstage in Philippe Jamet’s 2013 dance piece, Travail (Work), you shared a big piece of your personal history: growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the late 1950s/early 60s and discovering that you wanted to be a dancer. Can you talk just a bit about that?
Martin Kravitz: After studying the piano seriously for eight years as a child, I realized that I was not made to play scales and arpeggios for six hours a day, alone with my piano. In high school, I started doing theatrical events, which led me to audition for the local amateur light-opera group in Albuquerque, which led me to be put on stage in West Side Story as a Shark – having to do dance movements without ever having danced before. I was “discovered” by a lovely couple who had a little ballet school and who offered me a scholarship if I would dance in their school gala at the end of the year. He was a mime, she was a ballerina — logical career choices as both had speech defects and went through life stuttering away, adored by their students.
Around this same time, I watched some wonderful dance films – like Martha Graham’s Night Journey and Seraphic Dialogue, which I saw by chance on public television — and stage performances (even in Albuquerque) which showed very masculine men dancing. Before this, I’d thought of male ballet dancers as being effeminate and embarrassing. But here was proof against that assumption.
So, at the age of 15, I made the switch from wrestling with Bach’s Italian Concerto to dancing and singing “I want to be in America.”
TAB: How did that decision play out in your adolescent world?
MK: I felt so lucky having discovered my new passion and direction in life. All the kids I knew in school seemed lost and undisciplined. I went to dance school every day after regular school and stayed for hours discovering a new world. Also, coming from a more or less depressed family situation and a father who obviously was not meant to be a father or live the life he had, I felt so fortunate to have discovered another way. I was the last of 4 children; my parents were older and tired and didn’t put obstacles in my way. It took a while to tell my father. He and my mother seemed basically relieved that I had my autonomy. But they also may have felt ill at ease with my relationship with my dance teachers, which was much more alive and engaged than anything I could possibly have with them.
TAB: Now you’re in your 60s, you’re still dancing, teaching, and choreographing, and you’ve never waivered from this career choice. Did you ever consider doing anything else?
MK: No. As I started teaching dance very early as well, and had much pleasure doing it, I felt it natural to dedicate my life to dancing, to one thing that I felt I knew really deeply. Certainly, throughout the years, there were times (especially when there wasn’t much work), when I wished that I had a “real job.” Also, I’ve often thought, “I wish I could have a job where I don’t have to undress the first thing when I arrive at work!”
TAB: What’s been your biggest challenge? Do some things get easier with age? More difficult?
MK: With age, of course, the body becomes less able to do what it could years ago. I do feel discomfort at times, especially teaching, repeating movements for my students. Certain movements like grandes pliés and falls to the floor, I have not done for years now. But I do show most of the movement in a class – once! And I guide my students with verbal directions. In the performances I’m in these days, the choreographers don’t expect me to dance like the younger dancers; they want me to be something else – a mature presence and a mature man. I love not having those expectations put on me. Performing in some of the pieces I’m in is a real validation of who I am and what I am still able to do.
TAB: As a performer and teacher, what are some of the changes you notice in the evolution of dance?
MK: The dance world has changed so much, of course, since I started in 1973. There are many more (and talented) men today. I would not be chosen today from auditions – that is SURE! I came from a much more codified dance training with historical links to the past that were broken by the dance that evolved in the 70s and after. Dancers today, especially dancers who want to work in many different venues, are required to have many different experiences in their pockets, from contact-improv to voguing to acrobatics. Curiosity and daring are essential today. I regret that I didn’t have enough openness as a dancer to try out the new techniques and approaches that came along — especially Trisha Brown. When I first saw Trisha Brown perform her Accumulation solo, I thought she looked like she was cooking on stage. That wasn’t dance for me. It took years for me to be interested in dance that was not spectacular and technical. I needed time and coming to Europe to discover new dance not directly linked to the American traditions.
TAB: You’ve performed the works of some of the biggest names in contemporary dance: José Limon, Viola Farber, Bill Evans, Lar Lubovitch, Jean-Claude Galotta… What stands out from these associations? What left a mark on you?
MK: The most powerful influence was undoubtedly Anna Sokolow, a very strong and often hard person in work and in life. Her work was strongly attached to her view of life – coming from the Lower East Side, child of a socialist proletariat. She was uncompromising and demanding and you never got by without being insulted by Anna. But she changed you, as a dancer and as a person. I worked with her the first time in Salt Lake City. She had me take her (in my little VW bug) to the parts of town where the prostitutes worked and where the poor people lived – she had a lot of problems dealing with middle-class, lily-white America, especially a place like Salt Lake City. She came from real Red stock and she was even investigated in the McCarthy era. Thanks to her I discovered the realer, more down-and-out parts of the city that I didn’t know existed. The passion in her work came from knowing the hardships of life yet still finding poetry in it. Politeness and correctness were not part of her outlook.
Later, she helped me get a contract with the Batsheva Dance Company (in Israel) and when she was there, I discovered Jerusalem through her eyes: a poetic vision of Israel, and beautiful. Her favorite place, which became my favorite place, was the Ethiopian Church. You could hear the drums played in their ceremonies and they came out in their majestic robes…. Anna was the quintessential independent thinker. She said, “I don’t want anyone telling me what to read or think.” That has affected me all my life – it’s most probably why I didn’t go to college. I wanted to learn in life, and not in an institution.
TAB: What’s important for you to communicate in your teaching?
MK: My movement has always been focused on natural weight fall and breath, and those are the qualities I try to get my students to focus on. More generally, my forte is getting people to concentrate on what they’re doing and immerse themselves in the pleasure of doing it, to feel at ease with who they are and what level they’re at, while at the same time reminding them of the work ahead if they choose to strive for more. Basically I try to provide a warm and welcoming space so that people can look into themselves. Especially in my voice-movement work, it’s important to make it clear that every voice is valid and beautiful in its own way.
TAB: How does a lifetime of dancing affect how you see the world? What has dance taught you about life?
MK: Dance teaches us to listen to our bodies, to have confidence that the body heals itself if we respect it and give it time. I tell my students that each injury is a gift to be able to learn something more about the body. Also, the patience that you have to have to become a dancer and the persistence to eventually get where you want or need to go – seeing that it will take time — can be a useful tool in other parts of life that are more about everyday survival. One day at a time, one step at a time….
But really, to me, there is no barrier between dance and “real life” – they feed each other. I was fortunate to start dancing with older women who had danced with the pioneers of the 1930s and 40s: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm. Their integrity and passion were a lifelong commitment but also a point of view in life. Life is an extension of the reality we create, and the joys and deep emotions that have fueled my dancing have guided my life, reminding me about what’s really important in this short life of ours. It’s the moment that counts – and that’s what dance teaches us and rewards us with.
Martin Kravitz will be performing in Avant le ciel (Before the Sky) by Philippe Jamet, December 13-16, 2016 at La Cartoucherie in Paris. His next dance technique workshop in Paris will be at Micadanses, November 21-25, 2016, from 10am-12pm.
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