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By Johanna Kirk
Living legend Mary Anthony moved to New York at age 17, and with $25 in her pocket set out to become a dancer. She was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hanya Holm School, and later joined Holm’s company and became her personal assistant. Anthony opened her own studio in 1954 and began her company, Mary Anthony Dance Theatre two years later. Many of her students have gone on to make contributions to the dance world, among them Elisa Monte and Ronald K. Brown. Although her company has stopped performing, she continues to teach daily technique and repertory classes. In 2004 she was awarded a Bessie in honor of her dedication as a teacher. Johanna Kirk recently sat down with Anthony for a conversation in the Manhattan studio where she lives and works.
Tell me about your most inspiring experiences as a dance student and how they influenced your teaching. When I was a little girl and I saw Martha Graham, I said, “That’s it! That’s what I want!” It was just a question of getting to New York and studying with her. But, there is only one Martha Graham, and people are still making the mistake of trying to be Martha. I was very glad to have studied with Hanya because I became me. In the Holm work it’s experiment, experiment, experiment, experiment . . . then you have a finished dancer. I also studied with Julia Barashkova of the Kirov Ballet, and I incorporate Vaganova technique into my work. When I saw the Greek National Theater, I thought, “That’s the kind of theater I have to have!” So when I started my company, it became the Mary Anthony Dance Theatre. What I was aiming for then, and still am, is total theater, not just dance.
What do you mean when you say that students should strive to be conscious of themselves, rather than self-conscious? Martha was actually the first one who said that self-conscious people are selfish because they assume that everyone in the room is looking at them. You have to turn that around and stay conscious of yourself, your power, and what you can do. That’s why I feel very strongly about not looking in the mirror, about letting everything that you do come from the inside. That’s where we come to the truth. If you look in the mirror, you’re coming to a reflection; you’re not coming to the base of you.
What do you do to develop strength in your dancers? The trick to good technique is to always move from your center. I tell my students to think about their center in everything they do. I also tell them to use imagery. Think of an ocean and become it in movement. Find a verse of poetry, and become it. Let your movement be driven by real emotion.
How can dance help to center our lives? The body does not lie. Knowledge gained through the senses—through the eyes, nose, mouth, hands, ears—stays with you. I worry these days, when kids are propped in front of the television set, that they are not using their senses. They’re smothering them. I refuse to come into the 21st century: I don’t e-mail, I don’t have a touch-tone telephone, I don’t carry bottled water. People are getting farther and farther away from truly living. They’re just doing. Moving is more important now than ever before. It’s how you keep yourself alive. People are astonished when I tell them I’m 91. And the reason that I am the way that I am is because I danced all my life.
What must dancers do to care for their bodies? Think of your body like a Rolls Royce. It has to have the best oil, the best tires, and it has to be examined all the time: “Is my Rolls Royce functioning exactly as it should?” Going to class won’t make you a performer, but if you are performing, you must be going to class. You must eat a special way. You must get proper rest. But the requirements of life for dancers are the requirements one should be following just to live a healthy life.
Hanya almost made it to 100 years. And Martha. And Ruth St. Denis celebrated her 80th birthday about 10 times. It’s not just that they were moving, they were taking care of their bodies. Also, dancers should read a poem a day. You need imagery. In addition, we have to be nature watchers. Watch a storm. Watch the stars. Watch the clouds. Watch everything, and let it become part of your movement. People are out of touch with nature. We need to make a point of bringing it back into our lives.
What advice can you give young dance students today? Whether you become a performer or not, you’ll live a richer, deeper, healthier life if you study dance. It will give you dignity and a sense of who you are, of the way you move. And you’ll move with honesty.
And to those who are striving to be professionals, hang in there. Don’t ever give up. Just because something seems too difficult at the time, don’t think that you won’t be able to do it. Maybe it will happen a month later or a year later. You just have to trust the animal part of your brain, the medulla oblongata.
Hang on to the art of dance, but supplement it with museums, concerts, reading poetry, reading literature, reading plays. I assign my students to go to one room of one museum each week. You have to water the flower of the dancer with all the other arts.