Seeing Lorraine Graves dance the Princess of Unreal Beauty in “Firebird” or the bugle-bearing ballerina/majorette in “Stars and Stripes"--two of the roles she will perform with Dance Theatre of Harlem in the season at Pasadena Civic Auditorium starting Saturday--few people would wonder why the 5-foot-10 woman got into ballet.
But imagining Graves in the day-to-day job of running rehearsals and, occasionally, teaching the company seems less probable.
As a company dancer since 1978 and ballet mistress since 1980, Graves is no longer surprised that the curiosity about her career is in good part focused on her behind-the-scenes work. “A lot of people think I’m older than I am,” the 28-year-old comments, referring to the standard notion of the ballet mistress as a retired dancer. “Then they see me, and they say, ‘Why?’ ”
The answer? “I think they (Harlem company management) got interested in me,” Graves explains as she relates how only a few days after Glen Tetley set his “Greening” on the company in 1980, it became apparent that the novice company member knew not only her small part (she was a second-cast alternate) but “the entire ballet.”
Soon after Tetley had requested Graves to be his ballet’s rehearsal mistress, company director Arthur Mitchell asked the then 22-year-old if she would like to do the job “for everything else!”
“Since as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to watch things and remember what I’ve seen,” Grave says--thus she works without notes. “It’s all in my head,” she maintains. “But I really don’t realize what’s in my head till I have to pull it out.”
She mentions getting some help from videotapes and also from the dancers, especially those veterans who have knowledge about what a certain choreographer might have set. But it’s not simply memory that’s involved here; it’s authority, and there is no doubt about the strength of Graves’ convictions. As a company foreman, “My word is law,” she declares.
Still, she also remains a dancer in the company and her two positions aren’t always compatible. “Sometimes,” she admits, “it gets really sticky. I feel myself caught in the middle, and I sympathize with the dancers but I also understand management’s position.” Yet with her consistent calmness and firmness of tone, Graves says simply, “I try to decide what’s best all the way round.”
She takes a practical approach to the process of switching gears. “You have to separate the ballet-mistressing from the dancing. Once ‘half-hour’ (before curtain) is called, you have to become a dancer,” she says, adding that “if the ballet mistress’ work hasn’t been done up to that point, it’s too late and it’s up to the individual dancer to carry on.”
But she admits a strong liking for her ballet mistress job and credits it with helping her gain confidence as a performer. “It brought me out of whatever kind of shell I was in,” she says. “Since I’ve become ballet mistress I’ve really had the opportunity to ‘see’ myself and think about how I want to see myself.”
Graves admits that her bifocal role with the company is tiring, preventing her from having all the usual free hours that are part of the other dancers’ days. But she doesn’t talk of giving up either part of her career right now.
She recalls a time in her high school days when she thought she “wanted to have a normal life.” She skipped some classes and some rehearsals to go to football games and the like. “I got out there,” she remembers, “and I said, ‘Oh, this is kind of boring. My friends can’t really do what I can do. They can go to football games, but they can’t go to ballet.’ ”
Today, Graves’ notion of an interesting time is to challenge herself, both as dancer and ballet mistress: “When I get some free time I’m going to take each part in the repertory and I’m going to go through it and see how much of it I really know, to do , not just to look at.”