Bertram Ross, 82; Was Leading Graham Dancer for 20 Years

Times Staff Writer

Bertram Ross, who spent 20 years as a leading dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company and afterward became a noted actor, choreographer and cabaret performer, has died. He was 82.

Ross died of pneumonia Sunday in New York City. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

The performer once joked that during his Graham years, "every night and twice on matinee days I was beaten, beheaded, blinded and castrated -- and it was wonderful! I never missed a performance."

"Dancing the works of Martha Graham has been the greatest fulfillment of my life," he told the New York Times in 1996. "I think her art is the greatest ever produced in this country. To have been part of that has been the greatest challenge and the greatest joy of my existence."

Ross was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920. His mother insisted that he study piano and gave him exposure to all sorts of theatrical performances, but he became more interested in painting. After attending Oberlin College in Ohio, he spent World War II preparing maps for the U.S. Army.

Returning home in 1947, he resumed his painting studies at the Art Students League in New York City, but soon discovered Graham's modern dance masterworks and found himself, in his words, "drawing the dancing and dancing the drawings."

He began studying dance with Graham in the early 1950s, and joined her company in 1953. Tall and handsome, he quickly became Graham's dancing partner, creating 35 roles in her repertory and eventually serving as co-director of her company.

For Ross, Graham choreographed such major roles as St. Michael in "Seraphic Dialogue," Adam in "Embattled Garden," and both Agamemnon and Orestes in "Clytemnestra," Graham's only full-evening dance drama. Reviewing it in 1963, British dance critic Richard Buckle wrote, "Ross is great but also subtle in everything he does, soul utterly invested in body."

"To work with Martha was to be in touch with everything that was human," Ross told Dance Magazine in 1996. "She was the kindest, she was the cruelest, she was the happiest, she was the saddest. She was a force of nature."

However, as Graham's dancing powers declined in the late 1960s, and her drinking increased, Ross found himself coping with impossible conditions. "Just before I left the company," he said in that Dance Magazine interview, "Martha hired two uniformed policemen and told them, 'Bertram Ross is a very dangerous man. He is capable of murder.' "

He quit Graham in 1973, appearing as a guest artist with other dance companies, as well as teaching and accepting freelance choreography assignments. He also explored acting, appearing in productions of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest" during the 1970s, before he formed his own 16-member dance company in 1978.

Then, in 1984, he began an unlikely new career as a cabaret performer with composer and pianist John Wallowitch. Longtime partners in their private life, the two toured widely, became the subject of Richard Morris' 1998 film documentary "Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment," and issued a CD of their songs in 2002.

However, Ross felt that this successful new career bothered the Grahamites. "When we were appearing in New York, I was disappointed that a lot of people from the dance world didn't come to hear us," he told Dance Magazine. "I have a feeling that they're a little disturbed that I've changed my image. To them, I'm still supposed to be Agamemnon."

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