Comic Woody Allen dashed through the rain into New York’s Uris Theater wearing a tuxedo, black sneakers and a worried expression. He was a little late as escort to the First Lady, Betty Ford, a role that he got by paying $5,000 for his ticket and because both he and Betty Ford are former Graham pupils—although Allen’s tutelage was brief.
If the pairing was curious in the audience, so was it on stage. There with the caftan-clad high priestess of modern dance, Martha Graham, were the two most widely known classical ballet artists of all time—Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn. To celebrate the Graham company’s 50th anniversary and pay off debts of $75,000, some 1,900 dance enthusiasts had contributed between $50 and $10,000 a seat. The main event was Lucifer, a new ballet especially choreographed by Graham for Nureyev who had tried modern dance only once before. It was a combination that could only be a wild success—or embarrassing failure.
Why Lucifer? “He is not Satan,” explained Graham. “He is the Promethean figure who brought light, fire. When he fell from heaven through pride he ceased to be a god. I felt curious, explosive self-mockery was a part of Lucifer and a part of my life and Rudolf’s too.”
For a time it seemed as if the confused ghosts of Pavlova and Isadora Duncan were conspiring to thwart the unusual alliance. Graham, who keeps trim at 81 by daily exercises and nine-hour work days (she stopped dancing in 1969), had originally balked at a benefit performance. “I don’t believe in publicity stunts,” she said. “I’ve never done them.” But she also acknowledged, “There are bills.” So many in fact, that last season Graham was forced to dig into her own pocket to keep the company going.
Nureyev, 36, who made his U.S. modern dance debut last December in Paul Taylor’s Aureole, first approached Graham last spring with the idea of working together. Joined by Fonteyn, he reiterated the proposal upon learning of Graham’s financial plight, and the two artists even offered to dance the pas de deux from Swan Lake as their own “gift to Martha” (which they did in performance before Lucifer).
Martha Graham has repeatedly turned down previous requests from top ballet stars who wanted to dance with the Graham troupe. Nureyev, Graham feels, is unique. She told Sally Moore of PEOPLE: “He is the least typed of any dancer I know who is ballet trained. He has a completely fearless body. I knew it would work, if we didn’t kill each other.”
Temperament, as it turned out, was not a problem. The lack of time was. Since both Nureyev and Fonteyn had other commitments, they rehearsed Lucifer separately, using stand-ins. Fonteyn, who at 56 is marking the 42nd year of her career, had never before broken out of the classical mold. Dashing off to do one-night performances in upstate New York and Connecticut, she would hurry back to Manhattan to rehearse the next day. For her role as Night, in which she beguiles and then all but destroys Lucifer, Fonteyn had to dance barefoot for the first time since 1940. After a quarter-century in ballet shoes, she worried that her feet might “come unglued.”
Rudolf had other worries. Rehearsing well into night for 17 straight days, he plunged into Graham’s gymnastic modern dance regimen with its knee-crawls and perilous back-falls. “The last thing I need,” fretted Graham, “is for Rudolf Nureyev to have an accident in my class.” Just three days before the performance Nureyev returned to New York from a quick trip to Australia, stepped off the plane and twisted his ankle. “A dancer might limp offstage,” shrugged Graham, “but he wouldn’t be caught dead limping onstage.” Nureyev, who danced with a bandaged right ankle, did neither.
From the moment Betty Ford rose from her fifth-row seat before the performance to lead an ovation for her onetime teacher, the gala was a triumph. The evening raised about $200,000, more than enough to pay Graham’s creditors and finance next season’s schedule. Still Martha Graham will not think about retiring. “I know some women of 16 who are old. They have settled themselves very nicely, and that’s going to be the height of their adventure,” she muses. “Naturally, I don’t agree. I’m still hungry for every sensation I can get.”