Together at a Tense Moment, Two Titans of Dance Turn Crisis into Creation

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Temperamental at the best of times, two of the greatest names in dance had special reasons to be seething last month as they prepared for a historic moment together. Mikhail Baryshnikov, furious that the American Ballet Theatre had eased out his friend and assistant, Charles France, had just resigned in a huff as the company's artistic director. Meanwhile, nonagenarian choreographer Martha Graham, who had prevailed upon Baryshnikov, 41, to perform with her company on the opening night of her 179th dance, still had no ending for the new work eight days before its scheduled debut.

Such anxieties might easily have escalated into a dance-floor clash of seismic proportions. But leave it to these two giants to act against type. Rehearsing six days a week, the strong-willed Baryshnikov—who will be pursuing both film and dance offers next year—demurely accepted the bluntest of criticism from Graham. And she managed to rein in the celebrated temper that years ago provoked her to rip a stage phone off the wall and, another time, to slap former student Tammy Grimes. "Misha and I are quite frank with each other," says Graham, who at 95 can still make a corps de ballet quake. "We're both after the truth."

Judging by the reaction of the opening-night audience, they found it. The new dance, a remake of Graham's 1938 classic "American Document," which she originally danced with her onetime husband, Erick Hawkins, won a thunderous ovation last week at New York's City Center Theater. Later, Baryshnikov and Graham received a second round of cheers at a Plaza Hotel gala co-hosted by former Graham student Gregory Peck, whose daughter Cecilia narrated the new work.

Surrounded by fans including Frank Sinatra, Bianca Jagger and Calvin Klein, the woman who literally invented modern dance seemed to defy her years, dressed in an elegant black Halston gown, her hair pulled back severely and shaped into a bow. "I kept working because I wanted to," says Graham. "I would still love to dance very much. But life takes its toll. So I've found another way."

Graham's fourth collaboration with Baryshnikov is all the more impressive considering her career nearly came to a close two decades ago. In 1970, under pressure from some members of her company, she finally recognized that her physical skill was waning and, at the age of 76, stopped dancing. "What happened then," says Graham's aide-de-camp, Ron Protas, 49, "is that the company fell apart, and she got sick because she thought her life was over." For the first time since she formed her company in 1926, years passed without a public performance. In 1973, Protas convinced Graham to return to work as a choreographer; gradually, as Graham's various infirmities subsided, the repertoire grew and improved. Last year New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff hailed Graham's "Night Chant" as a "wondrous...work of magic theater."

It must have been sweet reaffirmation for an artist whose work was once called ugly and greeted with catcalls. But that was long, long ago. Many top modern choreographers—Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey—have studied with Graham, and her trademark movements can now be seen in everything from Broadway's Cats to the music videos of former Graham student Madonna.

But problems persist. Even after recent fund-raisers by Liza Minnelli, Suzanne Vega and Philip Glass, the company is saddled with a $1.5 million deficit—foundation support having declined, in part because of Graham's advanced age. With no money to film Graham's classic works, many of them may survive only as long as she does. Jacqueline Onassis, an editor at Doubleday, last year convinced dance's grande dame to write her autobiography, so Graham has begun talking into a tape recorder about her 69-year career. "Mrs. Onassis is very forthright," says Graham. "I like that."

During rehearsals, Graham sometimes appears frail as she gestures at the dancers with black-gloved hands. But when she closes her eyes for a moment to reflect, she still seems a monumental figure, as imposing as if she were carved into Mount Rushmore. "I'm just as full of anguish and fear and delight as I was on the first dance," she confides. "You're never quite sure if the thing will hit your inner strength or not. You just hope it does."

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