8A - The Michigan Daily - Monday, April 12, 1999
Young dancer promoted to soloist of Harlem theater
The Washington Post
Somewhere in Arnold and Martha
Graf's comfortable brick home, across
the road from a sheep farm about 10
miles from Baltimore, lies a forgotten
pair of binoculars. They seemed a rea-
sonable purchase at the time - the
Grafs assumed they'd need help spot-
ting their daughter Alicia in the blur of
corps dancers when, still in high
school, she first joined Dance Theatre
But Alicia Graf didn't spend much
time in the back. She vaulted into prin-
cipal roles in her first season with the
company, and now that she's in her third
year, her name frequently tops the cast
lists. Most recently, the 20-year-old
danced leading parts in two of the three
works during the company's week-long
engagement at the Kennedy Center
Opera House in Washington, D.C.
Graf is not the typical doll-size bal-
lerina. Poised on her toes, she stands
over 6 feet tall; she's the kind of dancer
for whom the term "long-legged" is a
woeful understatement. In motion, she
is at once bracingly free-spirited and
extraordinarily mature. Recently pro-
moted to the middle rank of soloist, she
has been entrusted with some of the
most demanding and showy roles in the
DTH repertory, roles she takes to like a
Graf is an ideal the way all ballerinas
are - with feet, legs and spine pos-
sessed of that rare mix of length, plian-
cy and strength. But in other terms, she
is a different sort of ideal: a woman of
color gaining recognition in an intense-
ly competitive, white-dominated pro-
fession. Her father is a white communi-
ty organizer from Manhattan's Lower
East Side and her mother an African-
American social worker and former
model raised on a North Carolina farm.
They settled in Maryland's Howard
County when Arnold Graf became the
regional director of a community foun-
Graf took her first dance class while
still in diapers. Serious training began in
nearby Columbia at the Ballet Royale
Academy, where Graf's muscles were
molded under the eye of Donna
Harrington-Payne, a Welsh native.
From the first, Harrington-Payne
says, she knew Graf was a born dancer.
"She was very, very light and agile, and
movement for her was extremely natur-
al," she says. "Her limbs went into
positions that many dancers fight to get
to. When you look at a body like that
you think, 'My God, this young lady
would be a marvelous classical
In pursuing ballet, however, Graf
was on a path that too often leads to
heartbreak. It's a profession with
impossibly particular physical require-
ments. Trim and tiny is the norm. Few
male dancers have the size and strength
to support a woman as tall as Graf (5
feet 10 in socks).
Then there is the issue of race. Ballet
is abysmally segregated. African-
American dancers are rare in the major
companies outside the primarily black
Dance Theatre of Harlem. Even
Harrington-Payne knew her student
would have a hard time getting hired by
a classically based company; as she
notes, "Choices are quite limited for
someone of a multiracial background."
Graf, however, was undeterred.
"I never had a race issue with
myself," she says. "I knew my talent
was good enough that it would take me
somewhere. ... I never thought that
race would have too much to do with it.
That might have been my naivete talk-
ing, but I always thought that if I work
hard enough and I'm just as good as the
Mitchell told her he thought she had
promise, but he wanted her to first fin-
ish her senior year at Centennial High
School in Ellicott City.
"That's not really what I was inter-
ested in," Graf says. "I didn't want to
be in school. Miss Donna said there
wasn't anything else she could do for
me. I was ready to be performing. We
said thank you and went'home." -
A few months later, she attended a
DTH master class in Virginia, after
which Mitchell stunned her with the
news that not only did he want to hire
her on the spot but he would also pay
for her to finish her academic studies at
New York's Professional Children's
"I was so ready to leave," Graf says.
"I liked high school. I was a good stu-
dent and got A's and everything. But I
knew I wanted to dance more than any-
It was that readiness, that stalwart self-
confidence, that appealed to Mitchell.
"There's a mix of a kind of youthfulness
and an old soul," he says. "She does
things with such a sense of authority you
forget how young she is. She doesn't
really know how good she is."
With her towering,' womanly body,
her voluptuous feet and legs and obvi-
ous beauty, Graf has been a natural in
the sexier dance roles. Still, she needed
a little tutoring in the art of seduction.
That fell to Suzanne Farrell, the leg-
endary Balanchine muse who coached
Graf last year in "Prodigal Son," in
which the Siren hotly romances the
hapless son, only to leave him in utter
"She'd say, You're like a bitch
you don't care about this man. You just
want to take his virginity, take
money,"' Graf recalls. "I'm really ot
like that at all. But the roles that aren't
you are the best onstage. It's like sub-
consciously, I guess I really want to be
like that." Sitting in a crowded diner,
she ducks her head with a shy grin.
Now Graf is firmly in the spotlight.
Beyond her eye-catching height and
polished technique, what is most capti-
vating about Graf is a sense of abun-
dant joy, as if her steps were another
form of bubbling, unselfconscos
Mom and Dad saw her first big per-
formance at the Kennedy Center last
year from the President's Box, arranged
through a friend on the center's board
of directors. That night Graf danced in
"Prodigal Son," and in the first-ever
performance of "South African Suite."
It was a magical experience, they say.
"We were right there in this box"
says Arnold Graf, "and there she '
His eyes dampen, and his voice almost
disappears. "I was stunned by her. Just
stunned by her."
Courtesy of The Washington Post
Alicia Graf strikes a creative position.
next person, I can go anywhere."
Harrington-Payne took Graf to sum-
mer workshops in New York, where she
studied at the venerable School of
American Ballet (the training arm of the
New York City Ballet) and American
Ballet Theatre. She took master classes
with Dance Theater of Harlem when the
company was in the Washington area,
and When she was 16 took a class at its
Harlem studios. Director Arthur
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