Modern Dance Legend Martha Graham Celebrated - Interview with star Christina Carlisi in West Coast Premiere of “Martha”



Painting the picture of someone else’s life through performance is an exciting, but very risky task. Christina Carlisi is taking that chance, for passion’s sake, as she stars in the West Coast Premiere of Martha, by Ellen Melaver, a play about a woman who has had a profound impact on her life. 



Martha Graham’s influence on dance, which is often compared to Picasso’s influence on modern art and the impact that Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture, unequivocally transformed the art form. Beyond her work, Graham’s personal life was fraught with difficulties and challenges, but she pursued her vision with unwavering dedication, performing into her 70’s and choreographing into her 90’s. The show addresses the struggles that face aging performers. When is it time to say, “When?”

In Ellen Melaver’s play, written as homage to a great artist who also happened to be the first dancer invited to perform at the White House, the audience will get a glimpse of Grahams’ personality, her sense of humor, and ideologies. She lived 1894 –1991 and was an unwavering feminist, the first choreographer to regularly employ multiracial ensembles, and outside of her talent for movement, she revolutionized set design.



“Portraying this icon is an absolute privilege, albeit a terrifying thought,” says Carlisi. Comforting to know that she is being guided by the noted directed Stewart J. Zully.He hasworked with David Lindsay-Abaire (Pulitzer Prize winner, 2007), Romulus Linney, and many of today’s most admired actors. Most recently he directed the Los Angeles premiere of “White Guy On the Bus”, by Bruce Graham, at the Road Theatre.

Christina Carlisi brings her own impressive credentials to the Martha project with her work as an actress, and as a dancer along side notables such as Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Stanley Donen, Gower Champion, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, and Kenny Ortega. In a brief interview about the show, she gives some insight into her passion for Martha



Ester: How has Martha Graham influenced your life?

Carlisi: When I was a young dancer, Martha Graham frightened me. I was classically trained as a ballet dancer. Beautiful lines, graceful movements, lyrical storytelling. You might say, feminine. And here was Martha Graham…a woman who dared to be ‘ugly,’ angry, angular in her movement. She seemed masculine, visceral, unconventional, and confrontational. I didn’t understand her. It wasn’t until I stopped dancing as a professional and became an actor that I began to comprehend the genius and courage of Martha.

It was her words that influenced me first, particularly the famous letter she penned to Agnes DeMille. The influence of her dance, her movement, her breath, came later. A phrase I’ve always remembered from that letter she wrote, “You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased.” Those words inspire me when I doubt myself as a performer, as an artist. In a profession that can unearth great insecurity at times, these words have helped to lift me up, keep me moving forward, in spite of how I might feel. Martha Graham believed that movement never lies. The expressive capacity of her body, and her connection to the spirit that moved her, this enabled her to tell stories in a way that no artist had ever done previously.




Ester: What do you think drove Martha Graham, and why did she refuse to quit dancing until she was in her 70’s?

Carlisi: Martha believed that she was chosen to bring modern dance to the world. She, her body and her persona, was the art form. I think she felt that if she didn’t do it, the art would be lost. That, I believe is what drove her throughout her career.

Ester: Why were you drawn to dance?

Carlisi: I’m not sure how to answer that question. My mother first introduced me to ballet when I was five. She was a great lover of the Ballet. I began taking classes…and never stopped. I think that dance chose me. I don’t think I really had a say in the matter.



Ester: What dancers do you notice today? Who would you buy a ticket to see?

Carlisi: I love the dancers of today! They are so athletic and so versatile, such strength! I’m just crazy about the influence that hip hop has had on modern dance, influence that modern has had on ballet…the way street dancing influences jazz, acrobatics influences musical theater, and so on. It’s opened up a world of new movement, new discoveries of the body, and new ways to tell a story. But, that’s what dance does, tells stories with our bodies. Just think of all the new stories you can tell when you have all these different influences from so many different cultures and walks of life. Ok, back to the question…who would I buy a ticket to see? Well, Martha Graham for sure…her company! I love some of the things they do at REDCAT. I just saw an amazing Butoh performance…Japanese performance art. It was incredible. I also love Misty Copeland and Bill T. Jones’ work. I’ve seen some amazing flamenco, and Belly Dancing! I really would buy a ticket to just about anything that looks unique.



Ester: Can audiences expect to learn something new about Martha Graham from Ellen Melaver’s play? Any hints?

Carlisi: Absolutely yes, LOTS of new things. Hints? Martha was funny, for one.  That’s enough, come see the play!

Ester: Words to live by?

Carlisi: Elaine May said, “The only safe thing is to take a chance.” I like that…and I try to live by it!

MARTHA opens at 7:30pm on March 12, and runs Sundays at 7:30pm through April 16, 2017. The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. Tickets are $25 and can be reserved here. For more information:(818) 687-8559.


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