Going Gaga: Q&A with James Graham

Prize-winning dancer and San Francisco's only Gaga instructor.

Written by:
David e. Moreno
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James Graham is a dancer/performer/choreographer/teacher and a consistently rising star in the Bay Area’s dance community. He received an Izzie (Isadora Duncan Award) for Outstanding Achievement in Performance as an Individual for an “Entire Season” (2013-2014) This was the same year he was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for “Guilty Survivor.” In 2017 he shared Outstanding Achievement in Performance-Ensemble with Sebastian Grubb for “Homeroom,” an evening-length duet about male relationships, masculinity, and human connections.” He is also the artistic director of his own company, James Graham Dance Theatre and the only certified Gaga instructor in the Bay Area. Culture Vulture sat down with Graham following one of his public Gaga/People dance classes.

CV: Congratulations on your well-deserved recognition for “Homeroom.” Since you’ve spent time in Israel, I’m curious if “Homeroom” was influenced by the classic 1987 Israeli dance, “Two Room Apartment”? Especially, since the original was based on the intimate interactions between a man and woman but was reworked for two male dancers in 2014 by Niv Shenfield and Oren Laor when it was shown in San Francisco?

JG: It wasn’t. (Laughing)

CV: Had you been to Israel prior to your receiving a dance scholarship to train with Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv?

JG: The first time I went to Israel was in 2007 and yes, it was dance related…I received funding from Kathryn Karipides Scholarship in Modern Dance. It was very specific; it was for people going into a graduate study in dance. It hadn’t begun yet; I was accepted and about to start. So, this was the chance to travel before going to Ohio State. I didn’t know what Gaga was actually at that time. I had seen Batsheva; I’d seen Emanuel Gat Israeli choreographer/company and that piqued my interest. So, I kept asking myself, ‘What is going on in Tel Aviv? ‘What is this contemporary dance scene in Israel?’ And, then there was the cuisine, the Mediterranean beach culture and, queer scene in Tel Aviv which all changed my view of Israel as just being a religious place. The conflict was interesting, the history was interesting, so, lots of things pulled me over there.

That summer I was there two months and took Gaga and a workshop with Batsheva pretty early which was a mix of things like ballet, hip hop, modern…kind of strange in a way. But we did Gaga and right away for me I knew ‘This is fun. This is it!’ So I came back again in ’08, ’09, and moved there for a year in 2011, and I keep going back.

CV: At what point in your training with this Naharin did he select you to become a Certified Gaga Instructor and to take part in his pilot training program of international Gaga teachers?

JG (Laughing) It sounds like he walked in and said, “You! Come with me golden child!” In 2011 I went to take a certification program which I had to apply to and just from being around [Tel Aviv and Batsheva] I knew something was going to happen, be developed, in training non Company members to teach Gaga. But in typical Israeli fashion it was always changing. “It’s happening in a month.” “It’s happening in four years.” “It’s going to be two people.” “It’s going to be 50 people…” So no idea, but finally they put out a call and I applied, we interviewed, we Skype’d, we talked and I got into that. Not everyone finished it. There were actually a lot of people who dropped out or were asked to stop for whatever reason but after a year about 20 of us, a very international group, certified. Before that, only Company members who had danced in Batsheva were allowed to teach Gaga and who wanted to teach Gaga, not everyone wants to. So that meant that there were a lot of people in Israel teaching and they wanted to spread it out.

CV: I’m sure this is something you’ll be asked to do for a long time, but could you tell readers what Gaga is, and all that it encompasses? What is Gaga…tonight?

JG: I have many different versions; I have the elevator speech, I have the ‘Oh, you don’t actually care you’re just asking me to be polite’, I have the ‘Oh, you do care, dancer version but’…Gaga is a sensation based movement practice. We’re moving. It’s focused on the physical act of moving/dancing, and we’re aware of our sensation—in a really summarized, succint way. Inside of that, as dancers we’re building tools to use on stage, in rehearsal, in class…and as people we’re just building tools to live our lives, be more embodied. Some of those tools look like being more delicate; being more sensitive, being more powerful, changing stories quickly, feeling forces outside of our body, feeling forces inside our body, being more open, using more fantasy. Those are all tools that when we practice we get better at them. We have more to pull from, to play with. It’s like describing a painting or song. You have to see the painting and you have to hear the song to really get it. So you have to do Gaga to really get it, which is a bit tricky because (Laughing) you have to explain it enough to get people interested in it to take the class.

I’ll explain the framework. It’s a movement class. We never stop moving for a full hour. As a teacher I give prompts, directives. There are no mirrors. Music is ambient if played at all. No one is allowed to watch. I give more of a setting. I set the table for them, set the tone; give them a picture of the environment.

CV: How does a Gaga/Dancers class differ from Gaga/People class?

JG: The language is 100% the same. If you are going to a Gaga/Dancers class it’s assumed that you have an ambition to be on stage as a dancer. So what that looks like in class is we’ll take the information into classical ballet moves, into curving the spine, balancing on one leg, some kind of form, and also partnering, touching other people. Gaga/Dancers will do more partnering and I will assume more for dancers, that they know how to use space, know how to jump, something without injuring themselves. I assume that they know how to research something or that it’s familiar for them to move.

With Gaga/People I don’t assume that people know how to not injure themselves, I give more options, ‘You can do this, you can do that. Try this…’ I tend to look at who is in the room with me—get a vibe.

CV: Is it easier or more challenging for professional dancers to ‘get’ what the Gaga experience is? Do they need a bit of untraining to really find its essence?

JG: Yes! Totally. I’ve seen that many times. Yes! There is a lot of patterning a lot of assumptions about what movement is—what dance is, what my body should look like moving through space. Most are used to moving with form, with shape, with how something looks and not how it feels. So yes, it can be a hindrance. And, I’ll see that even from people who come in from Contact Dance or from Ecstatic Dance I can see they aren’t with me. Stop. Hold on. Calm down. Listen to what I am saying. Watch what’s happening. Listen to what is happening in your body and follow whatever that is. Instead of BOOM ok, I’m just doing the thing, I’m doing the thing, I’m in it.

I love what Ohad says which is, “before you start telling your body what to do, we must listen, must notice, must feel, must be aware instead of assuming and jumping” into whatever it is, class, rehearsal. Take a breath. Listen to what’s going on.

CV: Naharin developed it after being told he would never dance again after having back surgery and subsequently cured himself. What about Gaga enables dancers to work with or through injuries? What is it about this movement approach that enables healing?

JG: It’s many things but I think it’s much about all that I just said about listening, sensitivity, and awareness. And, that doesn’t mean that we move slowly and that we are this precious serious thing. We can move fast. We can explode. We can jump with listening and this can help us land softly or correctly. And, it’s really not about ambition, to accomplish or to achieve. There’s no, “More turns! Higher leg!!” you’re not impressing me, you’re not being watched and judged for anything that you’re doing. There is an overlay of acceptance and non-judgment about what our bodies are, who we are in the moment and how we feel, what we can do and not do. It’s just what is. I feel that very strongly and I hope my students feel that very strongly. And, we can change our minds about what IS. We can push those limits that we believe we can or cannot do but with that acceptance and lack of ambition there is a lot of space in the body, spaciousness in the room, in our minds.

In terms of healing, gentle movement as opposed to no movement–because something is injured or recovering enables healing–and is good for us. It’s funny because I would never say, ‘Come to my healing class!’ I would never bill it as such but it’s interesting hearing you say that. I think it’s totally right. Like there is a lot to be had there and not just physically. That notion of radical self-acceptance, my god, can heal a lot of trauma, and feelings of worthlessness…

CV: How much protocol is there to an hour-long Gaga class? How much of its vocabulary is an instructor expected to present in 60-minutes?

JG: There’s no book, nothing set in stone, how to start a class, how many things I need to cover, how to end a class…There are some ‘usuals,’ like most teachers start with something slow to get in touch and just warm up. For me I’ll prepare by having headlines, look through my notes what did we do last week, what haven’t I done in a while? Like oh, I want to work on ‘Yoyo’ (Gaga term), collapsing into horizontal forces, delicacy or explosive power…Other than that I just try to be really present in the room. What’s happening in my body, what wants to come up, and what’s happening in the room? It’s all in the moment and very alive.

CV: Naharin didn’t start dancing professionally until he was 22 years of age, and was still able to join dance companies, such as Martha Graham, without formal training. Do you think that would still be possible for a dancer joining his company today since his dancers have trained elsewhere before joining Batsheva?

JG: No, not Batsheva, they don’t like old people (laughing.) You have to be 24 and under to audition for The Young Ensemble, and then most of the dancers that end up in The Company come from the Young Ensemble. So that window is very small… I don’t like that narrative in dance where one thinks, “Oh, my god! I started so late, I was 14.” I really don’t like that narrative. “I’m retiring, I’m 26!”… It feels like we are missing a lot of work, pleasure, enjoyment, and careers. I started late. So that view doesn’t make sense to me. (Laughing) I started in this room, [UC Berkeley Bancroft studios where the interview took place] I was 22, 23 actually. It’s a different beast to be in something like Batsheva or Nederland Dance Theater, a company like that but that’s the exception than rather a more universal experience of what it is to be a dancer in this world, even in the contemporary modern dance world. Very few people have that reality. Yes! It’s totally possible, for sure! You can start almost whenever and still have a career…

CV: Just not in Batsheva, what irony.

JG: Yes, exactly.

CV: Do the company members continue to study other dance methods once they join Batsheva? Is that discouraged or encouraged?

JG: Yes, the Young Ensemble does have ballet and a lot of other forms and much Gaga as well. The main Company does not. I heard once that (the main Company) has ballet once a month and it was still optional. But I’ve never seen that happen–so no, just Gaga. They would do it every day for one hour 15-minutes before rehearsal. And, of course, they can do whatever they want on their own…

CV: You’re about to premiere your own new dance for SFDanceworks. Where are you in this process with this new work? Does it have a title yet?

JG: Hmm, oh my. We don’t have a title yet. and we haven’t started rehearsal. I believe it will be a trio—two men and a woman. It will be very interesting to me to be working with trained professional ballet dancers…which, is different from the way I work–where I create works around the people that I already have relationships with or are around me…So, I am waiting to see them, see what their energy is, what do they have to offer?

CV: How did you develop your annual Valentines production of “Dance Lovers” where you curate partners, married couples, or crushes, to dance together in a dance created specifically by or for them?

JG: DL started when I was dating a dancer who now lives in Berlin. I had just been back in the city and was ready to create something–make some work. I had this idea for a piece, and I wanted to do a piece with this guy since we were both dancers. Then I decided to invite other people. I wanted to see these other partnerships that don’t necessarily get to dance together professionally. It just happened to be that the date that worked best on the calendar was Valentines. Kismet. Then I just continued doing this program as a way to keep me creating new works in the duet form—which I love. It was low stakes in a certain way, and I get to curate and invite dancers that I really want to see perform or whom I think would be good together.

With Sebastian (Grubb) for “Homeroom” it was sort of the same way. We aren’t lovers but good friends and it was more like, ‘I wanna make a work with you!’ Not like, ‘I wanna make a duet, who should I cast?’ It started small like a10-minute duet, and then I kept adding sections over time until it was an hour long.

CV: If you were interviewing James Graham what would you like to know about him? What would you ask him?

JG: Huh… Interesting question, it’s different from just asking, “What else would you like us to know.” I would ask him if he thought he was changing the world with what you are doing?”

And, I would answer to that (laughing), Yes! I am changing the world with what I am doing both with giving people the space and opportunity, the guidance to have a more beautiful relationship with their moving bodies. It matters to someone watching me, it matters to me, it matters to what I am doing. They care on a basic human level. Me in my body doing what I am doing helps them feel more alive, more connected to our human experience, like what we do matters. Like someone gives a shit and is creating something thoughtful or beautiful…That’s what I would say.

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