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By Blakeley White-McGuire
A bold dancer with a flair for the dramatic, Blakeley White-McGuire has been a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company since 2002. She can command the stage with angst or humor, and has performed lead roles in Graham’s Appalachian Spring, Diversion of Angels, Errand Into the Maze, and Maple Leaf Rag. Growing up in southern Louisiana, White-McGuire started dancing at Mardi Gras balls. “My first payment,” she says, “was in the form of a crystal bowl, which I then gave to my math teacher for helping me pass high school algebra.” She came to NYC in 1993 and completed the Martha Graham Center’s Professional Trainee Program in 1996. She has also danced with Jacquelyn Buglisi, Martha Clarke, Sean Curran, Richard Move, Pascal Rioult, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She has taught at The Ailey School, the Graham school, and the Neighborhood Playhouse. She has also presented her own choreography at Jacob’s Pillow and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. While on tour last April, White-McGuire responded to the question, “Why do I dance?”
Jet-lagged at 4 a.m. in my Paris hotel room, I read a quote by the late Merce Cunningham: “You have to love dancing to stick with it, it gives you nothing back…nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
In my hardest moments of dance life I understand that statement to my core. But now, here in Paris performing with the Martha Graham Dance Company, I feel the opposite is true. My dancing has given me everything.
We are in residence at Théâtre du Châtelet for one week, and I had the honor of opening our Paris season with Errand Into the Maze (1947), Graham’s dance about conquering fear. No dance could have been more appropriate for me since I was returning to the stage after recovering from a broken foot eight weeks earlier. My body still felt foreign, and I didn’t exactly trust it to heed my commands. But as the curtain rose on the stunningly beautiful house with its old-world balconies, there was no turning back. Like Ariadne, the dance’s heroine, I had to take those steps into the maze and conquer my own fears—the fear of hurting my body again or that my foot would not respond when I needed it most. As I stood alone onstage, taking that first shift up and down, I felt the audience with me, with Ariadne. They wanted this journey too, for themselves. We all understand the significance of a first step.
This process of exploring what Graham called the inner landscape is why I dance—not why I started, but what keeps me going. For me these dances are real, relevant to my life and to the state of being human. The performer and the audience come together in the theater to experience…something about life.
I love dance in all of its forms. I have studied many techniques and performed in various styles. But for me, it is Graham’s technique and major roles that have presented the greatest challenges. They offer me opportunities for growth both technically and artistically. There are moments when I feel like the whole endeavor of being a dancer is an “errand into the maze”—navigating the body and spirit, not knowing what trials and aches wait around the corner. But my course is set. It is my responsibility to my talent to take those steps, often into unknown territory.
I’ve never danced because it was fun—although I have a lot of fun dancing. Since childhood there has been some drumbeat propelling me to dance. It has inspired and comforted me throughout my life. I’ve never asked, Should I be a dancer? I’ve asked, How can I go on being a dancer? It is hard and exhausting and unappreciated in this world. But I do go on, because I love it and because there are people out there like me—and you reading this—who are touched by movement and can read the language of gesture. To share my dancing voice with them remains my inspiration.
The rewards of dance are fleeting. As Cunningham said, “There is no painting to hang on a wall or poem to publish.” However, when I look at what dance has given to me—my art, my work, travel, friends, my husband, and unique experiences shared with my family—it is my raison d’être. The dance is my teacher and the world is my classroom. This dancer’s life is a gift.
Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy White-McGuire.