Dancing to a tune of success Onstage: Columbia-raised teen, winning raves in New York for her work with Dance Theater of Harlem, will perform in Baltimore next weekend.

October 26, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When last we met up with Alicia Graf, back in April, the tall teen-ager from Columbia had just finished six months with Dance Theater of Harlem and was about to perform with the ballet company on its annual spring trip to Washington's Kennedy Center.

She hadn't made her New York debut yet. When it came last month, it brought forth a fanfare of superlatives from Anna Kisselgoff, chief dance critic of the New York Times, who praised Graf's assured and serpentine performance as the Siren in "The Prodigal Son."

Everyone now seems to have an eye on Graf, who is just 18 and celebrates her first anniversary with Dance Theater of Harlem on Dec. 2.

Her professional debut in Baltimore comes next weekend, and we can see what the fuss is about.

Graf will be appearing with the troupe at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, dancing in "Sasanka," by South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, and in "The Firebird," the company's classic production of the Stravinsky story-ballet with decor and costumes by Geoffrey Holder.

Graf will play the Princess of Unreal Beauty, captured by the evil King Kastchei and rescued by a handsome prince with the help of the magical Firebird.

The princess and the siren were both signature roles of former principal Lorraine Graves, another tall, spectacular dancer with the company. Graf seems to be inheriting her roles -- in every sense, big shoes to fill.

Interviewed early one morning by telephone in Syracuse, N.Y., where the company had stopped during a tour of the northeastern United States and Canada, Graf sounds as though filling them is just a matter of taking company class and learning the roles she's assigned.

And so far it has happened just that way.

But then, Graf has been called a natural since she started to dance as a child. Her teacher, Donna Harrington Payne, who runs Ballet Royale in Ellicott City, saw right away that little Alicia had the perfect proportions, flexibility and feet for classical ballet.

Add to that a belief in hard work that she credits to her parents, and Graf has all the ingredients to become a remarkable dancer. Dance Theater of Harlem, she says, is everything she thought it would be.

Arthur Mitchell, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, founded the company in 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The first African-American to rise to the highest rank of a stellar ballet company, Mitchell wanted to give children in Harlem, where he grew up, the opportunity to learn an art form that combined athletic skill and artistic judgment.

Despite many ups and downs, including a deficit that almost closed the company two years ago, Dance Theater of Harlem is recognized as one of the world's most versatile troupes, with a repertory that ranges from Balanchine to contemporary African work. Mitchell, now 63, still heads it.

"I don't want to reconsider at all," Graf says of her decision to quit high school one semester short of graduation. "I really love this company, and I've had opportunities here I never would have had if I'd gone to college."

At the same time, she's been conscientious about the promise she made her parents, that she'd finish high school on her own time.

Somewhere in the long days that start with company class at 10 a.m. and finish rehearsals at 7 p.m., she has completed two of the three courses she needs to graduate: English literature and a computer course that fulfills the state's technical-education requirement. That leaves one course, which she's working on now, in U.S. constitutional law.

She takes her courses at the Professional Children's School in New York, which is set up for young dancers, actors, musicians and circus performers. Most of her course work is completed by correspondence. For the computer course, she rented a laptop and sent the disk back to the school for her teacher to check her work.

Dance Theater of Harlem spends much of its season on the road, performing at universities and civic centers across the country. Graf's first tour took her to Syracuse and Elmira, N.Y., Portland and Orono, Maine, and then on to major venues in Montreal and Toronto. The company flies down to Baltimore late this week.

For most of the tour, the company has been on buses, which, Graf acknowledges, is something of a drag.

"It's really hard to be on a bus that long," says the young woman known for coming more than an hour early to ballet class in order to do a long warm-up before she takes her first plie and tendu. "You get really stiff."

On some days, the dancers step off the bus at 3 p.m., grab some lunch, take a shortened company class at 5 p.m., space the dances on stage at 6 p.m., get into makeup and costumes at 7 p.m. and perform at 8 p.m.

And the next day they get on the bus at 10 a.m. and start over.

"It just means you have to be that much more focused on what you're doing," says Graf of the compressed daily regimen.

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