Elizabeth Auclair © John Deane

Elizabeth Auclair has been a well-loved visiting faculty member with us at the School for the past 12 years. Remarkably, since 2015, she has lived overseas, holding a full-time teaching position as a Visiting Guest Professor, at Kobe College in Nishinomiya, Hyōgo, Japan.

Elizabeth was a Principal Dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, with whom she danced from 1993 through 2009, performing many of Graham’s signature roles. She has since served as rehearsal director for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and frequently stages the Graham work on professional companies and university students.

We have had the great pleasure and privilege of Elizabeth’s presence at the School as a regular guest since 2004; she has inspired those whom she has taught here, as she continues to do in Japan.

We asked Elizabeth to tell us a bit about her background:

“Growing up I was an avid athlete, participating in virtually every sport offered at school, finding a particular affinity for swimming and running. My introduction to dance was an early-days aerobic dance class at the local YMCA that a friend and I happened upon out of curiosity, (complete with disco music, funky lights and a red-lycra-clad teacher!). After the hilarity wore off, I realized that something in me had been awakened – just moving with the music; it resonated in a new way, on a much deeper level than either the social dancing I knew, or the sheer physicality of athletics. Following my growing passion, I moved to New York City after high school, trained more seriously, and ultimately found my primary home dancing with the Graham Company, in addition to working with many other companies and artists.”

Elizabeth Auclair and Jennifer Conley in Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries

When we asked her about teaching the technique and choreography of Martha Graham, Elizabeth had this to say:

One of the great privileges of teaching the Graham technique and repertory to dancers is the opportunity to observe, and hopefully facilitate, a rather phenomenal process. The work asks that the dancer strip away all that is false, artificial, and decorative, to work with the raw material of the self from a place of ever greater authenticity and simplicity. It is a demanding and arduous endeavour, requiring the courage to see oneself truthfully, sending the dancer into very uncomfortable territory at times – moments that also hold the greatest potential for true transformation. It is a kind of magical alchemy – that state referred to by Lorca as ‘duende.

Through dedication and the practice of forging and honing the craft, and by relinquishing the inessential, a clarity begins to emerge – of body, mind, and self; greater depths of authentic, resonant, and meaningful expression become possible, a sense of liberation is gained, and the unique individuality of each dancer is gloriously revealed. It is my honour, and a great joy, to participate in guiding dancers on this remarkable journey of unfolding, discovery, and development.

Elizabeth Auclair in Martha Graham’s Night Journey

As Ms. Graham’s work demands this kind of rigor of the dancer – as she, perhaps dramatically, put it, ‘nothing less than everything’ – my 16 years with the Graham company saw this process repeat itself a great many times, challenging me always to go further, dig deeper, to continue exploring, and growing. Out of this came profound richness, unexpected and meaningful discoveries, as well as a sense of immense joy and reward.  Performing her great works on the stages of many countries and cultures around the world was enormously impacting, illuminating, thrilling, and greatly enriching.

A few experiences (of many) that stood out:

  • performing the role of Medea in Graham’s Cave of the Heart at the ancient, 5000 seat Herodes Atticus Theater at the Acropolis in Athens. The weight, power, and timelessness of this mythological tragedy were heavy in the air, rippling up the circular wall of people I faced from the stage.
  • at a summer festival in Italy – an elevated, outdoor stage set atop Ravello, high above the sea, and on the stage – able to see only the sea. A surreal, disconcerting, and gorgeous experience. It was a shared bill – The Women of Graham and the Men of Limón – very charged, very dynamic, very memorable.
  • another outdoor summer performance – Downtown Dance, in the financial district of Manhattan. Just before we were to begin, the sun, having just rounded the corner of the sheltering skyscrapers, struck the black marley stage full force, heating it up faster than a frying pan on a high flame. It was a 12-minute piece (an excerpt from Chronicle 1914). Being the lead character, I was on stage for the full duration, ultimately sustaining second degree burns on the soles of my feet! Even today, I am at a loss to explain why, when feet were burning, we continued dancing, why we didn’t just stop. A very intense performance experience it was. Two weeks on crutches, much burn cream, and a new layer of skin later – I was good as new!”

We then asked Elizabeth to tell us something about her experiences in Japan:

Elizabeth in class at Kobe College © Saiko Fujii

“Living and teaching in Japan over the past few years has been an extraordinary and inspiring, if challenging, experience. I learn a great deal from my students as I navigate my way through language struggles and cultural perplexities. It is the work we do together in the studio, communicating in the universal language of movement, that becomes the bridge of connection to all within us that we share in common. And as the Graham technique and work deal with, and evolved out of, Martha’s quest to find a conduit in movement to the ‘inner landscape’, the state of the soul, the inherent human condition in all manner of circumstances, the work itself brings us quite naturally into that realm of shared commonality, as is the case with dancers from anywhere in the world that I work with. We laugh, and dance, a lot! Additionally, the serendipity of re-encountering Naoko Murakoshi in Japan has resulted in a very special and treasured connection.”

Finally, we asked Elizabeth to tell us about her experience with us in Toronto:

“Teaching at the School of TDT (as an annual guest since 2004) is always an invigorating, much anticipated, and cherished experience for me. That the Graham tradition has been so long embraced, appreciated, and valued there makes the School feel like a second home to me. There is a dynamic energy, warmth, and enthusiasm – it is a place where open-mindedness, curiosity, and adventurousness are supported and thrive in the grounding framework of a robust and resolute integrity, and a serious commitment to the art form. I am deeply grateful and honoured to have the opportunity to teach in a place where such vision continues to provide this very rare and relevant environment.

In our fast-paced modern day lives, distractions are everywhere, easily pulling us off centre, compromising our grounding and sense of meaningful connection to others. Through our work in the studio, in the arts, there is a call to regain an awareness of our deeper, truer selves, and reconnect with our authentic nature and collective humanity.

A message to students – believe that your commitment, perseverance, daily efforts, and struggles matter – they absolutely do. And, as MG said, ‘keep your channel open’ – that path between your love of dance and the doing of it. Or as another sage once said, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.”

Thank you, Elizabeth, and we look forward to having you with us many more times in the future!