The first time I met Mary Lyn Graves, the newest dancer with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, was in September 2012, after a performance, when the dancers usually mingle with the crowd. As anyone who has seen a Ririe-Woodbury performance already knows, their shows are physically and mentally demanding and the dancers are exhausted afterwards. Graves, however, was patient, open, and kind, as we ended up having a fairly lengthy conversation about her background in ballet and her transition to contemporary dance. She was intelligent, thoughtful, and analytical, surprisingly so for a recent college graduate who had just finished her first professional performance with the company.
Graves’ journey to the stage began in her hometown of Tulsa, OK. As the daughter of a dancer who did not want her to follow in her footsteps, Graves knew at the age of two, after seeing a performance of “The Nutcracker,” that she wanted to be a dancer. Fortunately for us, two-year-olds are permitted tantrums, and Graves persisted until her mother reluctantly enrolled her in a community dance class at the age of three. A year later, frustrated with her teacher’s approach, she told her mother, “I know a plié isn’t about ‘opening windows’ and I want to take a realdance class!” (Plié actually comes from the French word for “bent” and refers to a bended knee position fundamental to ballet.)
From then on, Graves has focused on dance. In addition to dance classes, she spent her summers taking intensives with a variety of companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BalletMet Columbus, and Texas Ballet Theater. She studied at the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education and performed with Tulsa Ballet II.
She also enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where she was first introduced to modern dance. Graves sees ballet as an excellent preparation and foundation for modern dance, with its exactness, restrictions on individual expression and focus on how the dance looks from the outside. She contrasts this with contemporary dance, which she sees as more about the awareness of internal physical feelings. She openly admits she is still learning, tends to be focused on details and appreciates her colleagues who help her explore physicality and see a bigger picture.
While at the University of Oklahoma, Graves met Cheyla Clawson, wife of 1st Lieutenant Jeremy Clawson, originally of Utah. When 1st Lt. Clawson was killed in 2009, his widow chose to memorialize him through dance and Graves was invited to participate. A performance held in Salt Lake City allowed her to spend a month studying with Ririe-Woodbury Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen. She immediately fell in love with both Boye-Christensen and the company: the teaching method, the distinctive movement vocabulary, the challenges, and the tightness and closeness of the dancers all spoke to her needs as a dancer.
As graduation approached in May 2012 (Graves received a BFA in Dance/Ballet Performance), that same determined dancer who knew so clearly what she wanted at the age of two, knew she wanted to come back to Salt Lake City and work with Boye-Christensen and Ririe-Woodbury. And she made it happen.
Sarah Thompson is a retired physician and psychiatrist, as well as a writer and a fan of the arts. Her writing has been published in a variety of magazines and textbooks and she is currently working on a short story and a novel.