Los Angeles Times 

Sunday April 21, 1985

There are names in the dance pantheon that nearly everyone can identify--Pavlova, Nijinsky, Duncan, Graham. But there is one, here in Los Angeles, that only the cognoscenti can confirm:  Carmelita Maracci.

True, John Martin of the New York Times wrote six-column reviews in the 1940s proclaiming Maracci "a unique phenomenon . . (that one) in a generation manifestly destined for a great career." True, she had rave notices also in Paris Soir, the London Times and Dancing Times. True, she appeared on concert series that included such artists as Artur Schnabel and Pablo Casals. True, her performances, though infrequent, drew lines around the block and enthralled the audiences.

But unlike those who struggle for immortality, Maracci refused to compromise her sensibilities or her convictions. She turned away from the fame-makers and artist-merchants, often with just scant cause, and generally made herself inaccessible. By choice, she never connected with the major institutions nor lingered for long in the limelight.

Consequently, the public at large has never really known this extraordinarily gifted, innovative dancer. But now, after decades of denying interviews (she refuses to have her photograph taken), Maracci, at age 72, has agreed, in this instance, to talk for the record.

"People tell me that my unplanned oblivion was a tragedy," says the still-ardent iconoclastic dancer, "but I say no. Save that word for human suffering, for wars that kill innocent people, for the devastation of the poor and unwanted, for the corruption and cruelty that cause these things in the world. Mine is no tragedy. If art could relieve misery, I'd gladly sacrifice it."

Although crippled with arthritis, Maracci still teaches--always seated--at a modest Westside studio. As ever, her informed coterie of students is eager to hear Maracci's rousing, passionate views on art and philosophy, discussions that often touch on poets Robert Graves and Sylvia Plath, dramatist Antonin Artaud, writer Arthur Koestler, playwright Jean Genet, political commentator Dwight MacDonald and literary critic George Steiner.

She sits in her chair, a diminutive figure with an imposing personality and a six-foot laugh, hurling out words so musically in her baritone voice that they might be written as notes.

Maracci seems to accept what the fates have dealt or what she has ordained. Celebrity has never been a concern. (When Herbert Ross asked permission to use her name in his film, "The Turning Point," she refused. So, the reference in the film is merely to "Carmelita.) The regard of those in the dance world continues unabated, however.

Mention Maracci to Robert Joffrey and his eyes well up. "I was only 14 when I first saw her," he said recently backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, "but it might have been yesterday. That's how powerful an impression she made on me. There was, and still is, no one like her. She had incredible strength and supreme delicacy. Her technique was astonishing, perfection itself . . . multiple pirouettes on pointe and in high passe , entrechats huits . . . . But I don't think performing in public had great value to her. She was equally zealous alone in the studio."

Bella Lewitzky--who saw Maracci dance as regularly as any could, since they both lived in Los Angeles--marveled also at the technique: "She did beats coming down, not going up the way everyone else does, with her little heels pressed forward like tiny, perfect arrows. She was steel and passion. She knew the difference between technical feats and high art . . . her dedication to the latter was uncompromising. But audiences weren't ready for her dramatic insights into the human condition. They wanted pageantry and prettiness."

Allegra Kent, who Maracci considers her most gifted pupil, remembers being "knocked out" by the demonstrations and performances she witnessed 30 years ago, "especially her ultra eloquent hands and brilliant castanet playing." Cynthia Gregory, too, recalls entering the classroom to find Maracci "on pointe and wearing pink tights, puffing on a cigarette, flicking it out the window and dashing off a fast, furious series of pirouettes."

Those who have come in contact with Maracci the teacher--a huge group that has included Leslie Caron, Geraldine and Charlie Chaplin, Erik Bruhn, Janice Rule, Jerome Robbins, Gerald Arpino, Donald Saddler, Christine Sarry--talk about the endless hours she spent in the studio, perfecting her art with an almost religious fervor.

Rule, who left dancing to become an actress and eventually a lay psychoanalyst, brought Bruhn to class one day. Afterwards the great Danish danseur confessed that it made him "miserable" because he had finally seen a level of dancing he "could never match."

Maracci did not join him or the other luminaries attached to such big-time companies as American Ballet Theatre. Both Antony Tudor and Anton Dolin invited her to do "Giselle," after seeing a solo work she called "Dance of Elegance." And she actually attended a few rehearsals but found herself feeling "like an imbecile" plucking petals off a daisy . . . "he loves me, he loves me not."

While Maracci could step into the period style of Carlotta Grisi, she never failed to pierce the Romantic image with ironic comment. According to her husband Lee Freeson, a leading authority on Gordon Craig and a former actor with the Habimah Theater, she refused to perform onstage a ballet from the repertory or an authentic Spanish dance--although her command of both was formidable. She called herself "a hybrid" and created her own highly individual, interstylistic works.

"The terrain I traveled," says Maracci, "led me into Goya's land of terror and blood-soaked pits. I could not be a dancer of fine dreams and graveyard decor . . . so I danced hard about what I saw and lived. I was not an absentee landlord. I was one of the dispossessed."

The many, complex reasons for Maracci's retreat to a minor career--or, as she calls it, her "unplanned oblivion"--hinge on two catastrophic incidents, both of them causing her to be irrevocably scathed.

One involved a work she staged for American Ballet Theatre in 1951, "Circo de Espana" (Maracci danced opening night and thereafter Alicia Alonso took over the leading role). At the behest of her friend Agnes de Mille, she strung together several concert vignettes, all of them dealing with bull-ring metaphors.

"Neither Lucia Chase (artistic director) nor Agnes made good their promises," explains Maracci. "We ended up like dried roots fighting with each other. None of the dancers they gave me knew castanets or heel work. It wasn't a ballet, it was a disaster. But Tudor came backstage afterward and said, by way of a compliment, 'This is where Tudor gets out and Maracci comes in.' "

DeMille, reflecting on that April night at the Met, says she immediately told Maracci that the ballet was "no good." And shortly thereafter, "because Carmy was always on the emotional brink, Donald Saddler had to carry her from the theater in his arms. And that wasn't the first time she committed career suicide."

"Yes, I was devastated," Maracci admits. "Agnes can be unbearably cruel. She came to my dressing room like a matador with people on both sides of her. She came to deliver the verdict and then she told me that Tudor always says what he doesn't mean, that he meant I'm no good."

So much for Maracci's long and illustrious association with Ballet Theatre.

But touring as a concert dancer proved equally annihilating. Her career reached its nadir in St. Paul. It was 1946 and a crowd of 14,000 filled the sports stadium/makeshift concert hall. The program listed works by Schubert, Scarlatti, Beethoven and Bach. The postage-stamp piano had 10 keys missing.

"I wasn't prepared for any of this," says Maracci. "And then a rowdy man began heckling. The audience seemed not to understand why we were there at all. Someone shouted 'Where's Kilroy?' . . . the name of one of my dancers. I couldn't take it. I demanded that the curtain be closed and the theater manager threatened to sabotage my contract if I refused to go on."

She did and he did. Hurok dropped her and Maracci says she spent the next 10 years "in a daze."

Maracci freely admits that her art was not for the masses, that she "was no Dolly Dimples of the Dance." Indeed, she condemns not only the spectacle enterprise of Ballet Theatre, but also the bureaucratic injustice that goes with the turf.

"The corps de ballet simply broke my heart," she says. "And the sadness backstage is indescribable. There they are standing in the wings watching the princess do her fouettes and hoping that she'll break her leg so they can replace her. Agnes used to argue that the big corps gave so many people jobs. Well, so does plumbing."

Feeling this way, it's no wonder she rejected the Establishment and its imperfect system.

"If I had an ego," she allows simply, "I would have thought myself great. Instead, I had this grinding need to say it better . . . this unholy desire to help change the world through the theater, to provoke anger over inhumanity. I was terrified at the thought of not being able to realize my intentions, terrified that I'd never be able to dance 'as sadly as the sad soul of me,' quoting Baudelaire."

Maracci is caught short when asked what she thinks of her legendary status.

"A legend?" She sucks in air, wheezes a long whistle and lets out a great soprano hoot. "That's something the dead become. Good God, I'm not dead yet."

PHOTO: Carmelita Maracci:

'The terrain I traveled led me into Goya's land of terror and blood-soaked pits. I could not be a dancer of fine dreams and graveyard decor. . . . So I danced hard about what I saw and lived. I was not an absentee landlord. I was one of the dispossessed.'


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