"Every night and twice on matinee days I was beaten, beheaded, blinded, and castrated -- and it was wonderful! I never missed a performance."
Bertram Ross, who spent 25 years dancing roles as Oedipus, Agamemnon, Adam and Samson in Martha Graham's legendary dance company, is standing on the small stage of Charlie's jazz club in Georgetown, reminiscing about his "former" life. Then, arching a provocative eyebrow at his pianist and partner John Wallowitch, he draws his long, slightly avian frame up close to the mike and sings:
Martha Graham taught me dancing in a hurry.
She had contractions to spare.
She gave me releases
That left me with creases,
And told me to take it from there.
The audience chortles at that one, marvels at the white-gloved "hand ballet" that follows, and howls at Ross' rendition of a distinctly New York ditty by Sid Tepper and Roy Brodsky, titled "Bagel and Lox with the Cheese in the Middle." But the pie ce de re'sistance is a 1915 chestnut by Irving Berlin, "Cohen Owes Me $97," which Ross delivers in a deliciously-broad Yiddish accent.
That song, in fact, served as the legendary dancer's entree into the world of cabaret performance. In January, Ross and Wallowitch were invited to the 10th anniversary party of the Ballroom, a trendy Manhattan nightclub-restaurant. Wallowitch, a composer and vocal coach with two albums to his credit, served as emcee and accompanist for the event and, during the course of the revels, announced that his friend Bertram Ross was going to sing.
"I went up and did 'Cohen' and they went crazy," remembers Ross. "They screamed and whistled and bravoed. I didn't know what hit them. And then the next day, the owner of the Ballroom called John and said, 'Why don't the two of you form an act? You'll open next Tuesday.' "
The pair said yes, and began riffling through the thousands of pieces of sheet music they'd amassed over the years. "It wasn't a problem of what to do, it was what not to do," Ross says. They selected a mad potpourri of obscure tunes by the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, mixed them up with Wallowitch's musical parodies and, five days later, made their debut. The show proved so popular that the duo played for 13 weeks. Out of that triumph grew their current gig at Charlie's -- they're here through Sunday -- and future bookings in Dallas and other cities.
How did this most dramatic of dancers, partner to the high priestess of choreographed angst and eroticism, slip so effortlessly into the role of comic chanteur?
"When Bert left Martha Graham in l973, I encouraged him to take up singing," explains Wallowitch, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Jack Benny. "He has a fantastic knowledge of musical theater, dating back to childhood."
Ross concurs. "My mother was a great theatergoer, a culture fiend," he says. "I'd been going to the theater since I was 5. I cannot tell you the ancient shows I have a great memory of. And in those days there was vaudeville at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger, Buddy Ebsen, everyone. I was exposed to a great, great deal. And the show tunes were sitting on our piano . . .
"I also went to a very theatrically-minded summer camp. We did 'Emperor Jones,' 'Ghosts,' strange things for children. I danced in the chorus in musicals. People who knew me then never dreamed that I would become a modern dancer -- they thought I was headed for Broadway."
Ross first saw Graham dance in an outdoor setting here in Washington, performing her classic "Letter to the World" (based on the life and art of Emily Dickinson) for the great patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He had just finished his army duty, and had taken up painting and drawing. Smitten by Graham's death-defying falls and body configurations, he found himself both "drawing the dancing, and dancing the drawings."
"I would try to feel in my body what that sensation was like," he says. "Eventually I began to study at the Graham studio, and they simply rushed me through those classes. 'They're looking for somebody to join the company,' a friend told me. 'You're tall, good-looking and dark, and that's what Martha likes.' " Ross danced with the company throughout the late forties and early fifties -- "the golden years" -- and stayed on through the not-so-golden times, when an aging Graham appointed him codirector of the troupe. Since then he's taught extensively, and acted and danced in two one-man shows.
What does he think of the 90-year-old Graham's renaissance, and her recent penchant for gold lame' costumes by Halston, body-beautiful imagery and guest appearances by Rudolf Nureyev? "Well, she's finally getting all the fame that she should have had years ago," Ross sighs. "But things look terrible now. I won't go watch the company in the theater anymore. I want to keep my memories."
Then he brightens. "You know, I think this show that John and I are doing now is more honest than most.
"When we were appearing in New York, I was disappointed that a lot of people from the dance world didn't come to hear us," he says. "I have a feeling that they're a little disturbed that I've changed my image. To them, I'm still supposed to be Agamemnon."