Old age gets hip

She made her debut in the Thirties, danced with Martha Graham in the Forties. By rights, she should have put her feet up decades ago. But, at 84, Jane Dudley is still on stage - and sitting pretty. By Louise Levene
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Very few dancers currently performing have had a hip replacement. Jane Dudley is probably unique in having had three. But this isn't the only thing that makes the 84-year-old New Yorker remarkable. She made her stage debut with Hanya Holm in 1932. She danced with Martha Graham during the American choreographer's immensely fruitful early years in the late Thirties and early Forties. Graham herself was still dancing at 76, although Jane Dudley is the first to argue that Graham was performing well past her sell-by date: ``It was getting to be a big mistake." And yet Graham's unusually long performing career must have inspired Dudley's even longer one.

She is currently touring with Green Candle Dance Company in Fergus Early's Tales from the Citadel, a work for six, er, mature dancers, set to Schubert's Impromptu No 3, that explores dance, the ageing process and loss. Dudley plays the character of Ora, who is loosely identified with Isadora Duncan at the bleak moment when she learns that both her children have been killed in a car accident. Dudley's sequence is initiated by a question: "Ora. Where are your children?" ``That suddenly sparks my memory and I start off with very violent movement that is like weeping. It's really a lamentation. Like Medea." But only a bit like Medea. A Medea wheeling around with the aid of an office chair.

For Dudley, performing in old age is a matter of recognising comparative strengths and weaknesses. A dancer should choose work that makes the most of their remaining powers. ``I did a Richard Kuch piece in the mid 1950s based on Mother Courage. It was really built around what I could do. I had a left hip then that was a mess but the fact that I had a limp fitted right into the character. The thing that has been my saving grace is the ability to act through your movement, so it doesn't depend on extreme gestures, elevation, turns or falls." Indeed, she has grown faintly suspicious of technique over the years. Older dancegoers with long memories often remark that today's Martha Graham dancers, unlike Dudley's generation, deliver a muscle-bound, over-polished imitation of the dance that they remember. ``The younger dancers who do the movement more technically, more expertly, don't have that validity, they just don't have it." In some ways, technique is just a smokescreen deployed by youth to mask its emotional inadequacies. "It's a kind of blind. You set up a lot of disconcerting things that hold the eye because they're fast and difficult and interesting but it doesn't necessarily mean that it holds any content.''

Yes, but surely this is post-rationalising her own incapacity? If you strip away all technical expertise isn't there a danger that all you're left with is an old lady pulling faces? ``I don't know how people feel watching me - `Such an old lady on stage!' - but it depends what eyes you have. I'm not sure it doesn't need a fairly sophisticated audience, but I think it works. I know that I could not have done this dance 40 years ago, I hadn't lived through everything I've lived through. I didn't have the emotional expressiveness to pull out.'' And, prosthetic hip joints notwithstanding, the ghostly imprint of the Graham technique is indelibly etched in her frail bones. Dudley, who taught Graham technique at the London School of Contemporary Dance for over 20 years, has been called in as a fixer for today's Martha Graham Company. ``Where I was helpful was really in the style. How the arms were held, how the body tilted. It became tighter, more defined, more sculptured. If you have a hand here it's very different from having a hand here." The old lady in front of me holds her arm aloft cupping her palm exquisitely and before you can say ``anti-inflammatory'' those deft unforgetting fingers have conjured an entire mood in a single gesture.

Old age hasn't dimmed any of her faculties, least of all her critical ones. Tales from the Citadel concludes with the arrival of a bunch of schoolchildren from whichever town the company is visiting. "It's still a problem because none of them really master the steps, but," she shrugs, "they're charming." Faintly damning praise to remind me that, although obviously a huge fan of Fergus Early, the artistic director of Green Candle, she doesn't necessarily share his enthusiasm for the infant phenomenon. Is there a danger that the inclusion of under-rehearsed local talent might be just a tad sentimental? ``This is a debatable point. This is Fergus's show and this is his point of view. I think it's a mistake to end it that way but they're a Community Oriented Company..."

Dudley is interested in worth not worthiness, and she applies her high standards to her own work just as rigorously. ``What is done must stand on its own feet, not just to have people say, `Isn't it remarkable that an old lady can do that?' " The trick is to harness your abilities to a suitable vehicle without ever compromising your theatrical standards. "It's important to find an outward structure that you can cope with physically but still says what you're trying to say."

With the right choreography a great dancer can, in theory, go on for ever. Contemporary dance is more forgiving than ballet in this respect. ``Ballet's another problem when you can't ask of your body the traditional ballet things. The English were so mesmerised by Fonteyn they didn't want her to leave the stage, but I saw Fonteyn in the Sixties and I felt her age. Her legs were too skinny, there was no resilience in the movement.'' A tutu can be as unkind as a micro-mini on the legs of an old woman.

Martha Graham's long Halston gowns could hide the ravages of time. "Martha didn't wear such dangerous clothes." But a canny ballet dancer can cheat old age by making wise choices. "Baryshnikov is wonderful. He's very shrewd in how he uses himself. He's a very good example of the kind of thing I'm talking about: the quality of being a dancer. Naturally you need training, but training doesn't make you a dancer." The real trick is always to play to your strengths. "As Martha got older, she did less with her lower body and more with her torso and arms.'' This can come as a bit of a surprise to an audience. "People expect dance to be jetes and falls and quick foot movement." But a flexible audience will discover that there are compensations for the loss of fancy footwork. Unlike the feet, the upper body can express emotion and an older dancer's torso has a lot to say. "When the dancer gets more mature, he has more feeling, more life experience to express. Sadly it's then that the body starts to go downhill." Lynn Seymour, currently making a comeback at 57 in Adventures in Motion Pictures' Swan Lake, uses her famous epaulement - the placing of the shoulders and torso - to make her body talk. "She's a dancer who's able to invest a movement with content and not just ballet steps. I saw her do A Month in the Country, then I saw another dancer do it and the difference was night and day." A charismatic presence is not something they teach in the dance academies. After Martha Graham, the 77-year-old Merce Cunningham is the geriatric performer Dudley most admires: "His presence on stage is extraordinary. In the last thing I saw him do, he just walked on on these feet that are like hooves now. His presence, this grizzly figure, was like some Fate, some figure in Druid mythology. It was very, very moving."

So too, they say, is Dudley's performance in Tales from the Citadel, emoting to Schubert from her typist's chair. Jane Dudley can walk but not easily and not far. After three hip replacements, she isn't simply doing less with her lower body, she's doing virtually the whole thing on wheels. She does what she can to stay fit. "I drink milk three times a day. I do the routine I was given in New York by the physical therapist to strengthen my thighs. The whole thing takes about 45 minutes." Her third hip replacement is quite recent and the doctors were clearly keen not to force a painful operation on an old lady in her eighties. "They asked me, if I only had two years to live, would I still want a hip replacement? I said, Yes. That's the kind of feeling I want to get across in the Schubert: the determination to live even so".

`Tales from the Citadel' is at the Riverside Studios, London W6, on Fri and Sat at 8pm. Booking: 0181-741 2255