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A Costume Designer Who Served As Martha Graham's Hands

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 1993



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

NOT many people could say they worked with Martha Graham during the last few years of her life. But costume designer Russell Vogler can. "She was very funny. She had a very dry caustic wit. She's sorely missed," he said during a lecture sponsored by the Harvard University Summer Dance Center.

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Mr. Vogler has been a costumer for the Martha Graham Dance Company for the past five years. In an interview, he talked about his work with Miss Graham, who died in 1991, and how he landed the golden opportunity to work with one of the most creative forces in 20th-century dance.

Vogler says that when he first joined the company, his biggest challenge was getting over the inclination to predict what Graham would want - "that I could walk in with a costume and she would say, `That's just what I want.' But that would never happen."

Things were strained at first. It seemed that he couldn't do anything right. Vogler recalls an early experience while working on a revival of her piece "Letter to the World." He had brought Graham an unfinished skirt just to check in. ("That was a mistake, because Martha wanted to see everything finished and [then] tell you it had to be changed," Volger says with a smile.)

When she saw the unfinished skirt, Vogler recalls her saying, "`Russell, where did you say you were from before you came here?'" [And I said Kansas City, Missouri.] `Kansas? It's a good thing we got you out of there. You know what your problem is? You are too [square, she drew with her hand]. I'm going to try and break you of being that way.'"

The events leading up to Russell Vogler's position as a costumer for the Graham company could be described as a series of "one thing led to another." It all started with a seersucker sports coat.

When Vogler was a freshman at Texas Christian University (TCU), he went home to Michigan for Christmas break concerned about returning to school with some "in" clothes. He read in Gentlemen's Quarterly that seersucker sport coats were going to be a hot trend. So he and his mother went looking. They found nothing. Then, he happened to see a bolt of fabric - just the seersucker plaid he was looking for. He asked his mother to make him a coat out of the fabric, but she said no - that it would be too difficu lt. "It can't be that hard," he replied. So, she challenged him, sending him off to college with a pattern, fabric, notions, and a pat on the back.

At college - with the help of several female friends and a borrowed sewing machine - Vogler learned to sew and made the sport coat. At the time, Vogler was an aspiring dancer, and soon his talent was made known. Many of his friends - particularly those studying choreography - enlisted him to sew for them.

AFTER graduating from TCU, Vogler studied dance with the San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet School, and the Chicago Ballet - all of which allowed him to earn money by working in their costume shops.

"It was great because I could go upstairs and sew, go down and take classes, and come back up and sew some more," he recalls.

Still, his passion was dance. After a stint in New York, he got a job dancing with the Kansas City Ballet, again helping in the costume shop, where he became wardrobe supervisor and eventually designed costumes.

In 1981, Todd Bolender became the director of the Kansas City Ballet - he'd been a dancer and choreographer for the New York City Ballet before. Because of Mr. Bolender's and others' connections, Volger was given the opportunity to work at the New York City Ballet's costume shop during his time off.

More years passed and Vogler's prospects of a lasting career in professional dance were on the wane, so he started "looking for a new adventure." He applied for a job in costuming at the Graham company in 1987 and was called in a year later for an interview. After a few days he was hired as a costumer, a job Vogler describes as "a jack of all trades," since Graham always designed with help from fashion legend Halston. Vogler recalls Halston telling him: "The reason we're here - and this is important for you to remember - is that we are Martha's hands."

What happened, Vogler says, was that after Martha got to know him and his skills improved, their work became more of a collaboration. "My ideas were looked at and paid attention to, and she edited those ideas."

In remembering Martha Graham, Vogler says that the best thing about working with her was when she spoke: "She was so articulate and eloquent and so intellectual," he says.

"It sounds maybe presumptuous to say," Vogler adds, "but I feel, since I was the last designer to work with her, a little protective of her work - as I'm sure the dancers do. You want to make sure that the integrity stays."