A Martha Graham Masterclass with Oliver Tobin

I am very fortunate, for every dance class I take, is a masterclass.

I am taught by Heather Berest, whose international performing career culminated with 10 years in the Paul Taylor Dance Company.  Her professional credentials are immaculate, but what sets her apart is her ability to teach.  She creates a safe and nurturing environment for her students to learn, explore and practice.  She motivates her students and identifies what each one of us individually needs to focus on to develop our technique and style.  A deep and personal understanding of the human body, helped with an intricate knowledge of the fundamentals of ballet and modern dance, and the experience of the tough world of the professional dancer allows her to tailor her compassionate and motivating teaching style to each individual, whether they be a young dancer aiming for the stars, a professional dancer or a mature woman living out her dreams in the studio.

So when someone else comes in to teach a “masterclass”, I have high expectations.

Oliver Tobin was the Martha Graham alumni and current Director of Martha Graham Resources who came to give the masterclass at the Berest Dance Center as part of a community outreach program organized by the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, New York, prior to the company performing there.

Martha Graham, whose choreography revolutionized dance in America, helped shape modern dance today.  She wanted her dances to be driven by intuition, memory and emotion combined with discipline and relentless practice.   In her words, her dances were “selected circumstance(s) achieved by intention and design”.   She was uncompromising, ambitious, and fierce; dancing with blazing intensity and laser-like focus, to exacting standards that she created and demanded of herself and her chosen dancers.

The class started with an extensive warm up on the floor, exploring the fundamentals of the Graham technique beginning with the contraction and release, the spiral achieved through oppositional force and the intrinsic incorporation of the breath in everything, while touching on the importance of emotion and intensity.  The class built slowly but effectively adding different elements to lead up to a combination across the floor.

The masterclass offered the opportunity to see up close and understand, that sustained kinetic energy throughout the body is what differentiates the true professional.  It imbues life even into those still moments and adds a continuity of flow to the telling of the story, thought or emotion.  It is that secret ingredient that draws the audience in and adds that extra sparkle and drama to a performance.

What we got from Oliver Tobin was more than a masterclass.  It was a performance that he welcomed us to share with him, as he introduced, explained and started to teach the Graham technique.   He infused what could be mundane warm up exercises with deliberate meaning and dynamic power.  He distilled all that was Martha Graham, her style, her story and her place in history into her movements.  To all of that he added a warmth, humor and generosity of spirit that made the movement uniquely his own.  By word and by example, Tobin bridged the gap to a remote icon and made Martha Graham accessible.

At age three Heather Berest told her mom that she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up. She began training with her mother, Olga Berest, and then studied with Linda Zoffer and Ali Pourfarrokh.  Later she attended North Carolina School of the Arts where she earned a BFA.  After college she danced professionally with Neo Labos, Momix, Robert Wood, Margie Gillis, Patrick Corbin and Martita Goshen.  In her 1996 she joined the internationally renowned Paul Taylor Dance Company with whom she danced for 10 years.  Critics the world over have written about her artistry, lines, and unique stage presence which made her such a standout in Mr. Taylor’s works. Heather Berest is now the Artistic Director of the Berest Dance Center teaching the next generation of dancers.


Oliver Tobin joined the Martha Graham Dance Company as a dancer in 2007 where he performed leading roles in El Penitente, Embattled Garden, Clytemnestra, and Appalachian Spring amongst others. His off-Broadway credits as an actor include The Kentucky Cycle, Nirvanov, The Lesser Magoo, and Tallahassee. As a Regisseur of the Graham repertoire, OliverTobin has staged and directed Graham’s Diversion of Angels, Celebration, Episodes, Panorama, and Maple Leaf Rag. As the lead teaching artist for the Teens@Graham program, he has helped to create and teach technique and choreography programs for Talented Unlimited High School, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Bronx Dance Academy, Urban Assembly School of the Arts, and the Martha Graham School. As a dancer and cultural ambassador with Battery Dance Company, he had the opportunity to lead modern dance choreography workshops throughout Germany and Africa. He is a graduate of the American Musical & Dramatic Academy, The Sivananda Yoga Institute, and Empire State College where he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in dance and theater. He currently serves on faculty at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, Adelphi University, and Kaatsbaan International Dance Center where he is the Vice President of the board of directors. In 2016, Tobin was named Director of Martha Graham Resources where he oversees both the Graham archives and licensing of the Graham work.

Oliver Tobin
credit: Sylvain Guenot