Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.

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Acrobats of God — and of Teaching: Remembering Pearl Lang & Marian Horosko

Marian Lang twoLeft: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Diversion of Angels,” original costume, 1948. Photo by Chris Alexander. Right: Pearl Lang in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photos courtesy Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

By Pearl Lang
Copyright 1991, 2002, and 2017 Marian Horosko

(Excerpted from Marian Horosko’s “Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training,” revised edition, University of Florida Press, 2002. Our dear colleague, editor, writer, scholar, teacher, and veteran New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet dancer Marian Horosko died on September 11 in the Bronx at the age of 92. As hard to believe as it was that she was already 70 when I first met her in the offices of Dance magazine — where she was education editor mais pas que — energetically bicycling on a stationary device, only pausing long enough to give a young editor a necessary correction. Marian represented that rare combination among journalists: A skeptic and a true believer. Marian’s other books include the 2005 biography, “May O’Donnell: Modern Dance Pioneer.” Special thanks to DL for the alert. First published on the DI, with the author’s permission, on March 10, 2009, on the occasion of the death of pioneering Martha Graham dancer, teacher, and choreographer Pearl Lang. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. DI subscribers get full access to the DI’s Martha Graham Archives with more news, reviews, and commentary. To subscribe for one year, just designate your PayPal payment of $29.95 to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I)

My mother was a great admirer of Isadora Duncan, and there were photos of her and her various companies in Russia and Germany on our walls. I come from Chicago, and she took me to see Harald Kreutzberg, as well as all the dance companies that played there. I especially remember a performance, when I must have been four years old, of “Hansel and Gretel,” the opera. In this production, when the children went to sleep at night, the angels came down a ladder from the sky two at a time. As they stepped down, each step lighted up and I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went right home, got my girlfriends together and did my first choreography, walking them downstairs with lights at every step!

I had lessons with a Duncan teacher and later, ballet lessons in Chicago. And when I was about 16 years old, I saw a Northwestern University series of American modern dancers that included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. I took all their master classes and was invited by Martha and Humphrey to come to New York. I arrived when I was 19 years old.

The traditional Graham class begins with the bounces, but in the last years, in watching the company’s performances, the contraction is just not as apparent as I used to see it and the way we danced it. The contraction is Martha’s great gift to dance. I begin the class with it, along with some of the things that are usually done later in the class. The contraction is the most basic use of the center of the body. There is always a stretch before a contraction, which engages the interior muscles and reacts as in a cough, a sob, or a laugh — all violent physical reactions. In order for the contraction to be visual, you have to have a smooth plane before it can happen. I try to make my students aware of the contrast in these movements. I point out that before a contraction is visible, there has to be a stretch in the other direction to make it happen. Aesthetically, too, it pleases me more to see them sit down and do contractions rather than begin with bounces. Somehow, I don’t think Martha would have minded my changing the order.

Nothing in the system begins in the extremities. All the movements begin in the center of the body and move out. There is an overtone here from Duncan. In her book “My Life” (1928) she wrote that movement begins in the solar plexus, the diaphragm. When Martha devised her system, Duncan training was still around. Martha made a technique of the concept of a contraction beginning in the abdominals, while with Duncan it was a style, a quality of movement. Martha worked at a time when even painters were picturing the body in a cubist style. Picasso painted the body broken up into various planes, and choreographers of the time were emulating that kind of vision.

Martha saw Duncan dance in New York at Carnegie Hall and was enamored with her and absolutely ecstatic when she saw her dance. She wrote in her notebooks that she could hardly breathe during Duncan’s performance and that her own hair, combed into two buns, had become completely undone at the end of the performance. Ruth St. Denis and Duncan were dancing at the same time — two famous and unique dancers who influenced Martha. She never talked about Mary Wigman and probably never saw her dance.

Her early background in the Denishawn company provided her technique with a strong influence in ethnic dance since their repertoire was built upon ethnic dances. St. Denis was famous for her “Nautch Dance,” which bore little resemblance to the original, but ethnic dances were all very fashionable in those days.

I find that students lose sight of a movement phrase, especially at its beginning. Just as you write a sentence with a capital letter, the beginning of a dance has to have some authority to tell us what is going to happen, and it has to have an end. If it doesn’t have that finality, we don’t remember it. I try to convey that when I teach. There are those students who are naturally going to dance and need some technique, and you have those who study technique, technique, technique and nothing more than that ever happens.
I have been saying for years that, in addition to classes in ballet for all the students, male dancers, especially those studying Graham’s technique, should be required to study flamenco dance because Martha’s posture for men was macho.

Martha listened a great deal to Joseph Campbell [company member Jean Erdman’s husband and author of “Man and Myth”]. Martha was a Jungian [Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (1875 – 1961) founded analytical psychology]. A lot of Jung’s psychiatry was built upon universal archetypes. The behavior of people interested Martha, so when Campbell made parallels to something in Hopi Indians and East Indian mythology, for instance, she absorbed those similarities. She didn’t want to be specific in her characterizations as much as she wanted them to resonate in other cultures.

For instance, Martha was fascinated with the beautiful Southwest, which was an artist colony in the 1930s and where Georgia O’Keeffe went to live and paint. There, the cross-culture of American Indians and Hispanic Catholics influenced her early work “Primitive Mysteries” (1931).

We are, after all, training dancers for the stage, and they have to have life in them. It can’t just be steps and technique. I see so many young choreographers walk to the front of the stage, look out to the audience, and seem to say, “I’m unhappy and it’s all your fault.” Every company director and teacher has the responsibility to develop the possibilities of a dancer. You have to know what those possibilities are and bring them out of each one. After every class I think about what the students will need in the next class. It takes the director or teacher and the student together to make this happen.
Every class is a prayer. Some of the movements are pious; there is a spirituality in dance. Martha claimed the studio was her church, just as the Asians bless the floor on which they perform. There are so many influences in our society that the student has to ignore — the vulgarity on the screen, on television, and even on stage. If a character is vulgar, then you have to play it that way, but when it becomes pervasive in a society, it makes you wonder how you can teach the subtleties, the refinements, and the nuances and beauty within the movements. There is little or no frame of reference for them. And so little time.

 

Downtown Decoys: Trisha Brown, and Liebeslieder Walzing with George Balanchine, at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak, with contribution by Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2003, 2017, Paul Ben-Itzak & Lisa Kraus

PARIS — Why does Trisha Brown have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a major ballet company to undertake her choreography? Why does New York City Ballet refuse to look below 42nd Street for additions to its repertoire, instead padding its Balanchine and Robbins legacy with filler from Peter Martins and others? I fumed over these questions last week at the Palais Garnier, as I exalted over the Paris Opera Ballet’s breathless interpretations of two newly acquired American masterpieces, Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy,” with photography, sets, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and Balanchine’s 1960 “Liebeslieder Walzer,” to Brahms.

To receive the complete article, first published on December 30, 2003, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com .

Serenades, plainspoken and otherwise, from Balanchine & Millepied

ringer repost cover

New York City Ballet’s Ask la Cour with, left to right, Rebecca Krohn, Jenifer Ringer, and Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Photo ©Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Harris Green

NEW YORK — City Ballet broke with several traditions by beginning its new season with four weeks of early fall performances (September 14 – October 10). The traditional opening-night gala was delayed until the middle of the fourth week so seats that first evening could go for the special introductory prices of $50 and $25. Repertory included such novelties as the New York premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s recent “Plainspoken” on October 7 and revivals of Peter Martins’s rarely performed “Grazioso” (2007) and “The Magic Flute” (1982). Also out of the ordinary was an aggressive merchandising campaign built around a posh 9-by-12-inch booklet filled with studio portraits of principal dancers which was available for the taking in the theater lobby. Photographer Henry Leutwyler filmed everyone in casual poses and garb a la People Magazine. Most of the men are sporting the scraggly beards the guys insist upon growing between seasons. Daniel Ulbricht, however, is not only clean shaven, but the one dancer whom Leutwyler captured performing an actual step: a soaring 180-degree split leap, with ballerinas Teresa Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin and Sara Mearns seated on the floor behind him. (Yes, seated.) Letters to the editor and postings online promptly deplored the devastation such informality wreaked upon the dancers’ images as golden, gifted beings, so unlike us folks out front. Frankly the only dancers’ images that matter to me are those they create onstage.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on November 3, 2010, including lots more photos, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider  and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Through June 30 it’s pay as much as you can subscriptions. (Minimum $12.)