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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20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Here’s a work I don’t ‘like.’ Which doesn’t mean it’s bad.

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2018 Chris Dohse

(To receive the complete article, first published on October 14, 2005, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

Building the dance audience: Rat-faced Bastards in the Kitchen with Michelson

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2003, 2018 Chris Dohse

(To receive the complete article, first published on April 18, 2003, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.

June 11, 1998: Birth of a dance magazine

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

— Margaret Mead, cited on the back cover of Issue #1 of The Dance Insider, Summer 1998

“Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.”

— Dancer Z, inaugural issue, The Dance Insider

Please help us celebrate our 20th anniversary by subscribing to the DI today, for just $29.95 / year, or making a donation. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. Subscribers get access to our DI Archives of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances, films, art exhibitions and more from five continents, as well as our five-year Jill Johnston and extensive Martha Graham archives, plus new articles. Subscribe by June 24 and receive a free photo ad.

On June 11, 1998, in SoHo, New York City, a new dance magazine was born, printed on 100% recycled paper paid for by the Eddy Foundation: The Dance Insider, with founding editor Veronica Dittman, founding publisher Paul Ben-Itzak, and a stable of professional dancers, journalists, and photographers, notably Jamie Phillips and Robin Hoffman. Features editor Rebecca Stenn provided the model of the dancer-writer and choreographer-educator Sara Hook the brain trust. Eileen Darby eventually became our senior advisor. Officially launched later that month at (and graciously hosted by) the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the issue featured original cover and back cover photography by Phillips of Pilobolus Dance Theater performers Rebecca Anderson, Mark Santillano, and Gaspard Louis. (The Pilobolus connection having been secured by Pils alumna Rebecca Jung.) Our mission (besides going where no dance magazine had gone before):  To give a voice to dancers, to tell stories not told elsewhere, and to build the dance audience. The content included:

** Insider Picks of upcoming performances by the Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier, confided in the DI, “The most successful ballets, if they are stories…, are stories we cannot retell — just as it is very difficult to tell what you dreamt last night”; ODC / San Francisco; and, at Jacob’s Pillow and the ADF, respectively, Joanna Haigood and David Grenke, the latter of whom explained to the DI: “All of this stuff comes out of my body, and then it’s a matter of having it make sense to other people.”

** An Insider Forum in which Joffrey Ballet star and choreographer Christian Holder, American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel, Joffrey alumna Hoffman (at the time in-house notator with the Paul Taylor Dance Company), Ben-Itzak, and moderator Veronica Dittman debated the question: “Is ballet irrelevant?” The article also featured interviews with Lines Contemporary Ballet director Alonzo King and Kennedy Center president Lawrence J. Wilker, and was illustrated with photography by Marty Sohl and Weiferd Watts.

** Insider News, illustrated with photography by Roy Volkmann of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s Mucuy Bolles and Don Bellamy, on personnel changes, promotions, guest appearances, and upcoming performances by the Ailey, Dallas Black Dance Theater, Mark Dendy, the Frankfurt Ballet, and Hamburg Ballet, plus labor strife at the Martha Graham Dance Company. Contributors to the section included recently retired Ailey star Elizabeth Roxas, the DI’s modern dance editor.

** “Fear and loathing with the fungus,” PBI’s inside report from Washington Depot, Connecticut, on the creation of Pilobolus’s collaboration with laureated jazz composer and big band leader Maria Schneider, who told the DI after one session with the dancers and the choreographic triumvirate of Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken, and Michael Tracy, “You get the feeling they all want something different….” The article was accompanied by a Pilobolus lexicon, more photography from Philips featuring Anderson, Louis, Santillano, and Trebien Pollard, and a first-hand report from an audition for Momix, the company of Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton.

** An interview with Donald McKayle on the occasion of his 50th year in dance, illustrated with a photograph of McKayle and Carmen De Lavallade performing the former’s “Rainbow ‘Round my Shoulder” provided by fabled archivist Joe Nash and ADF. “When you find the linkage between dance and story,” McKayle told the DI, “you have found something very rich.” The article offered an exclusive excerpt of McKayle’s upcoming autobiography.

** “Inside Presenting,” sub-titled, “From the cradle to the grave, new ways to build your audience,” and featuring interviews with Wilker, ODC co-director KT Nelson, Pacific Northwest Ballet co-founder Francia Russell, Walker Art Center director Philip Bither, and many others, and illustrated with Keith Haring’s body painting of Bill T. Jones. The article was accompanied by a side-bar by Stenn recounting her experience performing for and teaching children on behalf of Pilobolus.

** A farewell to San Francisco Ballet diva Evelyn Cisneros, with a review by Aimee Ts’ao of Cisneros’s swan song and a tribute by Cisneros’s colleague (and DI education editor) Edward Ellison.

** An exclusive interview with flamenco legend Lola Greco on her controversial departure from the National Ballet of Spain.

** Dittman’s unique perspective on a performance by American Ballet Theater: “It is truly heartening to be reminded that there is still plenty in the world of dance, where lately I’ve seen only paucity.” (Harald Landers’s “Etudes” did not fare so well.)

** The DI’s inaugural issue terminated with a manifesto from “Dancer Z,” the nom de plum of a busy NYC modern dancer. Analyzing the current critical landscape, Dancer Z wrote: “The mere reportage of events which comprises most dance reviews seems directed towards the audience member who fell asleep and missed what happened on the stage, or for the viewer who seeks a poetic recapitulation.” Dancer Z terminated with an appeal and formula which the DI would adopt a year later when it began publishing online Flash Reviews of performances, most written by active dance artists:

“I want opinions, I want comparisons, I want meaning. Dance needs to be talked about not only in the context of its own history and trends, but in conjunction with trends in other art forms. I would like to read reviews which attempt to identify dance’s place in the constellation of ideological, economic, social, and aesthetic influences involved in its creation. Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.

“I want to feel that writers are not only watching dance, but are asking the questions which need to be asked, drawing the parallels that need to be drawn, and fueling the wheel that struggles always to turn. In providing the push, the next challenge, or simply the truth, dance writers can be more involved in gathering and preparing the audiences of the future. Through writing which looks at dance in a larger context and acknowledges it as a citizen of the world capable of the responsibility which that invovles, dance can find the bridge to understanding itself and making itself understood, a connection imperative to its growth and ultimately, its survival.”

In other words, as Skoop Nisgar said: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Which the DI did.

Your turn.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

DI subscribers who would like to receive text versions of any of the above stories from the DI’s inaugural Summer 1998 print issue, please e-mail DI publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . DI subscribers also receive access to the DI’s 20-year archives of more than 2,000 exclusive articles by 150 writers related to performances, films, and exhibitions on five continents. Not yet a subscriber? To subscribe, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, 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 or in Euros .

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, 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 or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.