DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
For at least the past two decades, dancegoers have been told so often that the reason the magic seemed to go out of the art was our own fault. We were too old, and in wondering why cherished works had eroded we were really just trying to hold onto our youth. Nothing is forever, and change is inevitable. Young dancers have no idea about what the past was like and certainly have no interest in finding out. Dances are made for particular individuals, and once they retire, their qualities can never be restored to the choreography. The great choreographers really found us worthy of disdain, since they, themselves, were never interested in revisiting where they’d been. Dancing made for one era will never have any appeal for subsequent eras. One by one, the voices of protest were quieted, with illness and mortality completing the job that, during the 1990s, a new generation of newspaper and magazine publishers began. During the 1990s, nearly every major dance critic in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. who was old enough to have seen and remembered theatrical dancing from the 1950s and early ‘60s was either fired, forcibly retired, or died in harness; for those who retained their positions, either the number of their reviews that were actually published, or the length of them, or both, were markedly decreased. This was no one’s best scenario, of course. Print news was in trouble, and, the rationale goes, dance writing is never read. In the same spirit, trade book publishers, seemingly overnight, stopped publishing new, serious dance books and dropped their dance backlists entirely: dance books don’t sell. And it’s true. They don’t: why would anyone want to buy a history of The Sleeping Beauty in the U.S. if the only interesting live productions of that ballet are in Russia?
There are many reasons why the treasury of world dance repertory—ballet, in particular—was converted from a gold standard to that of bronze or lead over the past thirty or thirty-five years. Some of those reasons, such as the decimation of artists and intellectuals by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, are beyond the control of artists and their advocates to remedy in a single generation; some—such as the theatrically unsuitable and now unfillable 3,000-seat theaters and auditoriums built across the U.S. since World War II—are the legacy of more optimistic times. To an extent, the problem is simply a matter of money. In a century when the best things in life, from clean air and water to health care for children, cost a fortune, the argument goes that it is entirely appropriate for the Paul Taylor Dance Company not be able to afford to perform with a live orchestra, or that the ballets of some of the 20th-century’s earlier choreographic geniuses are rarely seen because the companies that dance them have been forced to pay price-gouging rates, or that dancers have no access to coaches or teachers who might help them perform the historic repertories because dance companies cannot afford to spare the expense of their salaries and of the extra rehearsal time required, or that the films of historic performances that would educate young audiences to expect a certain standard from current performers should be unavailable outside archives because the cost of paying the rights for the soundtracks is unaffordable. Throw in here the usual tempestuous relationships that have afflicted theatrical dance from the time theaters were first developed, and the egregious vulgarity that is necessary now to market any of the performing arts, and it is easy to understand, if not to accept, the extinction of beauty, magic, and joy.
And then along come a few bolts from the blue who call this all into question. One of them is Alicia Alonso. Every so often during the 1990s, her clearly impoverished yet magnificently taught and coached Ballet Nacional de Cuba would give one or two performances in the New York area of such works as Giselle, with stagings that were so beautifully shaped and sumptuously detailed in both their choreographic structure and dramatic event that anyone who saw them could barely look at other much more expensively-produced versions without weeping for what has been lost or deliberately thrown away. During the Ballet Nacional’s season this week at City Center, the production of Antonio Gades’s Blood Wedding, which has had to be reconfigured for a cast of dancers who are not masters of flamenco, is a profound theatrical experience, better in some respects in its dance-acting and in the deep song of its simplest walking passages and gestures than the iconic film of the work that Gades made with Carlos Saura. Even Azari Plisetski’s Canto Vital (song of nature), the requisite 21st-century beefcake burger for four guys, which strips them of everything but their dance belts, sumptuously clothes them in actual ballet steps. It gives a balletgoer something real to discover as one squints at the stage with embarrassment. The men, permitted some classical dancing amid the acrobatics and the camp, perform everything as nobly as is possible.
Since Eric Taub is reporting on the company at City Center for The DanceViewTimes, I’m only going to pick out a couple of dance details. One is for the corps de ballet, in Ballet Nacional’s one-act production of the lakeside scene from Swan Lake—the ballet the company had to substitute at the last minute on its mixed bill for Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, owing to a mess over the rights from the Fokine estate. When Odette and Siegfried dance their solos, the girls on either side of the stage adopt different poses, as in most conventional productions of the Second Act. At the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, however, every pose is an astounding—and stylistically persuasive—living sculpture. Furthermore, the poses don’t settle for making pretty optical patterns; they relate directly to the dramatic thread of the scene. When Siegfried enters for his solo in the pas de deux, the corps lower themselves to a sitting pose while raising their upstage arms overhead and touching their thumbs to their fingers; the gesture remains classical, yet it also turns their hands and arms into the heads and necks of swans. It transforms them on the spot, with the same instancy that one finds in the company’s virtuoso showpiece The Black Swan, where Odile seems to have been momentarily constituted from the dust motes trailing in the wake of von Rothbart’s cloak, an effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with lasar technology and everything to do with vision, timing, and technique. (The performances at City Center of Viengsay Valdés as Odile and Joel Carreño as Prince Siegfried were not only jaw-droppingly bravura—Valdés’s ability to balance on point probably hasn’t been seen in this country since the glory days of Cynthia Gregory, or, perhaps, of Carmelita Maracci—but also piercingly motivated by a dramatic through-line.) And what company outside the Ballet Nacional presents the duet for the Big Swans—so often a boring, ballooning interference until the principals return—as a showpiece of classicism, complete with the most extraordinary little ronds de jambe en l’air as grace notes to the larger extensions? I won’t be able to look at any Swan Lake again without remembering the fragments of this one. The only production I’ve seen in the past ten years to approach it is the satirical one for the Trocks. It is amazing to discover that there is something beyond their lovingly curated satire of Swan Lake that is the ballet, itself.
The staging of the Ballet Nacional’s version is attributed to Alicia Alonso after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. That is, it is not an old museum piece: it is a new version by a living choreographer who knows exactly why every dancer is on stage, who respects tradition while putting forward her own ideas about it, and who understands to her bones the difference between vanguardism and vandalism. This is not the Swan Lake of George Balanchine or Frederick Ashton; however, it is true and beautiful in its own right, and there is no question that it was fashioned for dancegoers who cared about what they were seeing. Recently, in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, Jennifer Dunning asked Carreño (who is the younger brother of American Ballet Theatre’s José Manuel Carreño), how Cuba produces the astonishing array of classical dancers that it does. After noting that the dancers “are always practicing and watching videos of Misha Baryshnikov, José Manuel, Carlos Acosta, and Fernanco Bujones,” he added: “Of course, the Cuban people love to see classical ballet. They go a lot. They know a lot about it. They think it’s an important art. It began with Alicia and continued with a lot of dancers.” Among them, it might be observed, is the Ballet Nacional’s Principal Ballet Mistress Josefina Méndez, who is surely key to why this company is one of the greatest ballet ensembles in the world.
All recordings by
the Orquesta Sinfonica del Gran Teatro de La Habana
Lake (scenes from Act II)
Vital (song of nature)
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