writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

19 January 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff

Five or six years ago, Pacific Northwest Ballet—codirected by NYCB alumni Francia Russell and Kent Stowell—mounted a new production of George Balanchine’s 1962 evening-length version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with new sets and costumes commissioned from Martin Pakledinaz (the first time The Balanchine Trust authorized the redesign of a Balanchine story ballet). I happened to see that lovely production in its first season and was astounded to discover how much my view of the latter half of the ballet was changed by the seriousness with which Russell (a ballet mistress for Balanchine at the time of Midsummer’s making and the stager of the work for PNWB) had treated the wedding dances of the Second Act, both in the directions to Pakledinaz about the set and in her own attention to details of the choreography. In conversation at that time, Russell expressed her admiration for the construction and nuances of those wedding dances—not just the famous partnered adagio at the end, but all of the ones for the corps de ballet that lead up to it. She also referred to the passage in one of the Jonathan Cott interviews with Balanchine from the early 1970s (subsequently anthologized by Lincoln Kirstein in the album Portrait of Mr. B), which guided the new PNWB set for the Second Act that reveals the night sky, illuminated by a crescent of stars:

[Balanchine:] “When Bottom the Weaver is transformed into an ass, he says: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.’ It sounds silly, but it’s full of double and triple meanings. And I think that at moments like this, Shakespeare was a Sufi. It reminds me of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 2,9]: ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.’ What Bottom says sounds as if the parts of the body were quarrelling with one another. But it’s really as if he were somewhere in the Real World. He loses his man’s head and brain and experiences a revelation.

“And then what happens? Bottom wants to recite his dream, which ‘hath no bottom,’ to the Duke after his and his friends’ play-within-a-play is over, but the Duke chases them away. And the really deep and important message was in that dream.

“At one point, when I was choreographing the ballet, I said to myself: In the last act, I’ll make a little entertainment and then a big vision of Mary standing on the sun, wrapped in the moon, with a crown of twelve stars on her head and a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. . .the Revelation of St. John!”

[Cott:] “Why didn’t you do it?”

[Balanchine:] “Well, because then I thought that nobody would understand it, that people would think I was an idiot. . .I knew it was impossible. I wished I could have done it. But instead, in the second act, I made a pretty—not silly or comic—pas de deux to a movement from an early Mendelssohn string symphony [Symphony No. 9 in C]—something people could enjoy.”

[Cott:] “But that pas de deux is so mysterious and calm. . .perhaps you did, in fact, give us Bottom’s dream.”

[Balanchine:] “It doesn’t matter what it is. What’s important is that it’s pretty and makes you happy to see it. What it is—a flower or a girl or a dance or music—you can do what you want with it, you can talk about it, take it home with you, think about it, and say it represents this or that. . .that’s fine.” (pp. 139-140)

The pas de deux, of course, has been cherished since it was first put on stage, with its original cast (Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow). One needn’t know anything about Balanchine’s remarks concerning it to be enraptured; like the adagio in the Second Movement of Symphony in C or the dances of Liebeslieder Walzer, the very marriage of the choreography and the music inspires affection on its own. In a long essay in Dance Ink during the 1990s, Joan Acocella probed this spontaneous attraction of the Midsummer adagio, persuasively anatomizing its choreographic figures as an emblem of a loving marriage in the secular world—that is, she discussed the appeal of the pas de deux on the level of a universal wish for completion of and complement to the self through union with another person. Still, regardless of how one justifies one’s love for the dance, Russell’s point was that the adagio’s beauty and suggestiveness were not isolated examples of Balanchine’s genius but rather culminating effects of the court dances that lead up to it, and that those dances, often underrehearsed or performed in a half-hearted way for decades, merited close attention in service to the flow of the entire scene. It was in the PNWB Midsummer that I, for one, first noticed the many variations on steps and gestures in those apparently impersonal, academic court dances that had been introduced in the storytelling mime-dances of Act One.

In the years since the première of PNWB’s production, the New York City Ballet Midsummer also seems to have been more carefully groomed, and in the company’s performances this month, the detail was extraordinary. Indeed, the problem today seems to be that mimetic references—which, in Balanchine’s time, were visible yet unenunciated during performance, like fish glimpsed in a clear pool—are now struck with accents more typical of a Jerome Robbins ballet than of one by Balanchine. They read very clearly as theater; however, they also make the dancers look a little too wise about the actions they deliver, as if they’d studied a lexicon of equivalent meanings for what they do. A dancer reading this complaint might feel frustrated, indeed; since the balance I speak of between “just dancing” and dancing with a knowledge of the meanings implicit in the choreography is extremely elusive and difficult to achieve on one’s own, absent the choreographer’s physical demonstrations and without the chance to study the work in the theater as a member of the audience or to compare filmed performances of it with sufficient leisure time to absorb their subtleties and place them in a personal context, using a personal logic that will help enhance a performance. In a sense, what I’m asking for is a state of being rather like the title character of Balanchine’s La Sonnambula, who knows yet does not recognize the situation in which she advances blind. That look of intuition in the dark, however, is crucial to what distinguishes Balanchine’s work from that of any other choreographer; it is part and parcel of why balletomanes seek out his ballets over and over. Alas, it is also very much estranged from the posterish reductions of mass-market art that dominate the imagery most of us encounter every day at home, at work, and in the street. Whether this particular complexity—which is, I think, related directly to the levels of Balanchine’s thinking, including his ideas about nature and the sacred, most of which are not shared by our age—can be sustained while also filling the 2,700 seats of the New York State Theater over all the weeks the company must break even there is a question I can’t begin to answer.

Still, I’m happy to report that the Second Act of Midsummer (and the similarly storyless yet poetically suggestive Second Acts of The Nutcracker and Harlequinade) seem to be cared for at NYCB this season. This works to everyone’s benefit, including the company’s historians, for whom the celebrations of the centenary of Balanchine’s birth represent their own lives as artists and theatergoers. When one can discern in a flash the crescent of danseuses, poised on pointe, in the Second Act wedding, one begins to link the figure to its use in the opening tableau of “Rubies,” and to consider that both the costumes of “Rubies” and of the courtiers who celebrate the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta carry touches of medieval armour, and perhaps be lead from there to a reminder of the context of courtly love that infuses both Jewels (another evening-length Balanchine ballet) and Midsummer. It’s a pity that the evening-length Don Quixote, which explicitly articulated Balanchine’s world view concerning the artist, can no longer be revived; that, too, is permeated with chivalric conventions. How would such conceptual networking assist a performer? Well, making his debut as Oberon in Midsummer recently, Joaquin De Luz executed the solos brilliantly; however, he wasn’t quite of the world of the character in other respects. His Oberon was warm-bloodedly human; Balanchine’s is something else. And the tone of that “something else” is, I believe, closely related to the tone of the Second Act court dances.

It’s important to add, of course, that Balanchine wasn’t satisfied with those dances himself. Almost as soon as Midsummer was given its première, he made major changes to the section, and in 1964 he made more. The critic who stated the most persuasive case of dissatisfaction with them was Edwin Denby, who located bourgeois restriction in the very choice of the music for them:

“The picture that comes back [i.e., the afterimage of the second act, following the first performance that Denby saw]. . .is the wedding march with which the ball had opened—the music’s interminable repeats, the chorus walking their designs looking as stuffy as in church, the orchestra blaring the tight two-bar phrase pattern, and the dance did too. The prospect of a grand climax confined to a two-bar seesaw—no travel—exasperated him [“the fan”]. He watched the confined phrase pattern continue through the long divertissement, including the pas de deux. It continued through a court dance that briefly concluded the ball. Wedding march, divertissement, court dance, each had run to a modest ending, march and court dance keeping to the phrase pattern conventionally, the divertissement [the adagio] keeping to it, but not at all conventionally.”

According to Richard Buckle, one of Balanchine’s biographers, the choreographer had worked for 20 years on assembling the score of Midsummer from across the range of Mendelssohn’s music. (The famous incidental music to the play that the composer wrote while still in his teens isn’t long enough for an evening-length work.) The independence that Denby exhibited as a critic of it, and of one or two other Balanchine ballets in the early 1960s (such as Electronics), make for interesting reading, indeed. No one who ever wrote about Balanchine was more sensitive to his musicianship than Denby, and the fact that he would find fault with a project of such long-term gestation gives a fan of both Denby and Balanchine pause. In the event, this dancegoer is not put off by the two-bar phrase repetitions. Nor, despite the history of connoisseurs’ impatience with another Mendelssohn ballet, the 1952 Scotch Symphony, is she bothered by the fact that the story suggestions of that alternatively exuberant and haunting work don’t add up to a story. Maria Tallchief, the ballerina in the original cast, has gone on record to say that Balanchine made the pas de deux to teach her something about her capacity for lyricism, which sounds something like the spirit in which he devised the “Elegy” section of Serenade for his student dancers in 1934. In the performance I saw this season, with Kyra Nichols in the Tallchief role, I was disappointed to see that the flying throw of the ballerina onto her cavalier’s chest, where she is supposed to land like a feather (the image is a representation, perhaps, of the wires used to fly ballerina-Sylphs across the stage in 19th-century Romantic ballet) was performed as an elaborately careful placement, to earthbound effect.

Still, whatever the reason for the Code Orange there, I’d rather see the ballet, and Nichols in it, than not see it at all.
—Mindy Aloff

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 3
January 19, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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