DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?,” Yeats asked rhetorically, implying that the distinction is impossible. And he was right, in the sense that dancing, when it is great, erases the difference between performance and choreography: it really does look as if the performer is making everything up on the spot. Of course, the dance critic’s more practical answer is, “See two casts.” The dance is whatever survives both of them. Yet this presumes that, apart from the exchange of performers, all the other elements of theatrical production stay the same.
Suppose they don’t. Suppose, say, that the opening of the final movement of Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes—a sumptuous finale to an hour-long, full-company extravaganza, set in a grand, mirrored ballroom, for tens of ballerinas and danseurs in spectacular evening-wear—is performed by a handful of college dance students, including two young men who have never had experience in balletic or ballroom partnering techniques and one of whom has had no previous dance training at all. Suppose, in place of Karinska’s gowns of pale satin, the six girls wear black rehearsal skirts, and in place of spool-heeled shoes they wear soft ballet slippers. Suppose that, lovely as they are, none of them has the etiolated body of a professional ballet dancer, c. 2004. Indeed, suppose that they’re currently training as modern dancers who only study ballet twice a week. Suppose that the dancer who performs the role of the dreaming ballgoer, which Balanchine created for Suzanne Farrell on Stephanie Saland, has never even seen Vienna Waltzes, and that she’s essaying this landmark entrance from the downstage right wing in a black-box theater where there are no wings, no proscenium, no architectural help in creating stage illusion. Finally, suppose that, instead of a full orchestra plunging into Richard Strauss’s fantastical waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, the music emanates from a CD.
That is, we’re removing the professional ballet company, their years of daily training and theatrical experience, the sets and costumes, the orchestra, and the entire theater. What could possibly be left?
These are left: student dancers in the Sarah Lawrence College dance program, the staging and coaching of former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt (now an artist-in-residence at SUNY/Ulster), and the dance itself—its nuances of locomotion, its exquisite gestures, its space travel, its dramatic detail, and, most of all, its relation to the music fully, accurately, heartbreakingly intact. I don’t know what else to say about it, except that this bare-bones version taught me that the three costume elements crucial to the Farrell role are the length of the dancer’s skirt (she has to be able to bring up its hem to her cheek without exposing her legs), her opera-length gloves (which enunciate her hand-play and make it slightly strange as well as elegant), and her understated tiara, which reminds the audience of her sovereignty.
If you’re skeptical about this report, I understand. Truly, if someone had described this to me—adding that it was performed on a program called “Barefoot Balanchine,” which also included a thrilling vest-pocket version of The Four Temperaments, performed off point—I wouldn’t believe for a nanosecond that it could work, not even if you mentioned that Allegra Kent had dropped in to look it over and suggest a few finishing touches. If you further added that the program contained Frankfurt’s own staging of Luna Park—Balanchine’s long-lost, 1930 vaudeville (based on a circus freak show), to a piquant score by Lord Berners, for the London impresario Charles B. Cochran—which Frankfurt put together from from period photographs and written accounts, and that much of it was charming, with its glamorous, glittering, slightly Southeast Asian masks, and its mysterious, “Hand of Fate” or Cotillon gestures, and its touches of the “Blackamoor” pas de deux from Night Shadow, at once aristocratic and cruel, I’d have smiled and changed the topic of conversation to the weather. If you had added the fillip that, during a truly barefoot lecture-dem about the difference between Balanchine technique and Vaganova schooling, the live pianist worked the pedals barefoot in a show of solidarity with the program’s mission, I’d have thought you were making up everything. I can answer only that I was there, and these little displays of Balanchine’s art, known and supposed—all presented by permission of The George Balanchine Trust—were of the first water, their impoverishments of production notwithstanding. It seems to me that more pressing than Yeats’s question is: Why isn’t Wilhelmina Frankfurt, clearly one of the most gifted stagers and coaches of Balanchine’s work in the world, exercising her gifts on professional ballet companies? –Mindy Aloff
by Jane Hoffer:
Waltzes (opening of last movement)
last updated on January 11, 2004