DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Since New York City is the breezy, casual, drop-in kind of place it is, as a lark on Friday I decided to make an impromptu visit to Japan Society, to see a performance by some of Japan’s “Living Treasures” (assisted by a few “Intangible Cultural Assets”: boy, I love Japan’s attitude toward the arts!) in the ancient theater-dance traditions of Noh and Kyogen. Noh, of course, is the tragic tradition, the reality show of Japanese theater, where love turns out to be a mask for the vanity of human wishes, and the gentlest of consoling natural forces turn out to be potential fronts for spectacular ghosts. Characters in Noh don’t die, in the way we understand that word today: they are transposed into different states of being, like the Wilis in Giselle. In my moments of occasional reflection—you know, like when you’re standing on a traffic island, waiting for the light to change—I sometimes while away the time by ruminating on such questions as whether the entire tradition of Noh somehow became transmogrified as 19th-century ballet. New York is that kind of place, where EVERYBODY is thinking about ideas! An intellectual’s paradise!! (As long as you don’t get brained by a brick from behind.)
Kyogen, as you may have guessed, is the comic warm-up act for Noh. It’s the pedestrian, happily whiling away the time on a traffic island, turning over ideas like so many cards in solitaire. Then comes Noh: that’s the brick from behind. It’s pure Krazy Kat, except that the bricks have mass, force, and gravity.
The evening opened with the Kyogen play Horizontal Singing (Ne Ongyoku), about a servant who tries to get out of singing a song for his master—who is continually ordering the servant to perform—by making up the caveat that he can only sing when he is drunk and lying in his wife’s lap. Eventually, the master gives the servant a pot of sake and offers to pretend to be the wife, causing the servant to have to go through with his song. Being drunk, however, the servant gets mixed up and sings when he is standing and dancing. In some versions of this play, the master routs the servant with curses. However, in the version used here (the Shigeyama script), the master pardons him and asks him to sing again. (Hasn’t everyone had a day at the office like this?) In the performance I saw, the National Living Treasure Shigeyama Sensaku played the servant, Taro-kaja. Here was the George Burns of Kyogen. His master at this performance (Shigeyama Masakuni) had the hang-dog expression and impeccable timing of Jack Benny. As for Gracie and Mary, you have an imagination, audience: make ‘em up!
The Noh play, The Heavy Burden of Love (Koi No Omoni) concerns an aging gardener, who, upon glimpsing a lady of the court only once, falls completely in love and attempts to ply his suit. She, recognizing that the discrepancy of classes makes the gardener’s love hopeless, saves him the agony of outright rejection by employing the old technique of being cruel in order to be kind. She tells him that, to win her love, he must lift a package she has prepared for him and carry it “hundreds of times” around the garden. In fact, within the merry wrapping paper she has placed a heavy boulder. The gardener tries to lift the package; on realizing that he cannot, he pines away from unrequited love. The lady visits his grave and is crushed with grief at the gardener’s tragedy; indeed, she can’t rise from the spot, as if she were being pressed by a great stone. The gardener returns as a fearsome—and gorgeously attired—ghost, his white hair spiking out in a leonine manner, and he announces that she has gotten what she deserved.
However, the version of the play presented on this occasion is by the Noh master playwright Zeami (1363-1443), who softened the ending to make the ghost, still passionately in love with the lady, pledge to become her protector forever.
I’ve seen some pretty great Noh plays at Japan Society: this one takes the cake for profundity. As the colleague next to me observed, Noh is truly a theater of unremitting concentration. It seems slow; yet, if you let your attention flag for a New York second, you’ve missed a major plot twist. One reason may be that the bodies of the actors are not always where the show is moving most quickly. Sometimes, the key element is the music (a piercing flute and drums, with a principal singer and accompanying chorus), sometimes in the words (at Japan Society, instantaneous English translations were flashed on a nearby screen, opening up the entire work), sometimes in the silent action of a “minor” figure, as when, at the very end of the play, a young servant (Shigeyama Senzaburo) stepped to the lip of the stage, facing us, and silently and easily picked up the wrapped package that the gardener—who had already exited—found excruciating to lift, lightly and carefully bearing it off. We, alone, could see that stroke of directorial irony. The experience of each play is located in the observer, who is in a position to put the entire puzzle together and to recognize the different weights and textures accorded by the director and the performers to the various theatrical elements. Watching a Noh play, one becomes temporarily omniscient, and, owing to the “fourth wall,” entirely unable to forestall events. One becomes a grieving chorus on one’s own. This helps to sensitize observers to the characters’ apocalyptic yet highly reserved emotional grief. Actual weeping in Noh—symbolized by the gesture of bringing up one or both cupped hands toward the “face,” a mask that is an art work in itself—is a very, very big deal that has the effect on the gut of a tidal flood. At the end, there are no bows: one by one, the actors and then the chorus and musicians just rise and leave the stage. At the Japan Society, the audience was utterly rapt, and the cast exited in their ritual procession in complete silence, followed by scattered applause. They did not return to acknowledge that “it’s all been a play; everything’s okay,” or to break the illusion of gender by demonstrating that all the roles, including that of the young lady, are taken by male actors of a certain age. This is a theater unlike any other of which I’m aware; it makes one want to change one’s life. Or walk into the path of oncoming traffic. Or simply plunge, face down, like a cartoon of an Easter Island sculpture, forever into real, deep snow. It is not a theater for the faint of heart. The two “Living National Treasures” in the play were Katayama Kuroemon, who played Shoji, the gardener, and Hosho Kan, as the Court Officer who carried out the wishes of the Court Lady (Urata Yasuchika) and who related the saddest events of the story with a delicacy of expression that broke one to the soul all over again.
However, I didn’t have the luxury of doing myself in on Friday night, as, on Saturday, I wanted to attend at least a portion of “Wall-to-Wall Balanchine” at Symphony Space: a 12-hour marathon—part of the celebrations of the centenary of the choreographer’s birth this year—of performances, demonstrations, seminars, and lectures by a treasury of dancers, colleagues, critics, and historians, most of whom had worked with George Balanchine. Alas, dog-owners can’t easily do marathons, and so, after being thrilled by the variety and quality of the proceedings between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., I had to run back home—a three-hour round trip—to walk my faithful hound. In that time, 5-8 p.m., I missed Barbara Horgan, Bob Gottlieb, Allegra Kent, Maria Tucci, a panel on Lincoln Kirstein led by Anna Kisselgoff and including Kirstein’s authorized biographer Martin Duberman, and the historian Solomon Volkov, speaking about Balanchine and Tschaikovsky. Happily, though, on returning I was summarily plonked in a seat and caught the crystalline performance of NYCB’s Megan Fairchild in the Sugar Plum variation and heard and saw a bit of the film and the conversation between S.A.B. filmmaker extraordinaire Virginia Brooks and the outstanding NYCB principal dancer Jennie Somogyi, who, currently sidelined on crutches, came all the way from New Jersey to be part of this absolutely amazing day, contributed free to the public by the generous Symphony Space producers, patrons, and staff, and, indirectly, by The George Balanchine Foundation, which supplied program suggestions and helped to realize them. Then, between 8 and 11 p.m., I was part of the standing room only audience that was privileged to see the world première of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s new production of Apollo, staged by the redoubtable Eve Lawson (formerly of Miami City Ballet) and coached by former Apollo extraordinaire Jacques d’Amboise, who was on hand with D.T.H.’s founding director Arthur Mitchell to introduce the production and receive the cheers (and, perhaps, glimpse the tears) that greeted the ascendancy of the young, responsive and responsible actor-dancer Rasta Thomas and his muses to the peak of affection among Balanchineans who have mourned the loss of the telling details that d’Amboise has so capably and exactly restored.
The stairs to the sun were whisked away and one magnificent gift after another poured forth: a performance of the first three themes from D.T.H.’s inimitably sharp and jazzy production of Four Ts; Merrill Ashley, minutely analyzing her choreography (with film) in Ballo della Regina; d’Amboise introducing a rare film about NYCB’s 1964 move into the New York State Theater, apologizing four decades late for having been “mean” to the young Patricia McBride in a rehearsal, and sounding an alarm that the legal rights for the public administration of the State Theater by City Center run out in ten years (His note to that—“It will be interesting to see what happens”—makes one’s hair curl). Then a new stage staircase, this time to a farm roost, was slid in for the New York première, by the Kansas City Ballet, of that company’s recent, sumptuously costumed (in the original Esteban Francés designs, complete with full-head masks), and exquisitely performed production of the Balanchine-Stravinsky Renard: an “opera-burlesque” for four singing fauna (a fox, a rooster, a ram, and a cat), which Kansas City produced thanks to Nancy Reynolds of The George Balanchine Foundation, who suggested the idea when Todd Bolender, the original Renard and emeritus artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, was able to resurrect the dance entirely for the Foundation’s archive of “lost” Balanchine choreography. How Lincoln Kirstein it looked, with its deeply etched characterizations, the strong designs, the all-male dynamics. Bolender, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, appeared to introduce his revival, and he was lovingly introduced by d’Amboise, who reminded us that Renard was given its world première at Hunter College in 1947 by Ballet Society.
Renard might have made a perfect ending to a day of wonders, but it was only a way-station. It was followed by five NYCB dancers—Elizabeth Walker (the Patty McBride role), Dena Abergel, Ashley Bouder, Jared Angle, and Stephen Hanna—in a fetching, brilliant, detailed, musical, and altogether completely persuasive concert rendition of Who Cares? Why isn’t this cast on the stage of the New York State Theater?
They were first-rate! The closing words of the night belonged to George Balanchine, who, on a tape that was played while a picture was projected of Balanchine made-up for the role of Don Quixote, told us that the most important aspect of dance was the music.
Considering this, in thinking back on all I saw, I’d have to say that the most fully realized Balanchinean presentations on his own musical terms were two in number. There was the condensed class-lecture demonstration that Suki Schorer and some astounding 15-to-17 year-old S.A.B. students conducted to start out the day. Schorer’s lecture, a tour de force of wisdom and spontaneity, gave us Balanchine’s fundamental approach to dance, to ballet technique (not quite the same thing), and to music, which, for that hour, was provided by the excellent pianist Katarina Batist. There was also the coaching session for the Firebird’s variation, conducted by Violette Verdy with NYCB’s Maria Kowroski, to the live piano of Nancy McDill, who is one of the secret treasures of ballet music in New York, and the performance of the variation by Kowroski en tutu. (Verdy, filling in for the previously announced Maria Tallchief, is a gentler coach than that formidably authoritative, original proponent of the role. However, thanks to her humor, her dance genius, and her unparalleled charm with people, Verdy may have gotten more across to the dancer in the condensed time they had than Tallchief, a more icy personality, might have managed to do. Kowroski absorbed a great deal of information in a few moments, and she was a very good sport about being coached in a public forum, exhibiting both humility and openness to change. You’d never know that she’s actually one of the company's stars.)
My very favorite moment: if I could only take away one thing, it would be the performance of D.T.H.’s Alicia Graf, with Kip Sturm, in the pas de deux from Agon, staged by Eve Lawson. The music was canned, but Graf—my candidate for the most marvelous ballerina in New York: a dancer gifted by nature with a body on which movement simply flowers as if she weren’t willing it to and the deportment of ballet stars on the order of Alicias Markova or Alonso—delivered an Agon the likes of which hasn’t been seen in New York, at least by me, since Suzanne Farrell last performed it here, probably some 30 years ago. Run, don’t walk, to the next D.T.H. performance of any Balanchine ballet with Alicia Graf.
Something that everyone who attended any part of Symphony Space on Saturday was able to take away was the program, which two of the greatest and most intimate photographic portraits of Balanchine the man that were ever taken—one for the program proper, and one for an ASCAP ad on the back. Although the back one isn’t credited, both were by Tanaquil LeClercq, who preserved Balanchine in pictures as a figure of supreme handsomeness and deeply meditative spirit. Wherever LeClercq’s own spirit is now dancing—and I’m sure it is dancing to Mozart—I hope that she knows how much pleasure she has given, and continues to endow, to so many dancegoers she never knew.—Mindy Aloff
First: Katayama Kuroemon, Living National Treasure, as the gardener before his burden, in the Noh play The Heavy Burden of Love.
Second: George Balanchine, ca. 1925. Photographer: Vladimir Dimitriew. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
Third: George Balanchine portrait (ca. 1955). Photographer: Tanaquil Le Clercq. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
& Kyogen: Masters of Performance
Singing (Ne Ongyoku)—Kyogen
Burden of Love (Koi no Omoni)—Noh
Symphony Space Commemorates Balanchine Centennial with Wall to Wall Marathon Extravaganza
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
The following is the event’s press release, slightly changed to reflect the fact that the day has already happened and to register some of the cast changes:
To commemorate the centennial of George Balanchine’s birth,
Beginning at 11 am on March 20th, the Wall to Wall lineup showcased over twenty-five different programs during the 12-hour marathon. Highlights included Kansas City Ballet performing the rarely-seen Renard, Dance Theatre of Harlem performing the New York première of their new production of Apollo, and performances by dancers from New York City Ballet.
Following is a partial list of participants:
from Kansas City Ballet:
from New York City Ballet:
from the School of American Ballet
11:00 am-2:00 pm
York City Ballet Education Department: Balanchine the Balletmaster
Balanchine on Film
2:00 pm-5:00 pm
the Balanchine Archives: Part I
A live coaching session follows the screening, as Violette Verdy coaches New York City Ballet dancer Maria Kowroski in Firebird.
Hollywood Film Clips
Discussion on Balanchine and Stravinsky
from S.A.B. in Tarantella
Company: New York City Ballet
5:00 pm-8:00 pm
the Balanchine Archives: Part II
A live coaching session follows the screening.
The Nutcracker™: The Sugar Plum Fairy
8:00 pm-11:00 pm
Theatre of Harlem: Apollo
at the Speed of Balanchine
to Lincoln Center!
Theatre of Harlem: Excerpts from The Four Temperaments
City Ballet Presents Renard
Symphony Space 2003-2004 Season Print Sponsor: The Village VOICE
The Symphony Space season is made possible with public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency.
last updated on March 22, 2004