DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Last Wednesday, at the Museum of Television & Radio—which is celebrating Balanchine’s centenary birth year with programs that showcase the spectacular array of his televised works in the museum’s library—it was stunningly obvious that what made his dancers look different from any others during his lifetime was the way they phrased the choreography, and the way the guidelines for phrasing were built into that choreography, too. They danced as if they were speaking, with strong accents and half accents, and pauses, and energy rising (that is, with attack) or falling (that is, with cadences). Their dancing had the texture of witty conversation, and what they were dancing gave them something substantial to say. Inevitably, this physical commentary addressed the music. Regardless of how many people were on stage, the overarching engagement between dance and music in a Balanchine ballet lent even a solo the intimate give-and-take of a whispered exchange. The choreography had themes (subjects) and variations (predicates), and its hair-trigger velocities, continuously modulated like gears being shifted in a sports car, conveyed the visceral sense that, in every sentence, the dancing was, from initial cap to period, all verb. One can understand from this why Balanchine’s teaching was so concerned with detail, down to the orientation of the toes in the tip of a point shoe. These dancers were being asked to converse as equals with musicians playing fine acoustic instruments and also to serve as the instruments, themselves. He was asking their entire bodies to match the finger action of violinists as well as the condition and the tuning of the violins, to exert a breath control equal to that of a flutist or clarinetist and also to become the flute or the clarinet, to exhibit the verve and stamina of a percussionist and also to resonate with the drum, to match a harpist’s reach and exactitude and also to produce the harp’s angelic clarity. And, on top of that, to look spontaneous, as if making it all up on the spot. When one sees Patricia McBride, in Tarantella, flick up both feet instantaneously in a pas de chat with the speed and unselfconsciousness of a speaker stressing a syllable in the midst of a sentence like, “Oh, my; I just GOT milk,” or when one sees the Terpsichore of Suzanne Farrell addressing one part of Apollo’s orchestra with her body and legs and another part of the orchestra with her gesturing arm, one realizes, again, just how unusual Balanchine’s achievement was and how refined was the climate of inspiration he provided to those with whom he worked.
Of course, there are other ways of phrasing a dance. Now. I. Am. Go. Ing. To. Lift. The. Girl. Hey. She’s. Up. Got. To. Keep. Her. There. Four. More. Counts. Whew! Or: HereIgowithpetitallegroyou’regettingentrechatsixandbrisésgalore. Andincaseyoudidn’tseethemthefirsttimeI’lldothemthreetimesmore.
These phrasings are no more or less artificial than the textures and nuances of those Balanchine preferred. All you need to do to encounter speech like this is to eavesdrop on conversations in a public place—for instance, the lobby of the New York State Theater around 7:28 p.m. on a freezing cold evening, as a growing crowd surges toward the beleaguered ticket=taker, who has to keep reminding them that the house doesn’t open until 7:30 and that HE is not responsible for determining when 7:30 arrives. On the night of NYCB’s première of Susan Stroman’s newly commissioned, evening-length, $750,000 Double Feature—a ballet that is supposed to celebrate Balanchine’s work on Broadway and in Hollywood—the crowd was especially vocal in its critique of one employee who wouldn’t let them into the house until the management gave him the high sign, and so I was able to ascertain that at least a part of the audience who stood up and lauded the evening on the last gasp of the curtain calls around 10:20 p.m. truly loved it because it represented them—their speech, their aggressiveness, their capacity for humiliating people. Stroman caught them to a T. This is the audience to which Peter Martins must have been referring when Matthew Gurewitsch quoted him last Sunday in an Arts & Leisure advance piece on the Stroman work: “Peter Martins, a former dancer for Balanchine and his chosen successor, says he always wanted Double Feature in the Balanchine centennial,” Gurewitsch wrote, “but hoped to introduce it seasons ago. ‘So I could sell tickets!’ he blurts out pre-emptively. ‘There! I’ve said it. We have to fill 2,700 seats every night.’ And Ms. Stroman knows about filling seats. Alas, she was not available before.”
“Pre-emptively?” Must have been some interview. It would also be interesting to know where Gurewitsch found the support for his assertion that Martins is Balanchine’s “chosen successor”; I’ve never seen anything on paper to suggest that Balanchine chose anyone to succeed him, apart from his bitter quip, “After me, the board [of directors].” Still, successor Martins has become; and his concern about selling tickets in a house that is—in today’s vulgarian and economically distressed cultural climate—now too big for the company to count on filling with its ballet repertory during its two-month, non-Nutcracker seasons, is relevant to the organization’s survival. Better that 18,900 people eat up Double Feature, the best-dressed turkey in town, over its seven-night run, and that NYCB pay the dancers’ salaries, than see ballerinas doing échappés on the sidewalk, begging buckets in hand, as members of The Pennsylvania Ballet had to do during a belt-tightening period in the 1970s.
Stroman has gifts for the stage, no doubt about that. She brings out the personalities of performers, she has a bankable sense of humor, and she can produce some large, swiping images. When the ballgoers make their exits at the conclusion of The Blue Necklace, the first of Double Feature’s two ballets, they ball up in a huddle with their backs to the audience and then, couple by couple, they break from the anonymous mass to face the house, each pair leaving with a different little combination. It has the childlike effect of so many jack-in-the-boxes springing open, and if the NFL had any smarts, it would immediately adopt the maneuver to introduce its teams on televised games. The 30 rejected brides who streak after Tom Gold’s warmly humane impersonation of Buster Keaton in Makin’ Whoopee (a song indelibly associated with Eddie Cantor rather than Keaton, but let that pass) gel into a breathtaking white diagonal, their faces dotting William Ivey Long’s tulle confections—a different gown for each “bride” (some are men in drag)—like lentils in aspic. Stroman’s casting in both ballets is impeccable and appropriate in every way. Setting up Damian Woetzel as a movie star, whose protestations of love consist of him planting himself center stage (an allusion, perhaps, to Stroman’s own foray into the movies) and going into a whirlwind of grands tours and tours à la seconde is a reading of Woetzel’s qualities as a performer that has never before been so exactly achieved. And to cast Kyra Nichols, a ballerina whose accuracy Balanchine commended in the same breath as Farrell’s as a gift from God, as the heavy in The Blue Necklace is a joke about current company style that even a critic wouldn’t venture to make. While it’s true that the Cinderella figure played by Ashley Bouder in The Blue Necklace was tough as nails and probably could have just decked her evil stepmother and fled with the family silver rather than fluttering about looking for the key to let herself out the front door, there was a certain clinical fascination in watching Bouder try over and over to look vulnerable, as when, having unlocked that door, she gamboled back and forth over the threshold in a paroxysm of ambivalence about leaving the discomforts of home. (Gurewitsch announced that Janie Taylor was cast for this role; however, she seems to be injured.)
Finally, to bring on a real, trained dog in Makin’ Whoopee, who can jump vertically, like a yo-yo, and beat an exit on the count of one, is a self-deprecating joke about the construction and spirit of Double Feature that borders on genius. The quotation from Ezekial on the intertitles for The Blue Necklace, which prompted the most lubricious laugh from the theatergoers behind me, and the gag about the homeless Russian woman in the same ballet, which provoked a shriek or two from the Family Circle, didn’t hold a candle to the dog. The only problem with this production as far as I could see (and this is a teeny-tiny detail, admittedly) was that Stroman seems to have lost her watch, and, instead of an eleven o’clock number, went on to produce yards and yards of stupefying“pure” dance. Toward the end, so many theatergoers in my sightline seemed to have conked out that I wouldn’t have been surprised if an usher had run onto the stage to stop the proceedings and ask if there were a show doctor in the house. Yet, I’m happy to report, everyone was able to hop right up for the standing ovation, get to the street, and start killing one another over taxicabs. For a moment, I thought I heard the distant rumble of a few bodies churning in their graves, but it was only the sound of show business, getting away with ev’rything the traffic will allow.
Note: On all the levels of the State Theater, NYCB has installed a truly wonderful display of photographs, with helpful captions relating to Balanchine's ballets and commercial work. On the orchestra level, next to the coat-check rooms, you can see pictures of his work for Broadway and Hollywood, and they are packed with absorbing information.
research project "Popular Balanchine," sponsored by
The George Balanchine Foundation, has just completed an exhaustive study
of every commercial venture—on both stage and screen—in which
Balanchine was substantially involved. There is even a dossier on The
Ballet of the Elephants for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey,
to a score written at Balanchine’s request by Igor Stravinsky. These
dossiers, produced by scholars, and many containing copious illustrations,
are available to the public in the Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance
Division. It turns out that, even though few of the dances from the shows
can be reconstructed in the theater, there is a great deal of information
about Balanchine’s artistic choices in them, about the imaginative
climate in they were made, and about the collaborative processes during
rehearsal. Take a look.
of George Balanchine: Selected Television Work
Photo: Ashley Bouder and Damian Woetzel in The Blue Necklace. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
last updated on January 11, 2004