New York City Ballet went back to basics this week with its “Black and White” program. All Balanchine, all modernist ballets performed in pared-down leotards and tights: The Four Temperaments, Episodes, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. Here’s my review of the evening for DanceTabs.
And a short excerpt: “The program, a compilation of modernist ballets set to music by Webern, Hindemith, and Stravinsky that span three decades (1946-1972), is a kind of compendium of the choreographer’s most radical, game-changing esthetic. Its distinctive mix of courtliness, mystery, and eroticism still surprises. Not to mention its musical intelligence, which can make sense of a work as impenetrable – and as seemingly undanceable – as Anton Webern’s pointillist Opus 21 symphony.”
The “Black and White” program repeats on Sept. 28, Oct. 1, Oct. 4, and Oct. 13.
This summer, I spoke with Virginia Johnson, the longtime star of Dance Theatre of Harlem, who is now the troupe’s Artistic Director. You can see the interview, on DanceTabs, here.
Under Johnson’s tutelage, the company has returned from the brink for a successful first season. This fall, her dancers will perform at Fall for Dance in New York. In our interview, we talked about her life in dance, the rise, fall, and rise of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the very real challenge of diversity in ballet. Here’s an excerpt: “I look at these dancers and I see that they’re not being corrected. There are some very basic things going on that reveal that they’re being ignored. And we see changes in them so quickly because they are finally getting corrections. The schools need to not only embrace the fact that ballet doesn’t have a color but actually work with the material in the room.”
The question of diversity in ballet is finally coming to people’s attention. Benjamin Millepied mentioned it in an interview related to his upcoming directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet, in comments that pissed off the French media. (He said, “I can’t run a ballet company now, today, and not have it be a company where people in the house can relate to, and recognize themselves in some ways.” Shocking.) ABT has just announced a new initiative whose mission is to reach out to minority communities through Boys and Girls Clubs across the us. (ABT’s Misty Copeland will be the ambassador for the program, which is called Project Plié.) Meanwhile, DTH will be there.
Talk about a meteoric rise. It’s only been a couple of years since he choreographed Black Swan, the film that raised his profile to global proportions. A year since he quit dancing and started his own company, LA Dance Projects. And now this: the Paris Opera Ballet has announced that he will follow Brigitte Lefevre in the position of Director of the Ballet in 2014. To lead the oldest ballet company in the world: it is an enormous vote of confidence in this young man, in his mid thirties. A difficult decision for Laurent Hilaire, Lefevre’s heir apparent and a brilliant former étoile formed by Nureyev, to swallow. (And for Manuel Legris, a nother top candidate, for that matter.) Millepied has proved that he certainly has the intelligence, the tough-mindedness, and the drive, all pre-requisites for the job. And perhaps the taste as well: his repertory choices for LA Dance Projects have been smart and interesting, with an eye to modern dance and to the very best of contemporary ballet. The decision to perform William Forsythe’s Quintett was particularly canny. As was the decision to have Forsythe himself come and coach the dancers. His personal charisma and connections are certainly part of the package. (The POB will get Natalie Portman as part of the package; the whole family will move to Paris.) He has an eye for dancers and knows how to show them off in his own works. As yet, it must be said, he hasn’t revealed himself to be more than a stylish choreographer. It is possible that he realizes his own limitations—he told the Times that he will not prioritize his own choreography as director of the POB. The fact that he is a choreographer at all is a huge plus for the company—the last choreographer director there, according to Le Figaro, was Serge Lifar, though Nureyev also re-staged many of the classics. Whether Millepied’s lack of familiarity with many of the ballets in the company’s repertory will be a liability is also an open question. Also: Will he be able to handle the dense layers of a large, French, institution? On the other hand, perhaps he will be able to identify a new generation of French ballet choreographers, an area in which the company has been rather at a loss. Millepied told Roslyn Sulcas of the Times that he wants to put the focus back on ballet; in recent years the company has been known more for its forays into contemporary dance, as if it had lost confidence in the future of ballet. Millepied is a provocative choice, but an intriguing one.
“Despite all this, Benjamin Millepied has proven himself to be indispensable! In this world that is increasingly deaf to the unique language of dance, he has decided to dedicate his life to this art….His youth—he is 36—changes nothing; he has always been precocious. His marriage last summer to Natalie Portman, the most brilliant of American actresses, whom he met on the set of Black Swan, did not shake his determination.”
I should think not! It’s a rather romanticized view, but a bit of enthusiasm will be needed to make this transition work.
And a more balanced take, from Libération. The article mentions that Millepied will make a new Daphnis et Chloé for the company in 2014, and that Portman is looking forward to taking on more European projects.
I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the decision… Comment below!
There is something attractive about the idea of putting together an end-of-year list, no matter how artificial the concept. It offers us the illusion of good housekeeping and gives us permission to indulge in semi-serious nostalgia about the year that has just passed. Was it a good year for dance? Well, it has certainly had some highpoints. Here are a few, in no particular order.
1. The final Merce Cunningham Events at the New York Armory.
These were epic performances, and though technically they took place just before the New Year, for me, they marked the start of a new era, post Merce. The enormous Drill Hall, which spans an entire city block, was filled with people, six thousand strong, and the level of excitement and sadness was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The Cunningham dancers, together for the last time, danced as if in a trance. The whole thing was spine-tingling. Here’s what I wrote at the time, in The Nation:
“At the final performance at the Armory, on New Year’s Eve, the dancers gazed at the audience in shell-shocked amazement, as waves of applause rippled through the hall. Silas Riener, looking gaunt after the intensity of the tour and the relentless schedule of the final weeks, did a solo from the 1992 work Enter that led him as far as his body could go, swatting his arms and moving his head jerkily, like a man possessed, while sinking into deep squats that switched, seemingly without transition, into turns, or flipping himself from a downward facing position to an upward one, the arch in his back reversing dramatically. Emma Desjardins, a sensualist of the stage, looked as if she were about to cry. Jennifer Goggans, a company veteran, seemed the most at ease, joining Daniel Madoff in a stately, formal walkabout on one of the platforms. Andrea Weber, with her athletic, healthy, beautiful body, smiled beatifically, as if constantly amazed at the challenges presented to her. As electronic and brass sounds filled the hall (I think it was David Behrman’s “Open Space With Brass”), she bent her legs deeply, balancing on her toes, then tipped into a sideways tilt and slowly curved her spine backward and looked up at the heavens. She was dancing for Merce. They all were.”
2. Dorothée Gilbert in the Paris Opéra Ballet’s Giselle.
Until her performance, I admired but was not fully seduced by the company during its visit to New York. Mostly, I was impressed by the corps of wilis in Giselle, who danced with such eerie precision that they made me think of those movies where animators take one person and multiply him ten-thousand-fold to create a multitude. But Gilbert’s beauty and charm, and the freshness of her interpretation, won me over completely. In The Faster Times, I wrote:
“Like all the Paris Opéra dancers, it seems, the twenty-eight-year-old Gilbert is a very beautiful woman, without being anonymously pretty. Long, long neck, strong jawline, gorgeous shoulders, sensitive back, pronounced Gallic nose. But what is most noticeable is her eyes, which are enormous and bright, and remarkably lively…Every emotion and thought is easily legible, and more importantly, we see what she sees. In this, she reminds me of Indian classical dancers, for whom the eyes play an essential role in bringing the narrative to life, while simultaneously enveloping the viewer with their charm….In Gilbert’s Giselle, the eyes tell the whole story: from her initial shyness to her delight in Albrecht’s attentions, her disappointment with the results of the “he loves me, he loves me not” game, her love of dancing, her absolute lack of guile, and, in the end, her fatal incomprehension of Albrecht’s betrayal.”
3. Shantala Shivalingappa at Fall For Dance.
I know, I know, Shivalingappa was on my 2011 year-end list last as well. But I just can’t get enough of this classical Indian dancer, who specializes in kuchipudi. At Fall For Dance, she performed a shortened version of her evening-length solo Shiva Ganga. As I wrote in DanceTabs, “she is one of the most musical dancers I have ever seen, in any form. Not only are the movements of her body indistinguishable from the music, but she can switch from slow to fast, muscular to fluid, potent to sensual in an instant, with total ease….Her solo ended with the dancer bent forward, near the floor, arms rippling. Her body had become a landscape.”
In October, I interviewed her, and she proved to be as gracious in speech as she is graceful in movement. She told me: “Basically, I don’t think it’s me doing anything, I think we’re just instruments for something coming from somewhere else. If we can allow ourselves to be very transparent, clear, open, empty, then it can happen. You have to be ready. But you have to be qualified, use your talents, train yourself, practice every day so that your legs are strong, to give yourself the full range, but then be quiet. Try to be in touch with whatever is inside and waiting to come out. I’m always expecting to be surprised, and I don’t know whether I can do it.”
4. Moiseyev Dance Company at Fall For Dance.
I expected the company to be dynamic and virtuosic, but I had no idea they would be so damned exciting. Great dancers, wonderful music, and highly effective stagings of folk dance from across the former Soviet Republics. If you don’t believe me, just check out this Kalmyk Dance:
5. Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony Number 9.
That Ratmansky has an affinity for Shostakovich we already knew from The Bright Stream and Concerto DSCH. But this new work, for ABT, just got better and better as it went along. Asecond viewing revealed new depths: “Different details emerged, and the performances of Roberto Bolle and Veronika Part—particularly Veronika Part—revealed a thematic thread I had not noticed before. The symphony was commissioned as a celebration of Russia’s victory over the Nazis. It is essentially upbeat, snappy, even frenetic in its good spirits (at least at first). But it protests its cheerfulness too much, thus introducing a darker undertone. In the first slow movement, there is a sinuous clarinet melody that Ratmansky clearly hears as an intimation of danger. The tango-like pas de deux that dominates this section is furtive; the man and woman constantly turn their heads to make sure they are not surrounded by spies or enemies. A creeping crescendo in the strings seems to evoke great forces encircling the couple. Here and in the movement that followed, the alternate-cast Veronika Part—a great dramatic ballerina—revealed powerful undercurrents of sadness. Where Polina Semionova’s twisting, supple body had given the duet the feel of an illicit tryst, Part’s powerful back and shoulders made it clear that the peril came from without. She communicated fear, desperation, and the desire to protect her lover from harm. Thus, it made even more sense to see the lone male figure—Jared Matthews, in this cast, Herman Cornejo in the first—as a guardian angel protecting the couple.”
6. Herman Cornejo’s dancing, all year long.
(Cornejo in Mark Morris’s Drink to me Only With Thine Eyes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.)
He was brilliant and funny in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Ashton’s The Dream, swooningly romantic in Sinatra Suite, noble and conflicted in La Bayadère, mysterious and blazing in Ratmansky’s Symphony No. 9, deeply musical in Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.
In November, he told me: “Well, performing for me is really about that experience of giving to the audience. In the studio you work and perfect things, you collaborate with your partner, but for me it’s about what happens on the stage, the ability to give something, to your partner, to the audience. In the studio and the rest of the time I’m just like anyone; the only time I feel different is on stage.”