After posting my interview with the great American ballerina Virginia Johnson (now artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem) on DanceTAbs, I heard from the young dancer Michaela DePrince. Ms. DePrince, who danced with DTH for a year, has since moved on to Dutch National Ballet’s junior company, based in Amsterdam. As many of you know, Ms. DePrince was born in Sierra Leone, under very difficult circumstances in the civil war there. She lost her parents at a very young age, and saw some horrific events while living at an orphanage, including the killing of her pregnant teacher. Adopted by a New Jersey family, she has thrived. She discovered her love of ballet early, and went on to study at the Rock School in Philadelphia, and then the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school (affiliated with ABT) in New York. A few days ago, we chatted over email about her life, her training, and her career so far. The issue of racial inequality in ballet inevitably came up. It is her feeling (echoed by many others) that artistic directors are wary of taking non-white dancers for fear of upsetting the homogeneous “look” of the corps de ballet. It’s interesting, though, that in some countries, such as Cuba, this does not seem to be an issue. One of the great pleasures of seeing the Ballet Nacional de Cuba a couple of years ago at BAM, was seeing how mixed the ensemble really is, and what vitality this produces onstage. The company reflects the country; this, automatically, makes ballet seem of our time. You can read my interview with Michaela de Prince here.
Two Dying Swans in a week might seem like two too many—it probably is—but I’m surprised at how my outlook changed when one of the two happened to be a performance by Nina Ananiashvili, making a brief, characteristically self-possessed appearance at the Youth America Grand Prix gala. This year’s gala—“Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”—was held at the Koch Theatre, on April 18. And yes, Mr. Koch was there, in the flesh, surveying the theatre renovated with his money and the crop of young dancers before him. What does he think about as he sits there in the dark, I wonder? Was he privately gloating over the defeat, earlier in the day, of legislation calling for expanded background checks for gun-buyers?
But I digress. The gala followed its usual format—kids in the first half, international stars in the second—but felt more polished than in previous years. There was a lively host (Mark Wahlberg, of the television series Antiques Road Show), a lighter lineup of acts, and live music. The pieces were introduced by well-edited filmed interviews. Various commissioned pieces were sprinkled between the obligatory ballet chestnuts. The opening number was an impressive—and diminutive—violin prodigy, Elli Choi, just eleven or twelve, dispatching the showy Carmen Fantasy. Not only did Choi play a dizzying number of notes, extending to the very limit of her instrument’s range, but she created an impressively rich, confident sound, surprising in someone so tiny. And her party dress! It was brick red and had an enormous silver bow in the back. These prodigies are such a mystery. Where does the confidence and physical prowess come from? Has she ever seen Carmen? Does she know what it’s about? Does she care?
As usual, the first part of the show was both impressive and slightly depressing. The kids, all medal-winners in the YAGP competition, ranged in age from ten to nineteen, and were, as always, very accomplished. Technically, they were, if not flawless, near-perfect. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone land in a perfect fifth position after every jump with such regularity as Joo Won Ahn (age nineteen, gold in the senior division) from South Korea. Jorge Barani, a Cuban studying at the Magaly Suarez school in Florida, nailed his solo from Flames of Paris, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree barrel-jumps and all, staring at the audience all the while. The few wobbles in the routines came as almost a relief, a sign that even with constant rehearsal, some things are still subject to the randomness of the moment. I hope all of these kids will go on to marvelous careers and have the chance to discover the joy, and freedom, of real dancing, of communicating emotion and expressing music through movement in the company of other dancers. The three most touching moments of the evening were Lada Sartakova’s charming “Clown Variation” (set to the music Ashton used for the coda of his “Pas de Quatre” in the third act of Swan Lake), Lou Spichtig’s solo from the first act of Giselle, and the grand défilé, put together by the in-house choreographer, Carlos dos Santos. Sartakova, because, despite being slightly behind the beat the entire time (in the Russian manner), this ten-year-old silver-medalist was so leggy and gleefully child-like, with her lopsided hat and long spindly legs, that you couldn’t help but be won over. Spichtig (gold medal), because, at fifteen she showed inklings of a real emotional response to the music and an all-too-human fragility, the very qualities that draw one to the character of Giselle. And the grand défilé because, well, how can one not be filled with joy at the sight of hundreds of kids (some incredibly tiny) dancing in near unison, arms and legs filling every centimeter of the stage?
Then, came the stars. The ever-dapper Clifton Brown, accompanied by a jazz quartet, did a suave little number (by Fredrick Earl Mosley) to Paul Desmond’s Take 5. Svetlana Lunkina, from the Bolshoi, a somewhat dour (and out of place) rendition of Nikiya’s pleading dance from the betrothal scene of La Bayadère. (But where was the rubber snake?) The winning duo of Viengsay Valdés and Osiel Gouneo—the highligt of National Ballet of Cuba’s stint at BAM a few years back—danced a cutesy, pseudo-Latin number by Peter Quanz set to monotonous, vaguely syncopated music by David Lang. (But when is Lang’s music not monotonous?) The hit-or-miss young female ballet choreographer Emery LeCrone created a pleasant, free-flowing pas de deux (on pointe, for once) for the luminous Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, both of New York City Ballet. The musical accompaniment, a Bach partita, was played live, by the pianist Vassily Primakov. Chase Finlay of City Ballet, who looks more authoritative with each performance, performed a solo created for him by Marcelo Gomes, Tous les Jours, a self-conscious meditation on the torments of the dancer’s lot: daily class, the barre, exercises, etc. It was like a cross between The Lesson, Études, Prodigal Son, and Apollo, with a healthy dose of explosive jumps mixed in with crouches and crawling on the floor. In any case, Finlay, who performed bare-chested (the better to see his torment), gave it his all. The kids in the top tiers of the theatre nearly blew the roof off.
One of the best moments of the night, to my eye, was Kenneth MacMillan’s balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, danced by Marcelo Gomes (beyond ardent as Romeo) and the gloriously unmannered Dorothée Gilbert, of the Paris Opéra Ballet. She danced with a purity of line and lack of melodrama—clearly delighted to be partnered by Gomes—that made the scene look newly minted. A low point: Wayne McGregor’s acrobatically unflattering “Borderlands Pas de Deux,” with sentimental music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney. It wasn’t the dancers’ fault. They, or rather she (Maria Kochetkova) did not stint on the hyper-extended, raw, contorted poses and relentless, flailing steps that flow unabated from McGregor’s imagination. (Lonnie Weeks, her partner, had less to do, but acquitted himself admirably in the impossibly knotty partnering.) Unfortunately, I will not soon forget the final image, of Weeks grasping Kochetkova’s thighs in a suspended pas de chat in front of him, as if trying to pull her groin in half. McGregor’s relentless dislocation for the natural line of the body is something I can never quite get used to.
The closing number was the compulsory slave pas de trois from Le Corsaire, with Misa Kuranaga (rather dry), Alejandro Virelles (an effective if unexciting Ali), and Herman Cornejo (Conrad). Cornejo was not quite on his game, but no matter. The high point, for me, was one of the slightest items of the evening, a cameo by Nina Ananiashvili in The Dying Swan, alongside the Jookin’ master Lil Buck. It was a gimmick, for sure, meant to highlight the strange convergence of two completely different dance styles. Both went for maximum effect: Buck hovered on the toe of his sneakers forever, Ananiashvili rippled her arms like a snake in heat. It was fabulous. Ananiashvili still has that wonderful combination of qualities that always made her such an appealing dancer: warmth, intelligence, a sense of humor, crazy musicality. Her dancing reveals an absolute confidence and self-knowledge. She knows Dying Swan is a cliché, and she embraces it for all it’s worth, and lets us in on the joke. But it’s not so completely tongue-in-cheek that it’s not moving. In fact, a surge of real emotion surprised me as she raised her creamy, moonbeam arm one last time. Buck, upstaged for once, was nonetheless a willing partner in this tour-de-force. Both are generous, musical, completely natural stage animals, and the rapport between them was evident. Of course they would get along.
And just for fun, here is a video of Nina Ananiashvili performing the infamous thirty-fouettées from Swan Lake:
The evening before (April 17), I had seen an example of just how tired this swan number can look. BalletNext held two performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space. (The small theatre was half empty.) The good news is that most of the ballets were accompanied by an excellent musical ensemble. The troupe’s commitment to live music is a real rarity, to be celebrated. But of course the music is only half of the story. From what I saw (I had to leave at intermission because of a coughing fit) the choreography did not hold up its side of the bargain. What really weighed things down was the feeling that BalletNext is not yet an ensemble, but rather an assortment of part-time collaborators. Each of its two founders, Charles Askegard and Michele Wiles, seems to be on his or her own trajectory. There’s the New York City Ballet contingent and the American Ballet Theatre team. Askegard (formerly of City Ballet) danced in one work, which he created for himself and Georgina Pazcoguin (of NYCB), a sprightly Balanchine-esque scherzo set to Stravinsky. Wiles danced in everything else, except the aforementioned Dying Swan, which was performed by a guest, Misty Copeland, of American Ballet. Another guest, Alexandre Hammoudi (also ABT) filled in as Wiles’ partner in Mea Culpa, a pretty, but insubstantial pas de cinq by a young choreographer (Tobin Eason), set to a Mozart piano sonata. An excerpt of Brian Reeder’s “Different Homes”—a pas de deux for Wiles and the very intense Jens Weber set to a suite for cello by Benjamin Britten—was the most substantive, and most musically interesting, piece of the evening. I’d like to see it in its entirety. Reeder shows off Wiles’s still impressive technique, her almost preternatural balance, easy turns, and beautiful arms. Why did she retire so early from ABT, I still wonder? Perhaps no choreographer ever managed to awaken her imagination. She dances as if trapped in her own world. Copeland’s rendition of Fokine’s avian solo was studied and filled with forced touches that made her look uncomfortable. It made absolutely no case for why Dying Swan is still such a constant in the ballet repertory. BalletNext’s dancers are all good, but is that enough? I wish Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard well, but for BalletNext to survive and thrive they will need to figure out what, exactly, they want their company to be.
The original dying swan, Anna Pavlova:
Earlier the same day, I watched an extraordinary performance by Kathryn Hunter in the one-woman-show Kafka’s Monkey (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). Hunter, who has performed such cross-gender roles as Richard III and King Lear (and collaborated often with Peter Brook), here plays the cross-species role of a chimpanzee who has learned to imitate human behavior and speech. The monologue, based on Kafka’s A Report to an Academy, a short story published in the German magazine Der Jude in 1919, is the bildungsroman of an ape hunted down in Africa and brought back to Europe by ship. Along the way, he learns to ape human behavior, drink rum, even speak. This education allows him to live freely among men, performing in music hall shows and becoming, in a way, the toast of the town. The monologue describes the psychological process behind the transformation—motivated by the desire for freedom—but also, quite transparently, satirizes the brutal nature of the human beings he imitates. Red Peter has been shot at, prodded, and turned into an alcoholic by his fellow men. The consciousness of his degraded state is a source of both revulsion (for humans, for himself) but also of a kind of wounded pride. (The story, which has been interpreted as a parable of Jewish assimilation, reminds me of a moment in the musical Cabaret. In If You Could See Her, a man sings to his sweetheart, a giant gorilla, ending his ballad with the words, “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Creepy, yes? Assimilation and its discontents.)
Kafka’s Monkey is a total bravura performance. Hunter, a tiny woman, not young, is able to completely transform herself—her gait, the way she carries her arms, her face—into something not quite human, filled with an energy that is almost frightening. She dangles her right arm from her shoulder with a range of motion more suited to swinging from trees than to walking upright. She climbs up a ladder on the side of the stage and hangs from it by one leg. She crouches and leaps and screams chimpanzee noises, scratches an ear. Demonstrating Red Peter’s vaudeville exploits, she tap dances (another reminder of Cabaret) and lifts one leg to her ear, then slides down into a split. She also interacts—with disarming spontaneity— with the audience, prodding a few of the spectators for reactions. On the day I went, a woman in the first row refused to play along (out of shyness or reticence, who knows), but Hunter would not let her off the hook, keeping at it until she got a reaction. Later, she referred back to the incident: “she doesn’t like anything, that one.” Despite the datedness of the material—the idea that humanity is rotten inside does not feel that revelatory these days—Hunter gave a performance that was completely alive, of the moment.
It seems like every museum is trying to come up with ways of integrating dance into its activities. The latest is the Frick Collection, one of my favorite spots in the city, housed in the Beaux Arts residence of Henry Clay Frick, legendary financier of New York’s Gilded Age. On April 18-20, the museum hosted “Degas Dances,” an evening inspired by Degas’s The Rehearsal—the painting hangs in the East Gallery—in which four Paris Opéra dancers stretch their legs to the side while a violinist accompanies their efforts. As we entered the gallery, a woman (impersonating Mary Cassatt in another Degas painting, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre) sat on a banquette reading a guidebook. Ms. Cassatt (played by the Frick employee Olivia Powell) looked extremely fetching in her black flounces, narrow waist, and wide velvet hat. (The dress could have come straight down from the Metropolitan Museum’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” show, but was in fact from TDF Costume Collection.) In the museum’s small, round music room—walls lined in faded yellow silk damask—a ballerina (Kristen Stevens) in nineteenth-century gauzy tutu and velvet choker stretched at an old-fashioned barre, accompanied by a violinist (Michael Roth). Roth played bits from Sylvia, Coppélia, and Bizet’s L’Arlésienne; she did her tendus. Then, Clinton Luckett, a ballet master from ABT, entered, dressed impeccably in white, tapped his cane, and gave a few instructions. He was meant to represent Jules Perrot, the choreographer of Giselle. A blonde waif (Mia Potter), dressed like Degas’s Little Dancer, observed and asked questions. “Can I be a ballerina?” Then Luckett and Stevens danced a few excerpts from ballets of the late nineteenth century repertory. At moments, it was magical, like waking up in a Parisian ballet studio, circa 1870, or, better yet, in a Degas painting. The illusion was broken, however, by the somewhat clunky text–composed, with obvious didactic intent, by the museum staff with input from the performers. Still, it’s a charming idea, worth developing.
Last but not least, I attended a flamenco tablao presented by the American Bolero Dance Company, at a social club, the Chian Federation, in Queens. As usual, it was an informal affair, put together through the efforts of Gabriela Granados, dancer, teacher, and tireless impresario. The first half was devoted to her students and an energetic salsa duo, Karla Choko and Franklin Liranzo (Liranzo’s plunging neckline was, itself, a showstopper). But it was after the intermission that things really got going. The excellent young cantaor Félix de Lola, sang a slow, brooding seguiriya, accompanied only by the guitar of Basilio Georges. Granados, dressed all in black, head covered with a mantón (as if in mourning), gave a dramatic recitation of García Lorca’s “Romance de la Pena Negra,” eyes flashing as she intoned “¿Y a ti qué se te importa? / Vengo a buscar lo que busco, mi alegría y mi persona.” Then she danced an earthy soleá, dipping and turning, fearless in her sadness. Aurora Reyes, a force of nature, sang an upbeat number about toreros in her strong, brazen voice, while also dancing, her small, solid frame exploding with vigor. (One of the great things about flamenco is that it’s not just for the young and lithe. In some ways, the dancing improves with age, as all inhibitions melt away.) The final number was for La Conja, an eagle-eyed master of rhythm, whose syncopated footwork and claps carved their way into the interstices of the music. The momentum of her solo (a soleá por bulería) grew and grew, until the whole stage was swept up in the flame of her dancing. This was not a night of virtuosos, but something far more rare: real people, masters of a specific tradition, really dancing.