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Flash Review 2, 1-23:
Saved by Dance
Seeing the Light at City Ballet
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
After listening to the
incoming, Jew-free Republican administration declare that while
America is for all of us, salvation is only for those of us who
accept Jesus Christ as our savior, I was hardly in the mood Saturday
afternoon to promenade up Broadway to the (New York City) Ballet
to watch young men and women frolic around in tutus and tights.
And after hearing none of my brethren in the political media express
shock that the men of the cloth opening and closing the inauguration
had explicitly invoked Jesus Christ, I was having a bit of an existential
crisis: Not over my pending damnation, but over my decision six
years ago to abandon investigative, political journalism for dance.
My flashlight, it seemed, was needed more in the political realm,
to yell, "J'accuse."
As I passed the site
of the new Reuters building in Times Square, I reflected on why
I had abandoned general journalism in the first place, for the loftier
call of dance writing: It was 1994, and I was embroiled in a legal
battle with my employer, Reuters. Because the company didn't have
a case on the merits, it was slinging whatever other kind of mud
it could find at me. A lot of negativity was descending. Suddenly,
because of a story I had written the year before on the Sixtieth
Anniversary of San Francisco Ballet, I got comped for the entire
season. As I began spending my nights at the ballet, after days
filled with the darkness of the legal battle, the dancers rescued
me with a reminder of how much extraordinary light there was in
the world, for those who have eyes to see it. Seeing their bodies
and souls soar, I was reminded of the potential in every moment
forâjoy. I wanted to turn more people on to this potentialâso I
decided to dedicate myself, and my journalism skills, to dance.
While my belief in dance's
potential to elevate has not flagged, my conviction in ballet in
particular as the vessel has wavered -- specifically, quite frankly,
because the main ballet companies I see are the New York City Ballet
and American Ballet Theatre. I couldn't get enough of these companies
my first two years in New York, but in the last two, I've found
that far from raising my spirits, they've more often disappointed
me, so devastating is it to see dancers apparently unmoved by beautiful
music, as has too often been the case.
So the odds were not
good, Saturday, as I neared the New York State Theater, that my
belief in dance writing as a noble calling would get a needed restorative.
In recent years, one
of the dancers I've always been able to count on to restore my faith
is Wendy Whelan. Well, it didn't look good Saturday: Whelan, scheduled
to dance Peter Martins's "Concerti Armonici," was out with an injury.
Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony" was substituted.
From an audience perspective,
one of the perks of having NYCB as your resident ballet company
is that, especially for a relative newcomer to the scene like me,
every season brings at least one Balanchine ballet that's new.
On Saturday, the opening
ballet was one of these: "Kammermusik No. 2," choreographed in 1978.
And I wasn't the only one to whom this ballet was new. It was also
new, more or less, to principals Maria Kowroski and Monique Meunier,
who had made their debuts as the female halves of the two main couples
earlier in the week, opposite Charles Askegard and Philip Neal.
Meunier, like Whelan
(but with more extroverted panache and aplomb) embodies that spirit
I'd like to clone: alive, happy to be there, joyously responding
to the music and then offering it to us, interpreted by her body
with supple, emotional expressiveness. Even rapid movement -- as
that given to her Saturday -- she is somehow able to finely etch
and articulate, without sacrificing speed and dash.
I was an early fan of
Kowroski's, in 1996, when she burst on the scene. More seasoned
watchers than me warned that it was a bit too early to anoint the
20-year-old from Michigan as the next Suzanne Farrell. But what
compelled me about Kowroski went beyond her luscious form. It was
the way she seemed to feel and exude the music, whether fancifully
as Titania in Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream," her languorous
arms palpitating slowly on the air even when she wasn't center-stage;
yearningly as his Swan Queen, a leg jutting up as she grasped Siegfried,
even as she was drawn inexorably towards Von Rotbart; or coquettishly
as the Green Girl in Jerome Robbins's elegiac "Dances at a Gathering."
She made her debut in the difficult second movement of Balanchine's
"Symphony in C" look like it was not a debut.
But in the last year,
Kowroski has struck me as dancing scared, lacking confidence, and
not a little deficient in warmth. She's seemed overly concerned
with reaching positions, so much so that her dancing has lost its
silk and taken on a jagged edge.
At the beginning of "Kammermusic
No. 2," I didn't see much to make me change my point of view. Where
Meunier was able to hold even fleeting positions, Kowroski raced
nervously through and blurred them, particularly in her hands. But
then, suddenly, starting, I think, in a duet with Askegard, the
sensual, sensitive Kowroski emerged once again, like an old friend.
Exiting, with Askegard, she suddenly turned and ever so furtively
-- but pointedly -- cast him a glance before again lowering her
head; the second time, she extended a hand, held his, and meant
Then the playful Kowroski
returned in a passage where she stood in front of Meunier, her hands
playing at the side while Meunier's took the vertical space.
By the end of the ballet,
these two were totally in synch, even when that in synchness called
for them to be slightly out of synch. We were watching two powerhouse
ballerinas, at the beginning of their reigns, and at that golden
period of ballerinas: when they are young enough to dance with reckless
abandon, but mature enough to make it mean something beyond vacant
athleticism. The signature moment in this regard came when Kowroski
tossed up a leg and threw her head back, not mechanically, but in
a mood that seemed to celebrate the abilities of her body and the
breadth of her limbs. Young enough to shoot for the moon, and old
enough to appreciate the distance.
Of course, even past
that first early twenty-something flush, ballerinas still have much
to give us. A continuing reminder of this is Darci Kistler, whose
maturity and sophistication and worldliness and selflessness were
definitely in the house in "Duo Concertant," another seventies-era
Balanchine ballet that, I think, depends upon the inner strength
of the dancers (and musicians) to give it weight. In this mini-recital
to atypically melodious music by Igor Stravinsky, the dancer couple
and the musician pair -- in this case Guillermo Figueroa and Cameron
Grant on, respectively, violin and piano -- are presented as equals.
We get a whole interlude of music where the dancers are still, Kistler
and partner Nilas Martins standing behind the piano. Finally they
dance, and for the rest of the piece alternate dancing with simply
standing and appreciating the fine musicians.
Often in these types
of dances, i.e. where the musicians are given equal placement on
stage, the deference of the dancers seems forced, as they appear
to be simply waiting, woodenly, for this part to be over so they
can do what they're comfortable with, and move. But here Kistler
showed a true -- and not just cloyingly indicated -- wonderment
at this music, and at the playing, which deserved it. I thought
about how the mark of a true ballerina isn't just how she moves,
but her bearing even when she's still. Not that Kistler's musical
heart showed through just when she was immobile. The most lovely,
honest marriage of music to dance moment came when Kistler seemed
to spontaneously watch a note rise from Figueroa's instrument, following
it until it disappeared into the ether, and there was nothing for
the ballerina to do but pursue it aloft.
In an ingenious bit of
programming -- kudos to NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins
here -- the "musicless" Robbins piece "Moves" followed this celebration
of dance-music harmony. Dancing to silence is not that unusual for
modern dancers, but I was curious to see how ballet dancers -- particularly
in a company where music is so central as it is in this company
co-founded by Balanchine -- would move without it. After what I
saw, it occurs to me that this is a company which, much as it seems
to walk through some chestnuts, rises to the occasion with the big
challenges you'd think might defeat it.
Here Kathleen Tracey,
who has assumed a new confidence in the last year, set the tone
for concentration, giving weight to each moment even without music.
My favorite Tracey moments were when she fell splat to the ground,
face-first, an on-its-face undignified motion for a ballet dancer
which she made dramatic; and another where, curled in James Fayette's
arms, head resting as if she's asleep, she gently but steadily began
cycling a leg as he carried her off-stage.
But it wasn't just the
leads who delivered "Moves" without music. For, though there wasn't
any music I could hear, Rebecca Krohn -- a "Nutcracker" stand-out
the last two seasons for her reckless Snowflake (that's a compliment)
-- was definitely hearing something in her head. It was almost as
if the late Robbins himself were whispering in her ear, possessing
her with the intent of each angular move, no matter how sudden.
This intensity, appearing early on in the "Dance for Women" section,
definitely set the tone among her colleagues, Amanda Hankes, Carla
Korbes, and Rachel Rutherford. I'd use the word "robotic" simply
because Krohn didn't let up, but it wouldn't do justice to her large-eyed
emotional investment in this short solo, which was anything but
robotic, and which she made important.
The cast of "Scotch Symphony"
acquitted itself well enough, and that dismissive summation shouldn't
be taken as a dis of the dancers, who did their best, led by Margaret
Tracey and Nilas Martins. This is one of those ballets that always
strikes me as something Balanchine must have delivered on a dare,
or as a joke. As if co-founder Lincoln Kirstein had needled him:
"Betchya can't make a ballet with kilts, huh, can ya?!" And Balanchine
had answered, "Those philistines in the audience will never know,
they'll applaud anything."
The audience at the New
York State usually does, in fact, respond like well-trained puppy
dogs: you can count on two whole-cast curtain calls, and two leads-only
calls before the fallen curtain. Ironically -- to this atypically
enthused audient, anyway -- Saturday afternoon's crowd was unusually
stingy. And this time, if it weren't that the dancers had worked
a reversal in my mood from gloomy to glorious, if I had any scolding
to dispense it would have been directed towards the curmudgeonly
audience. These dancers were working, folks. I entered that theater
in a rut -- a rut not their fault, and which it was not their responsibility
to unburden me of. They're only responsibility is to dance, with
heart and brio. But when they achieve this, serendipitously, it
does have the power to lift us -- even if we entered the theater
pursued by the darkest of clouds -- out of the darkness and into
Among some modern dancers,
and even more among many in the non-dance-initiated world -- and
folks, reality check, they're in the majority! -- it's common to
pooh-pooh ballet as being unreal. Just so much froth. This concert,
and these dancers, reminded me that that's not the point. They might
not contract their guts in obvious angst and torment, but these
dancers, by their spirit, by their beauty and their ability to express
it in their bodies, can, when they allow themselves to be, be transported
by the music and elevated by the choreography. When this happens,
they also elevate us, and take us out of a world where reality often
bites, kissing us selflessly with their art.
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