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Study, 2-4: Beneath the Scarf
Stretching Time, Swooning for Kyra Nichols
By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva
NEW YORK -- "I have
danced everything I have wanted to dance here. I've been very lucky,"
Kyra Nichols told a seminar audience in the New York State Theater
January 27, on a freezing cold evening. "I've been very lucky....
I think everything I dance is my favorite, when I do it. Like 'Serenade'
and 'Pavane,' those are my favorites now, because I danced them
I had been there the
day before, at the matinee performance of the New York City Ballet.
In fact, I had gone particularly to see Kyra Nichols dance "Pavane,"
a seven- minute solo Balanchine made for the 1975 Ravel Festival,
to "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte for piano." (The company's literature
describes it as a "lament," but the ballet could just as reasonably
be described as a love note to its first ballerina, Patricia McBride,
to whom the choreographer left "Pavane" in his will.) I wanted to
see the dance again because I thought I might be able to divine
a coded message in it.
I had arrived at this
notion several years before, upon Nichols's return to the company
after a maternity leave. At one point in the piece, which is essentially
much ado with a gossamer length of chiffon, she folded the fabric
up and cradled it, as if it were a swaddled infant. Then, in an
exuberant burst, she tossed it into the air. "Look!" she said. "I
had a baby. Isn't it wonderful?"
This was a rare case
in which the narrative in a dance seemed to be her own, rather than
what lay in, or beneath, the steps. For Nichols is the clearest
of dancers, the least pretentious, the least full of pretense. She
is clear to the point of transparency. "Jerome Robbins taught me
to be very clear and simple with myself," she said at the seminar.
"The minute you start to act, it's put on. You just listen to the
music, and it all comes out. I don't plan it."
As Merce Cunningham
said to me years ago, "If the dancer dances, everything is there,
if that's what you want." So it was in "Serenade," a last minute
substitution on that Sunday's bill for "Jeu de Cartes." I was exceedingly
sorry that Nicolaj Hubbe was injured -- hence the switch -- but
exceedingly glad, as I always am, to see "Serenade," the first dance
George Balanchine made in America, in 1934, albeit to a Russian
score, Tchaikovsky's "Serenade in C." (I'm not sure Balanchine took
American music seriously.) This happened to be a beautiful performance,
luminously suggestive. Jennie Somogyi and Sofiane Sylve completed
the triad of principal ballerinas; James Fayette and Philip Neal
were the leading men.
While it is possible
to argue that there is such a thing as "abstract" dance -- I don't
happen to believe it, because there are always people in a dance,
and people are not by nature abstract -- "Serenade" is surely not
abstract on anyone's terms. Nor is it, to use a term in current
vogue (perhaps as an aesthetically correct version of "plotless"),
"non-narrative." On the contrary, " Serenade," it seems to me, is
exceedingly narrative. Indeed, it teems with possible narratives,
as various as its viewers; but that narrative is suppressed, and
lies beneath the surface, like the meaning behind a dream. It is
At this performance,
although not at any other, as soon as Nichols raised her lovely
arms, I saw the "Lilac Fairy." Perhaps this was because that's a
role she danced in Peter Martins's "Sleeping Beauty," where his
employment of her beautiful arms -- that marvelous, constantly energized
port de bras -- is magical. (She rides in a boat, though mist.)
Later in "Serenade," she used those beautiful arms in such a commanding,
though lyrical, way, that she seemed to tie up all the strands of
movement. It was as if all the other dancers -- and the corps was
there at that point, a stage full of girls -- were attached to her
with invisible ribbons. (A ribbon dance without ribbons? Why not?
How Balanchinian to dispense with them, yet conjure them still.)
Mostly, though, I had
a profound sense of place in this "Serenade," or rather, of places.
When Nichols fell to the ground at the left of the stage -- or cast
herself down, to be more precise -- I felt she was in one place.
When she arose, I felt she was in another. Was she Ballet, moving
from Russia to America? When Philip Neal stepped out to greet her,
was he Balanchine, welcoming her to America?
In Balanchine's America,
you have your principals and your corps de ballet, your princesses
and your commoners, but they are dressed alike. You have your big
steps -- your jumps, your swoons, your lifts -- but they are no
more important than your little steps, your connecting steps. Your
pas de bourree is as important as your pas de poisson in his America,
where classicism is utopian, and democratic.
In this land of equality,
Kyra Nichols is now first among equals because all her steps are
equal. A swoon and a bourree -- this latter step being so important
in Balanchine, where the journey matters as much as the arrival
-- are the same to her. Measure for measure, measure after measure.
Nichols can pull off the most dramatic effect -- for instance, a
dash into the wings, head thrown back -- without seeming melodramatic
precisely because she never dramatizes. She simply dances, and her
emphasis comes from her phrasing.
Phrasing, of course,
is how a dancer shapes movement in time (as opposed to shaping a
step in space), and it derives not merely from musical meter (or
a choreographer's rhythms), but from a dancer's freedom within it.
A brilliant allegro phraser is so fast that he, or she, always has
a little extra time to play with. A sublime adagio phraser plays
with time luxuriously, as if slowing down and speeding up a loop
of film. Nichols is the latter, and there was an exciting span of
years when you felt she could play the film not merely at variable
speed, but backwards, if she felt like it. At any rate, her performances
often had an elegant aspect of commentary, as if she were showing
you something she was hearing. Thus she made her roles her own,
even though they often were made on someone else.
Although she never tried
to mimic them-- "The minute you try to be somebody else, you have
to keep that up a long time!" she points out -- she studied Suzanne
Farrell, Karin Von Aroldingen, Patty McBride. "I didn't try to copy,
but I tried to incorporate some of their wonderful qualities."
"Pavane," in fact, she
learned from McBride: "Patty came in and taught it to me, which
was wonderful, because it's pretty tricky, all that scarf manipulation.
It's a wonderful piece to dance, but it's difficult because that
music is so wonderful and so moving that you just want to get carried
away, but if you lose one end of that scarf, it's a long seven minutes."
This element of control seems, to me, to be key, because you don't
worry about the scarf when you watch her, or think about the tricks.
And really, no matter what the ballet, the pleasure one takes in
seeing tricks is superficial. (Tricks may astonish, but they don't
nourish.) Tricks are technical, but they are not technique.
In a certain kind of
theatrical experience, the performer isn't swept away, but the viewer
is. (So different from the kind of performance where the dancer
has an excellent time, and the viewer peers in the dark at his watch.)
But this particular "Pavane" -- the one I went to see that Sunday
, getting "Serenade" in the bargain --seemed immediate, unmediated,
and drenched in sunshine. Technique was the least of it, and there
was no lamenting.
This is what saw, that
winter afternoon, when Nichols lifted the scarf which initially
covers her face: nothing I'd seen before. I saw neither a figure
out of the seraglio, nor a bride revealing herself to a husband
who had never before glimpsed her. I did not see a visitor from
the land of the shades, lifting her shroud. Instead, I saw someone
playing an elegant game of peekaboo. "Look who's beneath the scarf,"
she said, speaking dance. "It's me!"
Later, I did see the
cradling gesture again, but not the celebratory scarf toss. And
so, at the seminar, when it came to question and answer time, I
found myself asking, because I dearly wanted to know, if Nichols
thought about anything in particular when she danced "Pavane." She
said that usually she didn't think about specific things when she
danced, but in "Pavane," she did. "I think of my little boys a little
bit, because at one point, you roll up the scarf and rock the baby."
As it happened, at the
matinee the day before, the baby -- the one whose birth I had seen
Nichols announce using "Pavane" as her stationery -- was standing
in the wings watching his mother dance. He's six years old now.
His little brother is one and a half. "I'm dancing now with calmness,
with joy," said my favorite ballerina. "I wish I'd come to this
point sooner in my career, but I'm glad I'm able to get out there
and enjoy it.... At this point, doing it fresh is just being myself."
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