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Flash Flashback, 9-15: ABT to the Rescue
Stiefel Hoists the Flag, McKenzie Leads a 30-hour Bus Trip, & Taylor Reminds of the American Spirit
By Allyson Green
Copyright 2001, 2006 Allyson Green
(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash was first published September 17, 2001.)
SAN DIEGO -- On the now infamous
Tuesday, September 11, American Ballet Theatre was on tour in Kansas City, Missouri.
Like all of us, the company watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Unbelievably,
the dancers performed that evening. They also decided to continue their tour.
With air travel halted, the company, including artistic director Kevin McKenzie,
took a 30-hour bus ride to its next destination, San Diego, arriving close to
midnight on Thursday. Somehow Friday night, after a short night's sleep, a class
and a five-hour rehearsal, ABT graciously presented a moving program at the San
Diego Civic Center that truly inspired an appreciative audience.
As in Kansas City, the evening's
program was advertised as works by "Modern Masters." This included "Bruch Violin
Concerto No. 1" by Clark Tippet, "Black Tuesday" by Paul Taylor, and "Jabula"
by Natalie Weir. "Jabula" replaced the scheduled Mark Morris work "Gong," because
the ABT orchestra conductor is trapped in New York. "Giselle" was presented on
Saturday evening and was scheduled to repeat Sunday afternoon.
At a pre-concert talk in San Diego,
Victor Barbee, assistant director of ABT, spoke eloquently of the dancers' horror
Tuesday morning, as they watched the news of the tragedy from afar. "The dancers
have husbands, wives, partners, friends, family, pets back in New York. We were
so worried and it was very difficult to get information. Nevertheless, after a
discussion with the dancers, the company decided to perform that night. What we
do is the antithesis of hatred. We have a responsibility to spread faith in the
human spirit; to help each other to climb to a new level. We felt that it was
our job to perform that night in Kansas City, just as we will perform for you
tonight. We appreciate that you are here and we want to do what we can."
There has been much discussion throughout
the dance community on whether or not to continue performances at this difficult
time. As Friday had been designated by the president as a National Day of Prayer
and Remembrance, it was decided that the performance be dedicated to those whose
lives were lost in the tragic events. I am a modern dance choreographer who lived
in New York for sixteen years. Like many of my peers, the critical lack of rehearsal
space, living space and funding reluctantly sent me in search of an academic position.
I just arrived in San Diego, where I was fortunate to find a job as a new faculty
member at San Diego State University. I too have been watching in horror from
afar, and it has been difficult getting news of the family and friends back in
the city that I love. Personally, some former students of mine who worked in the
World Trade Center are still missing. Yesterday, after the days of horrific images,
trying to continue to "teach" new batches of students when my heart was aching,
I learned of the ABT dancers' determination to perform.
Though I am a modern dancer, the
pleasure of seeing ABT and New York City Ballet on a regular basis over the years
was one of the many privileges of living in NYC. I raced down to the Civic Center
and paid more money than I have ever spent in my life for a dance event, so that
I could cheer from a center orchestra seat. As a dancer, I sorely needed to see
that performance, longing to have New York dancers transform the great grief I
feel in the way that only dance can. I can not imagine what it was like for these
dancers to perform given both their own emotions and the arduous bus ride. I personally
will be eternally grateful to them that they chose to continue. For brief moments,
the terrible images that seemed permanently etched in my brain from Tuesday were
replaced with ones of beauty, power and the strength of community. I was thankful
to witness these dancers as they heroically gave a brief respite from the madness,
to an audience of strangers. Following are my reflections on the evening, from
the view of a dancer grateful to be sitting in that audience.
Mr. Barbee made his pre-performance
remarks as he gracefully fended such questions as the role of a ballet master,
defending the classics, the responsibility of educating new audiences, and assessing
the present company. Given the situation, I felt it was probably just as hard
for him to speak about these (now) seemingly trivial topics, far from his mind,
as it was for the dancers to dance. However, a question on the rising level of
technique in the company, particularly the corps, brought out a point that would
be eloquently revealed later that evening. After acknowledging the high technical
level that has been obtained by this generation of dancers, he made the following
insightful comment: "Technique, however, is just a vehicle to show emotion, to
help the human spirit to be revealed. How do you teach someone to feel something?
The ability to transcend technique to artistry has to come from within, to see
if something is there when the door inside is opened. That is the key difference
between a dancer with technique and an artist."
The first ballet, "Bruch Violin Concerto
No. 1" by Clark Tippet, brought that sentiment to moving clarity. In the First
Movement, led by Maxim Belotserkovsky, Irina Dvorovenko, Elizabeth Gaither, and
Gennadi Saveliev, the dancers bounded out with technical virtuosity, but a nervous
emotional energy kept the piece from settling. I wondered if it was, in fact,
too much to ask these dancers to perform. Then, in the Second Movement, Julie
Kent and Marcelo Gomez took the stage. The moment that I had been longing for,
happened; that point when artistry and emotion transcends technique and time stands
still. Ms. Kent calmly spread a magical spell across the stage that completely
transported me away. Elegantly slow rond de jambes, a deliberate circling of the
hands in first arabesque; the simplest of movements soothed the ache we had been
feeling all week. Emotion, clearly visible on her face, was transformed through
her body into movement, providing an eloquent language for this time when we cannot
find words. Mr. Gomez matched Ms Kent's quiet elegance with a protective strength.
As he embraced her for the final slow walk off stage, the gesture seemed heartfelt
and touchingly genuine. In the Third Movement, Xiomara Reyes and Joaquin de Luz
skillfully shifted the reflective mood to one of exuberance. I was reluctant to
leave Kent's spell, but Reyes's sparklingly crisp allegro movements were lovely.
The second work of the evening was
"Black Tuesday," recently choreographed for the company by Paul Taylor. Both the
title and the subject matter, danced to songs from the Great Depression, were
potentially problematic given the circumstances. However, in a pre-curtain speech,
Mr. McKenzie noted that he felt the piece was "a quintessential statement of the
indomitable spirit of man to go on" and he had found it particularly powerful
in Tuesday night's performance in Kansas City. He further explained the decision
to be performing that evening as "recognition of the solace that the artist can
provide, bringing light to the darkest week."
As the piece unfolded against a projected
abstract background of the 1929 New York skyline (before the World Trade Center
was built), I wasn't sure I was ready to take in the playful Charleston-like dancers'
swing dancing. Eventually, artistry transformed the steps for me; Erica Cornejo's
striking solo to "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" revealed the eloquence of the
modern dance vocabulary. With forceful contractions and tumbling falls she was
a fury; powerfully centered. The image of her broken body, menacingly tossed between
men, spoke painfully of the darkest side of human nature.
Marian Butler then had the difficult
task of shooting down her fellow dancers in "(I Went Hunting) and the Big Bad
Wolf was Dead." It was meant as child's play, those shooting games we have all
seen, but Friday night with talk of war and retaliation in the air, the childish
movements were chilling. To Ms. Butler's credit, her charmingly playful innocence
pulled it off. Finally, it was Ethan Stiefel who brought me to the heart of "Black
Tuesday," with his passionate rendering of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" At
first, his emotions were betrayed in his unintentional quivering balance. He seemed
to gain strength, though, as he continued, and soon his moving portrayal of a
down-and-out beggar commanded the audience. A series of soaring barrel leaps and
falling rolls into the ground reminded me of the power of the "fall" that modern
pioneers brought to dance, in contrast to the ethereal intention of the first
ballet. Taylor was giving us human emotions, danced by real people, and the dark
atmosphere hit close to home. Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton, master of light
and dark, highlighted the last outstretched hands of the dancers with a striking
shaft of light, a powerful closing image to the piece.
As the audience cheered the dancers,
Mr. Stiefel came out for his bow holding an American flag over his head. It brought
the house to their feet for a sustained ovation; we wanted to cheer. As Mr. McKenzie
remarked to me later, it was perhaps an over the top gesture, but "Ethan really
meant it and I want to let the dancers express what they are feeling right now."
The last work, "Jabula," which means
"joy" was originally choreographed by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir for
the Queensland Ballet Company in Australia. While the program noted that it was
created to "showcase the dancers and their individuality," I felt it was a stronger
statement of community and the strengths of the ABT corps. At the start, eight
bare-chested men in flowing orange pants danced in a virile unison to the African
influenced score by Hans Zimmer. Stylistically the fog-enhanced lighting (particularly
the floodlight blinding the audience at center stage) and the cinematic music
were a bit much for me. I have too much respect for the artistry of traditional
African dance to quite believe this appropriation by the ballet world. The corps
dancers struggled with some difficult partnering, but they did reveal their connection
to spirit and the power of community central to African dancing.
Stella Abrera was regal and sensuously
elegant in her solo and later duet with Sascha Radetsky. Herman Cornejo was compelling
in an exciting solo filled with the virtuousic leaps and turns for which ABT is
known. A trio with high flung partnering by Mr. Cornejo, Gennadi Saveliev, and
Sean Stewart, was particularly strong and expertly executed. In the end, it was
simply moving to watch a dance that found its power in celebrating the entire
company, who were dancing their hearts out on a night that they may not have felt
like dancing at all. The audience responded to this gift with cheers that almost
seemed to embarrass the dancers. They appeared unused to the repeated curtain
calls generally given to the soloists. Though the bows were a bit ragged, the
smiles were huge; perhaps they were just relieved to have made it through the
night. For a few hours we had not forgotten the past day's events, but could see
the best in what art, and the human spirit has to offer. I felt proud to be a
dancer, greatly inspired by the determination and eloquence of the night and profoundly
grateful to have been there.
After the performance, I asked Mr.
McKenzie about the decision to continue the tour. At this point,
the company will continue to travel by bus, though he hopes that
a plane will bring them back to New York for rehearsals for the
upcoming City Center season. Mr. McKenzie, looking tired and somber,
spoke of his pride in the company, and how moved he personally had
been by the dancers' performance that night and Tuesday. "The younger
dancers are asking Why, why are we dancing? My hope is that they
will learn and grow from this experience from the beautiful dancers
they are now, to the artists that they can be. I think that they
will. We feel this is what we have to do."
To all of my friends in New York
and worldwide: my hope that you, too, can keep dancing. We need to create light
in this darkness. Thank you, ABT, for the strong beacon last night.