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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.

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