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Flash Flashback, 5-24: Beneath the Scarf
Stretching Time, Swooning for Kyra Nichols

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Study originally appeared on February 4, 2003. Kyra Nichols is dancing her final season with New York City Ballet, with a farewell performance scheduled for June 22. For more on Kyra Nichols by Nancy Dalva, click here).

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003, 2007 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 yesterday."

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 subliminal.

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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