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1-15: Ballet Noir
If You See Only One Dance Film All Year, See "La Mort du Cygne"
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
Friday afternoon at Lincoln
Center's Walter Reade Theater, I was more moved by a ballet performance
than I've been in a long time--and the performance took place 63
The ballet was actually
a ballet film, "La Mort du Cygne," a resurrected 1937 French classic
directed by Jean-Benoit Levy and Jean Epstein, choreographed by
Serge Lifar, and starring former Paris Opera Ballet premiere danseuse
etoile Yvette Chavire, former Zagreb National Opera prima ballerina
Mia Slavenska, and dancer-choreographer-company director Janine
Charrat, then a smart 13 year-old. The film, which kicked off the
Dance on Camera festival, returns January 21 at 2 p.m., on a program
that also includes "Call Me Madam," a documentary about Royal Ballet
founder Ninette de Valois.
I'm pondering how to
discuss this wonder of a film without revealing too much of the
plot, because its message is really best received the way it's set
up in the film. "La Mort du Cygne" is about loving dance so much
you would rather die if you can't dance; it's about being willing
to make any sacrifice for that love--even some evil sacrifices.
I call it ballet noir because it contains an element of crime and
mystery, and because it was shot (the program does not list the
photographer) with Hitchcockian shadings of black and white and
shadow. In fact, Hitchcock is said to have been interested in making
a version of the movie.
This is the second time
I have seen this movie, first brought here last year by La Cinematheque
de la Danse in Paris, which restored it, and it gets richer every
time. Knowing the denouement, this time I was able to look at the
grand message, expressed by one character this way: "The dance is
bigger than all our troubles."
The other new thought
I had was, why hasn't a live ballet performance made me cry like
this--with the exception of American Ballet Theatre's Ethan Stiefel
and Julie Kent in "Romeo & Juliet"? The great Leipzig Ballet director
Uwe Scholz once told me, when I asked him to define a ballerina:
"She should make my heart rotate."
I see ballet that is
danced virtuosically and musically, but I rarely, rarely, leave
the theater shaking, disoriented, with my eyes and heart bleeding.
It's not just about movement; it's about being moved.
ONE OCCASION when I did
leave the theater with my eyes bleeding, and when the dancer who
had done this to me exited the stage literally bleeding, was when
National Ballet of Spain came to New York with "Medea," and its
star, Lola Greco. To call Lola a great actress would be an understatement;
she channeled Medea. I would not want to fuck with her. I met Lola
for the first time after a performance of "Medea." She looked up
from her dressing room table, make-up running, eyes disoriented,
hair disheveled, and whispered in that throaty Catalan inflection:
"I can't talk now." Lola beat that stage, stomped on those hard
boards, rent her clothing and scratched her skin 'til it bled. This
was more than technique and method; it was madness. I am not saying
madness should be a requirement of being a true artist; just observing
that for some, it is a necessary toll.
I thought of Lola as
I watched Carmen Amaya spinning and hoofing in "Carmen Amaya Forever,"
also on the festival program Friday. I thought of her also--and
of the toll genius can take--when the narrator reported that Amaya
died at 48 after many years of smoking three packs of cigarettes
and drinking 10-15 cups of coffee a day. I don't know that Lola
has these particular vices, but I intuit that she wrestles with
her share of demons. More than a dancer, Amaya, as revealed in the
clips from several films in this 35-minute montage, was a fleet
spirit, with us only temporarily. You get the sense, with her and
Lola, of imminent doom--that they are running from something, something
they know will eventually eat them alive. Whether dancing on a table
in an intimate tablao or in a ballroom to strings, in polka-dotted
gown or pleated pants, her hair usually becoming unbunned in the
middle of a dance, Amaya moved with, really, an other-worldly swiftness.
The last highlight shown was from "Los Tarantos," made in 1963--the
same year Amaya died. I get the feeling that she didn't convalesce
for long; rather, one imagines her simply expiring in a heat one
day while dancing, the battery suddenly running out, her little
body having taken all the abuse, and expended all the energy, it
had to give.
From both of these films,
I came away with the sense that a life committed to dance is not
far from the ultimate sacrifice. You may not be literally stepping
onto a battlefield and risking being shot that second, but you are,
effectively, surrendering your body and soul to the cause. It's
the ultimate gift for the rest of us, in the face of which I'm speechless.
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