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Flash Review, 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 years ago.

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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