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Flash Review 2, 1-22: The Art of Ballet
Schooling from the Masters at Film Fest

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

If there was one disappointment at Friday night's mostly-historical screenings at the Dance on Camera Festival, it was that there were not more active dancers in the audience at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. (Though there were some; I spotted at least three from American Ballet Theatre, and my companion was another.) These films contain many valuable lessons for those charged with preserving the ART of ballet.

If two words sum-up the late Kirov Ballet star Yuri Solovyov as person and dancer, as eulogized (he killed himself in 1977 at the age of 37) by Russian colleagues like Vladimir Vasiliev, Natalia Makarova, and Irina Kolpakova, they would be "spaceman" and "gentle." "He was kind, gentle, and cheerful-I'm sure he had no enemies," recalls an ancient costumer at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, home to the Kirov, in Galina Mshankaya's "Yuri Solovyov: I'm Tired of Living in my Native Land."

Vasiliev, now the director of the Bolshoi Theater, says that dancing the featured role of the Bluebird in "The Sleeping Beauty," Solovyov "never seemed to touch ground. It seemed like he had just touched the water, then floated up again. I had never seen anyone perform the Bluebird like him--never, never, never."

Makarova, who danced the Bluebird pas de deux with Solovyov, remembers her partner "flying around me. I have to believe he is still flying somewhere." Bursting on the scene in the early 1960s, just after a cosmonaut had become the first man in space, Solovyov achieved an equal celebrity, and naturally earned the same nickname: the Spaceman.

If this Russian documentary has a fault, it is that it doesn't really probe why this brilliant star chose to extinguish his own light. Makarova comes closest to offering a blunt, though generalized, explanation. "I think his talent was under-appreciated at the Kirov," she says. "I revolted. Perhaps a suicide is the antithesis of revolt."

What I appreciated-perhaps for the first time--after seeing Solovyov dance, even on film, is that athletic dancing does not have to devolve to the level of circus. Sure, this spaceman soars--even seems to float, sometimes--but what distinguished him from the many leapers and gymnasts I see these days on the dance stage is artistry. Specifically, as manifest in his arms--elegant, eloquent, and presented not just with panache but with delicacy and class--even when executing tasks so demanding on the legs and feet that you'd forgive him for not having the time to pay attention to his upper limbs. It's also there in the carriage of his head--again, not so much in the dash, as in the softness of a head gently tilted, not just on his body's landing, but in flight!

There are some other gems in this film --particularly footage of Solovyov and a very young Natalia Makarova in class, and a home movie I call Baryshnikov at the Beach, in which a very young Misha cavorts with Solovyov, dancer spouse Tatiana Legat, and their infant daughter. This is a carefree, angst-free Baryshnikov--just another young dancer in his offstage demeanor. This footage makes all the more poignant the costume mistress's recollection that one of the only two times she saw Solovyov sad was when Baryshnikov defected to the West. "If I were there, I would not have stayed," she remembers Solovyov observing.

As fun as such archival footage is, however, it is the artistry with which Solovyov respects his physical gift-and indeed, the Ballet itself--that is truly illuminating, and that should be studied by contemporary dancers, again and again.

As should Mshanskaya's interview with Galina Ulanova, directed by Tatyana Andreyeva and Yevgeniya Popova. (For the uninitiated among you, Ulanova is considered the biggest ballerina of post-Revolutionary Russia.) If there's a sad undertone to seeing this 1997 documentary, it's that the 87-year old prima ballerina Assoluta promises that if she lives to be 90, she will write a book documenting her experiences and ideas, focusing on her relationship to her pupils; she passed away two months after the film's completion. What makes this loss especially painful is that every single word out of Ulanova's mouth is a pearl of wisdom--lessons as old and yet, unfortunately, as freshly needed today as ever.

One has to do with partnering. Recalling her all too-brief partnership with Konstantin Sergeyev, with whom she danced the premiere of Leonid Lavrovsky's seminal 1940 "Romeo & Juliet" at the Kirov before being transferred to Moscow's Bolshoi, Ulanova reports, "I didn't feel his hands on our lifts."

And on the circus element of many of today's performances, she educates me as well. As anyone who has attended a performance of ABT or Alvin Ailey (just to name a couple) recently knows, the rising of a leg to the proximity of the ear is sure to prompt at least a few in the audience to put their hands together or part their lips for premature bravi. At least in New York. This bothers me because, as Solovyov reminds us, physical facility is only useful insofar as it opens an artistic window to the ballet at hand, and frees artistic avenues of expression to the artist. Its virtue is not in how it shows off the physical skills of the artist, but in how it reveals the work of art. Premature clapping also breaks the spell.

When I hear an audience erupt mid-ballet (or mid-variation) at an isolated physical feat, I get depressed thinking that to many, maybe this is not an art anymore but a circus.

I'd laid the responsibility for this reaction more at the hands of the audience than of the artists themselves. Ulanova makes me re-think this apportioning of responsibility.

"I don't need flowers, candy, shrieks," she tells her interviewer. If ever one of her performances had been interrupted by a chorus of bravi, she shutters, "I would have suffered and ran off into the wings." By contrast, she says, many of today's dancers think such behavior is "fine. 'That's how they receive me, I'm a magnificent actor.' For me, I would have hanged myself."

I don't suggest such an extreme remedy. But Ulanova's feelings suggest to me that maybe, just maybe, the artists themselves can find a way to make it known that far from esteeming them, these facile interruptions demean the art, making it seem as if a six o'clock extension is in and of itself an artistic epiphany. Symphony audiences have been educated not to clap between movements, no matter how virtuosic the playing. I've even been at performances where the musician him/herself has stopped and scolded the occasional untimely clapper.

I would not expect a dancer to stop mid-passage just to abort such pre-mature appreciation. But perhaps artistic management could take it upon itself to educate its audience. Imagine if ABT director Kevin McKenzie appeared before curtain at the New York premiere of his "Swan Lake" this spring, and gave the following instructions:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Metropolitan Opera House. Please turn off your beepers and cell phones. Taking photographs is strictly forbidden, as it is dangerous to and may distract the dancers. Kindly restrain yourselves from clapping or shrieking until the end of the variation, for the same reasons."

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