back to Flash Reviews
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
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."
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."
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
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
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
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
"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:
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."
back to Flash Reviews