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Flash Review, 1-5-2000: I Got the Music in Me
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999. 2014 Paul Ben-Itzak

"Ballet takes our natural impulse to move, to make signs, to make ourselves attractive and graceful as possible and turns it into something entirely different. What ballet does is to take movements we're all familiar with--running and jumping, turning and balancing, lifting and holding--and molds attitudes that underlie these actions into a spectacle that entertains. The melodies we hear in music are very different from the natural noises we hear in the everyday world: the slamming of doors, running brooks, the sound of wind in the trees. Melody is artificial, it is made by man. Ballet is artificial in the same sense; its roots are in everyday life, but it is created by artists. What ballet takes from life it transforms."

—George Balanchine

(Thanks to the New York City Ballet education department for the quote!)

For a special APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) supplement to the new issue of The Dance Insider, we convened a panel of dancer companions. The idea was that as people who were perhaps not born into dance, but married into it and thus see a lot of it, these individuals were good barometers of what dance is doing right and wrong to attract and appeal to the "man on the street."

"When I see ballet," comments one of our panelists, "I feel so alienated by it. I have an appreciation of how technical and elegant it is, but it's so far removed from anything I could ever do, versus the modern dance I really enjoy."

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the victim of a Bad Ballet Experience. If a Bad Modern Dance trauma can be explained as a performance, often grounded on no technique, that seems irrelevant to one's (or anyone's) life, then a Bad Ballet Experience could be (perhaps simplistically) described as one in which the technique is utterly divorced from the story or, in the case of an abstract ballet, the music.

For indeed, the term "abstract ballet" is really a misnomer. Even a ballet without a formal libretto is telling a story--only it's a chronicle of musical cadence rather than princes and swan queens. And, danced right--tunefully, in a nutshell!--such a ballet can be just as powerful as a naturally, believably-acted story ballet. If the latter gets into our hearts and minds, the former gets into our bones.

Example: I've talked a lot about how a particular ballerina, Evelyn Cisneros, revealed to me the relevance of hundred-year-old story ballets. In "Swan Lake," no less--and later in "La Sylphide," marking it in a rehearsal--she made me cry. Not over a remote, distant story--but over the tragedy one woman, very alive, very real on stage before me, was being overcome by.

If Cisneros brought me into the story ballet, it was her San Francisco Ballet colleague, Tina LeBlanc, who revealed not just a particular music, but Music to me. I got into dance, in the first place, partly because of my encounter with music as a DJ whose primary motive was to get the music into people and get them to dance, and as a club dancer into whom other DJs got the music, and made dance. But I'd never enjoyed classical music with all my senses until I saw LeBlanc perform. Prior to catching her, first with the Joffrey Ballet and later with SFB, I didn't get the live classical music thing. I didn't understand the thrill of watching musicians playing music--while not moving at all. It was too static for me.

What LeBlanc--and later a few others--showed me is that the music itself is always moving. She proved this by inhabiting the music herself--swallowing it up, really, and then regurgitating it as a manner of personal, human, vivid expression. By the end of a performance, the music seemed to be coming from her.

Once I saw--and HEARD--LeBlanc perform, I was able to go not just to ballet, but even to a symphony performance with no dancers, and visualize the music physicalized.

I started listening to classical music more, became as obsessed with building my Bartok collection as I was with growing my Marley stash, and could just sit--yes, sit--in my room, close my eyes, and fly with the music, like LeBlanc.

I would venture that our friend quoted above (not Balanchine, the other) has never or rarely been to a performance where the musicality was really understood by the performers, and vividly translated to the audience.

I have just been blessed by one such performance, tonight, Tuesday, in the vessel of New York City Ballet principal Darci Kistler.

I first saw Kistler in 1995, in Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream." She danced the second act grand pas de deux and by then, to tell you the truth, I was so smitten with the lovely Darci Bussell that I was distracted by the time Kistler appeared. I'd be lying to say I'm not still susceptible to being smitten by physical beauty, but since then I've learned that while physical beauty is something one is born with, the true task and accomplishment of the ballerina is something she has to work at--to reveal the beauty in the music. And not just to be able to lift that leg in a six o'clock extension, but to remember that the extension is just a tool to reveal the music, and so to use it effectively.

I use the extension as an example, but not every ballet comes with such a relatively (because easily apparent) easy device. Take Kistler's performance in Peter Martins's "Valse Triste" on Tuesday's NYCB program at the State Theater.

In this mostly adagio ballet, a wind machine (or perhaps just a draft) lightly tosses the solitary Kistler's gossamer black gown as the curtain rises, but really, it's not necessary; for it's this ballerina who gives the notes of the somewhat saccharine Sibelius music flight.

Joined for most of the dance by Jock Soto, Kistler flies, too, but she also presents some static, sometimes tilting friezes. The point is that every move, laterally or vertically, is emphasized; nothing's thrown away, with the result that no part of the music seems extraneous either. You don't want to miss a note, because you want to see what Kistler will do with it; her body becomes a work of art with each note she captures.

The effect is similar to what I'm listening to right now on the turntable, Sara Vaughn singing "I'll ...Be ...Seeing ... You.. in.... all... the... old... familiar.... places... that...this... heart.... of... mine... embraces ....all ...day ....through." What am I talking about? Hint: Even the 'I'll' becomes a multi-syllable word. Vaughn lingers over and elongates-- languorously, lovingly, caringly, MINDFULLY--each vowel. Kistler dances the same way, phrases this way, hears music this way and, ultimately, expresses not just herself, not just the choreography, but the music in this loving and attentive fashion, treating each note like a mother would treat each of her children, doting equally on each one. (Now Sara's singing "Sophistica-a-ted Lady...")

What does all this have to do with the Balanchine quote cited above? No, it's not just that, as I understand it, Kistler was one of the last, if not the last, dancers that Balanchine promoted to principal. I would say that if choreography, as Balanchine implies, takes pedestrian movements and elevates them to art, a ballerina--or ballerino--has the power to take sometimes distant music and humanize it by incorporating it in her body, and sharing that melding with us.

And what does all this have to do with the second quote, from our alienated audient? I submit that ballet does not have to be removed from anything the rest of us could ever do. We might not be able to articulate the music with the performance-level ability and agility of a Darci Kistler, but we sure can feel it with the same intensity and devotion. A true ballerina, I think, shows us not just her own physical power, but inspires us with the emotional power we all have, deep inside, to feel music in our bones and hearts.

The bad news is, not all professional ballet dancers display this ability. If Kistler captures the music and masters the notes and gives them back to us as her own form of expression, Yvonne Borree, who followed Tuesday in Balanchine's "Valse-Fantaisie," seems to flee from them. It's almost like she's afraid to touch and hold and get too familiar with the music and wants to get out of there as soon as possible. Her hands always seem to be stopping short before she reaches the full extenuation of a note and its accompanying phrase. I checked myself last night to consider whether it was the Mikhail Glinka music, which was, indeed, faster than the Sibelius. But I don't think so. For one, Borree's had this effect on me before; for two, corps dancers Melissa Barak, Elena Diner, Kristin Sloan, and Janie Taylor all danced with more confidence, and displayed a better ability to finish than did the principal dancer.

Lest you think I'm going negative on you again--no, no, no!--imagine me as the ballet teacher who is scolding a promising pupil because he knows the problem he's pinpointing is one she has the ability to fix. I'm not just offering a generality here, but recalling a specific.

A couple of years back, when Borree was still a soloist, I saw her make her debut as Aurora in Martins's version of "The Sleeping Beauty." As Martins envisions it, the choreography here is breakneck; even the veteran Nichol Hlinka barely made it back to the pedestal in time for the conclusion of the vision scene. Well, Borree was nearly as unsteady as a foal doing the rodeo its first time. Okay, I'm exaggerating for emphasis, but a colleague sitting in the fourth row swore Borree's knees were shaking. This was the first act, tho. When Borree appeared after the intermission, she was a new dancer; calm, steady, masterful, in charge not only of herself, but the whole ballet. It was one of the most moving experiences I'd ever had at the ballet, one of the first which proved to me that nothing beats live theater, precisely because every moment offers the chance for improvement, for turn-around, for transformation, for being born again.

The first ballet last night, Balanchine's "Garland Dance," featured students from the School of American Ballet. I'm assuming that they stayed to watch Kistler at work in the ballet that followed. I suggest--with the kindest of intentions, honestly--that Borree (and perhaps others, not to single her out!) do the same. I know I'll be back to watch Kistler as much as I can--to be reminded that I've got the music in me--and to watch Borree transform herself again.

Like what you've read? Check out the print edition of The Dance Insider, with exclusive articles you can't find anywhere else. This month: Rare portraits and nudes of the young Martha Graham by Imogen Cunningham, most of which have never before been published anywhere. Also, our Dance Insider College Primer, with in-depth, first person articles on undergraduate and graduate studies you won't find elsewhere. Plus, a Special APAP Supplement, including our exclusive Insider Forum, "Call Us Idiots, But We're the Audience," and an exclusive Insider Art Gallery with images not found in any other publication.

To subscribe, please send a check for $49 ($35 for dancers and students) for 12 issues, made out to The Dance Insider, to The Dance Insider, 58 W. 8th Street #3A, New York, NY 10011. You can also e-mail us at danceinsider@mindspring.com.



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