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1-5-2000: I Got the Music in Me
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999. 2014 Paul Ben-Itzak
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."
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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month: Rare portraits and nudes of the young Martha Graham by Imogen
Cunningham, most of which have never before been published anywhere.
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articles on undergraduate and graduate studies you won't find elsewhere.
Plus, a Special APAP Supplement, including our exclusive Insider
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