writers on dancing

Letter from New York

Balanchine in excelsis
Basil Twist’s “Dogugaeshi”

At the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on Thursday, an hour and a-half program of Balanchine films from the late 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s contained, quite simply, the best ballet to be seen in New York since since. . .well, possibly since the films were made. The crown jewel was an eight-minute film, from 1963, of a rehearsal showing Balanchine standing and conducting the original cast of his Stravinsky ballet “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” starring the young Suzanne Farrell, whose musical precision and astounding risk in off-balance motion would make a case for her as one of the greatest ballerinas in history, even if no other film survived. (In fact, there also exists a color record film of her from the early days of “Don Quixote,” snippets of which are included in Anne Belle’s documentary “Elusive Muse,” that are simply wonderful beyond words.) And yet, magnificent as Farrell is here, Balanchine’s conducting is even more astonishing: it makes visceral sense of that recessive serial score to the extent that one practically hears the music as a song. At the Bruno Walter, we also saw a 1968 CBC film of a standard-setting performance of “Apollo” with Peter Martins, Farrell, Marnee Morris, and Karin von Aroldingen; a CBC film of mostly the original cast of “Agon,” made a couple of years after the ballet’s première, that anyone who knows the ballet would watch drop-jawed, since key passages of choreography in it are much more difficult—and much more interesting—than what is currently performed anywhere; a kinescope of Allegra Kent and Jacques d’Amboise dancing a gorgeous “Sylvia Pas de Deux” on the Victor Borge show; and a film of Balanchine, in window-check plaid pants and flowing artist’s tie, rehearsing the First Movement of “Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.”

On December 16th, at the Bruno Walter, at 6 p.m., the Library will screen a second program of historic Balanchine films, all from the 1960’s and many featuring Ms. Farrell (“Agon” pas de deux, “Meditation,” 19 minutes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The group will also include “Tarentella” (with Edward Villella and Patricia McBride), “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux” (Melissa Hayden, Mr. d’Amboise), and a very rarely shown 1960 “Orpheus,” with Violette Verdy and Nicholas Magallanes. Programs at the Bruno Walter are free to the public. Program notes are by Hubert Goldschmidt.


The postmodern puppeteer Basil Twist—whose “Symphonie Fantastique,” an underwater ballet for abstract shapes—has just moved to a Broadway house, continues to present brilliant new productions in smaller venues. Last week, at Japan Society, in a small puppet theater mounted on the stage of the Society’s auditorium and observed by an audience from an intimate seating arrangement that could accommodate, at most, perhaps 100 people, Mr. Twist and his crew of three presented his exquisite “Dogugaeshi,” a homage to the old-time techniques of scenery-shifting that were favored by masters of folk puppetry on the island of Awaji and a related bit of the Japanese mainland. Accompanying the hour-long display on a turntable at the side was shamisen virtuosa Yumiko Tanaka, playing a repertory of her own composition. The offerings ranged from a whispered lyric for the three-stringed, banjo-like shamisen (traditional for Japanese puppetry) to—on another, much more elaborate, dulcimer-like stringed instrument—a kind of waterfall chorale that sounded like the output of a dozen harps. In between were sighs and cries and guttural pleadings, as well as passages of purely musical interest. A remarkable concert on its own.

The show offered no story as such. Inside the puppet proscenium, we saw a ballet of finely painted screens—some of pure patterns referring to fish scales or clouds or calligraphy, of the kind one finds in ancient Japanese textiles; some depicting either figures from the natural world, such as coi or tigers or evergreen trees, or rooms of ancient (and generic) Japanese design. Arranged on wooden frames in which they could travel or be otherwise manipulated, the screens opened and closed, rolled up or down, flipped up and around like Rolodex cards, or served as surfaces for the projection of light patterns or enchanting films of screens opening and closing. In one black-and-white animation, projected early on, one saw—as if one were watching a cartoon in a movie house, before the main feature—a display of choreographed screens in a little theater, presumably a puppet theater, like a miniature version of the show we were watching, although the fact that the film was black-and-white lent it the nostalgic romance of a legacy from long ago. About two-fifths of the way through, Mr. Twist did include one figure puppet, for scale and magic: an entrancing, bushy, snow-white fox with uncannily wise eyes and elongated whiskers, which managed to get a little singed by the live flame of the candle he “carried” to illuminate a night scene.

Despite the lack of narrative, the show did seem to have a plot, i.e., the creation of perspectival depth from flat imagery. At intervals, the movement of the screens would build up to surprising climaxes in which we seemed to be looking at something through a telescope, and, as the hour progressed, the show tricked us into seeing more and more deeply. One began to understand that the screens with the flat patterns were not arbitrary, but rather served to prepare the eye for perceptual illusions. In the press materials, Mr. Twist—a third-generation puppeteer who has inherited a tremendous amount of family knowledge about the art and craft of his field—lamented the absence of critics who were specialists in puppetry, noting that his work was usually addressed (when it is addressed at all) by critics from theater and dance. It is perhaps this lack he perceives in the media that accounted for the informative and highly readable program notes on the traditions and practices of Japanese puppetry. Alas, I am one more example of the wrong sort of critic for what Mr. Twist does, but, as they say on the Rialto, that’s the breaks, kid.

Correction:  In a recent Letter concerning a one-time-only screening at the Walter Reade of the Balanchine-Dan Eriksen film of Balanchine's ballet "A Midsummer Night's Dream," I misunderstood the story of the film's provenance. What we saw at the Walter Reade was a Beta videorecording from the British Film Institute, which had been both color-corrected and re-mastered by the BFI. Patrick Bensard, of the Cinematheque de la Danse in Paris, was present at the program to accept the Film Society's thanks for having (in the words of the Film Society's Joanna Ney) sleuthed down the BFI version over the course of a five-year search that involved a number of individuals, including Robert A. Gottlieb, Barbara Horgan, and Sallie Blumenthal. Ms. Ney believes that an actual print of the film exists "somewhere." She adds, however, that because the ownership of its rights is murky (the film's producer purportedly lost them in a poker game), even if a print were discovered, it could not be shown commercially.

—Mindy Aloff

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 44
November 22, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on October 4, 2004