DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
June 28, 2004.
Frederic Franklin—an unheralded national living treasure of a dancer and ballet master in the United States, where he has lived since 1939—happened to turn 90 on June 13th, an event he was almost too busy to notice, since the next day he was opening yet another show: a revival of his production of Coppélia for American Ballet Theatre. Another day, another classic restored: that’s how it is with Franklin now. Later this year, he returns to Ohio to oversee the Cincinnati Ballet’s production of Léonide Massine’s Seventh Symphony, which he has intensively coached there, and, in the near future, he also returns to England, where The Royal Ballet is planning to perform his reconstruction of excerpts from Frederick Ashton’s Devil’s Holiday, a ballet not seen since its first, 1939-40 season, when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo brought it to the Old Met, toured it, and abandoned it. (Indeed, Ashton, himself, never saw it performed, as the première was in New York in ’39, when he was stranded in England and the Ballet Russe was stranded in the U.S. by Hitler’s march into Czechoslovakia.) In addition, perhaps sometime this fall, Franklin—who has remained a loyal citizen of his native England—will also have to set aside an hour or two for an appearance at Buckingham Palace to receive the Queen’s recent gift to him: his appointment (announced a week ago) as Commander of the British Empire.
Oh, that all the Commanders of all the Empires in the world could possess Franklin's dignity, integrity, heart, good humor, common sense, optimism, and photographic memory. It wouldn’t hurt them to have his good looks, either. This past Monday, at the Met, ABT brought him out at the end of Coppélia for a little birthday tribute of pink and white balloons, a basket of flowers (brought onstage by ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie), and bouquets tossed from the audience, which Angel Corella, the evening’s buoyant and crystalline Franz, ran with touching boyishness to scoop up so as to present them to the honoree. The full house was on its feet and cheering. Franklin, in a dark suit that complemented his radiance and joy, walked on with the vigor than dancers a quarter of his age. Indeed, one of the loveliest touches of his Coppélia—whose staging is based on the Nicholas Sergeyev version that Franklin danced at the Ballet Russe with Alexandra Danilova across the country, in tiny towns and big cities—is the restaging, for 12 little girls (from the School of American Ballet), of the Act III waltz for the Hours, a number that had been performed by adult danseuses at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (this waltz, which ABT ballet master Kirk Peterson has set and Franklin has coached, in fact, one of the few elements of the production that is not Sergeyev’s: the choreography is Franklin's own. The passage where the Hours kneel and then, one by one, on a chiming theme played 12 times, stand to perform a single pirouette, then return to one knee, was one of the enchantments of the spring season. The girls, in their apple green tutus edged in pink, were both as alike and as individual as twelve fingerprints. Their waltz is representative of the charm and intimacy of the entire show. The conducting by David La Marche on Monday and Saturday—the two performances I saw of Coppélia—contributed so strongly to the overall effect that, on Saturday, after Gillian Murphy, a Swanilda of great bravura and charm, presented a white rose to Marcelo Gomes, her wonderful Franz, she presented La Marche with one as well. He had treated the Delibes score with as much care as if he were James Levine conducting Wagner, and he earned every petal.
During the first week in June, the Martha Graham Dance Ensemble performed at the Theresa Lang Theatre of Marymount Manhattan College. I went expecting good student work; I left with stars in my eyes. Not only was the Graham repertory on the program (Adorations, El Penitente, the duet from the film A Dancer’s World, and Diversion of Angels) accorded first-rate performances by everyone, but the evening also brought forward the discoveries—to me, anyway—of a great young male dancer, Jason Garcia Ignacio (a native of the Phillipines) and a brilliant choreographer, Virginie Victoire Mécène (a native of France and currently a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company, itself). Ignacio is small in stature, yet his jump, his exactitude, his understanding of stylistic and tonal differences among the dances, and his theatrical projection are huge. Mécène’s choreography was represented by La Guinguette de la Marne [“Meeting Place by the Marne River,” is an approximate translation], being given its world première at these performances. Set to a collection of French cabaret songs by Jean Gabin, George Guetary, and other French songwriters, her dance was very unlike what one might expect from a Graham company member: a suite showing Impressionist-era young people at leisure, flirting and falling in love, playing games, and otherwise gobbling up a lovely, entirely unpressured and essentially undarkened afternoon.
The dancing featured lots of steps, refracted and repeated with tweaking changes; elegant partnering, again using a theme-and-variations approach and often initiated by a ballroom sensibility; and some fantastical acrobatics for the men in one number involving hats—possibly the greatest dance I’ve witnessed for dancers and active hats since Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. When one of the dancers restored his hat to his head by performing a back flip into it, the audience could hardly believe it just seen what it had seen. Everyone is so desperate for young choreographers, for both the concert stage and Broadway. Well, here’s one: Virginie Victoire Mécène.
Boris Eifman’s new work for the New York City Ballet—called Musagète (“leader of the muses”), in reference to Apollon Musagète, the original title for the Balanchine masterpiece known today as Apollo—is just one more bio-bal if you aren’t sentimental about the subject, and 50 minutes of living hell if you are. Eifman is a Russian, head of a respected teaching institute in St. Petersburg and a well-known independent choreographer there since the 1970’s. His previous bio-bals of such remote historical figures as the ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva and the composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky have attracted enthusiastic audiences (many transplanted Russians among them) when his company has performed at City Center—which it has since the 1990’s—and have also disgusted some balletgoers and critics. Everyone agrees that he knows how to hold an audience’s attention, at least for part of each of his evening-length works. In an era when ballet’s audiences are graying and the entire art of dance has been written off as an obsession of connoisseurs by a personage no less august than the current editor of The New York Times (www.latimes.com/news/custom/showcase/cl-ca-shaw6jun06.column), the ability of a ballet choreographer to hold an audience’s attention counts for much. One suffers the content for the page-turning feature. As a practically-minded, longstanding member of NYCB’s audience observed, Musagète, which, by the clock, occupied a little less than an hour of the program, is far preferable to an entire Eifman evening. I asked what this person thought of the content of the ballet. The answer was a shrug and the words, “It’s his point of view.”
Eifman’s existence was known in New York well before the Berlin Wall was felled. In 1983, a group of American dance critics touring to the U.S.S.R. for the first time interviewed him in his St. Petersburg office, having been told (I forget by whom) that he had suffered grievous repression as an artist under the Soviet system. As I remember from that interview, he was courtly and unassuming, told us of his great admiration for Balanchine’s choreography, and said that he cherished the few performances of NYCB he had been able to attend when the company made its second tour to the U.S.S.R., in 1972. A day or so later, we saw one of Eifman’s ballets performed, an ensemble work that obliterated the individuality of the dancers who, costumed in what looked like burlap sacks, shuffled through a slaves-break-free scenario to—could it possibly have been Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave”?—and we knew immediately that whatever Eifman cherished about Balanchine’s work had not made its way into the younger man’s psyche. No harm in that to anyone but Eifman, most of us thought at the time. Lots of choreographers profess to admire Balanchine without exhibiting a smidgen of his influence in their dances.
But what would that influence be? What was it that Eifman admired? For Balanchine, a ballet was what he called a construction—a product of experience, taste, sensibility, and knowledge, filtered through an extremely fine sieve of craftsmanship and imagination, all in response to the provocation of music. It was revealing, as any human endeavor is revealing, yet not in a point-for-point fashion, like an allegory or a party game, in which one is invited to match up onstage events with offstage details of the choreographer’s life at the moment of the ballet’s making. With the possible exception of the evening-length Don Quixote, it wasn’t even a treasure map to what the choreographer felt; it was, to the contrary, an escape from biography and local feeling. After all, this is the choreographer who went out of his way to call a work Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbündlertänze,’ so as to quash any suggestion that the figures in his staging of Schumann’s music might be identified with his own experience.
Musagète is offered to the public as such a ballet. As Robert Gottlieb has observed in his recent review of it, Eifman protests that his work is a homage to Balanchine and not intended as a biography, simply as a summation of “personality”—yet his words do not jibe with his product, for the production is filled with details derived from specific biographical sources and elements of Balanchine’s repertory. Eifman has unmistakably attempted to represent the young Balanchine (Robert Tewsley, his slicked-back hair and white shirt based on a photograph of Balanchine from the 1920’s); at least two of his wives, Vera Zorina and Tanaquil Le Clercq—both of them beautiful and brilliant ballerinas who had tremendous impact on his life and, in the case of Le Clercq, his art; and another muse, the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, with whom Balanchine was also deeply in love and whom he called his “Stradivarius,” owing to her unique ability to intuit his imagination and musicianship and then to project it with unforeseen splendor, as Balanchine, himself, intuited and projected Igor Stravinsky’s.
According to NYCB principal Wendy Whelan in a recent issue of “Arts & Leisure” at the Times, Eifman has even taken the remarkable step of embodying Mourka, Balanchine and Le Clercq’s cat, whose tutorials with Balanchine in the art of the pas de chat Martha Swope recorded in a charming album of photographs with text by LeClercq, published in the 1960’s. Whelan said that she was playing Mourka, although, since her glamorous black costume also suggested that she was playing Zorina (with, perhaps, touches of Alexandra Danilova), “cat” may be a Hollywood shorthand for a composite “Catwoman,” in the spirit of the Halle Berry movie that will be released in July. There is a tall male dance who, for a while, I thought might have been intended as an avatar of Lincoln Kirstein, NYCB’s co-founder; however, an episode in which the Balanchine figure peremptorily throws him out of a featured role and substitutes another dancer strongly suggests a different identification. (For a related anecdote about Balanchine concerning a substitution of steps rather than of dancers, see “Letter from New York” 14.) There is also a male figure of inscrutable identity, in a Nehru jacket (Stravinsky? Serge Diaghilev?), who wheels wingward the rolling chair on which Eifman’s Balanchine spends much time, curled over in dejected solitude. And there is another tall man, seemingly dipped in black, who, like the death figure originated by Adam Lüders in the Jerome Robbins ballet In Memory Of. . ., carries away the beloved Le Clercq figure, in this case dragging her offstage with the help of a long black shroud, after she has suffered a choreographed seizure and fallen off Tewsley’s shoulders, where, in an especially painful moment to witness, she had perched herself, legs dangling down. This attempt to depict literally, up front and personal, in the middle of simulated erotic action, the paralysis of Le Clercq from poliomyelitis is, without question, arresting; it also bears a resemblance to certain images in the plangent retelling of Cendrillon by Maguy Marin. However, there are occasions in biographical theater when one can’t help remembering the original sources for some images, and for me, this was one of those occasions. I belong to what seems, from the general melee of audience enthusiasm that greeted Musagète, a small group who watched the proceedings in horror and considered the invasion of privacy it represented to be beyond uncharitable—to be sickening.
In terms of disappointment for someone like me, no other element of Musagète—not the sadistic portrait of Balanchine teaching; not the moment where his obsession with the Farrell figure causes him, with his bare hands, to break down the ballet barre at which she stands, trying to do his bidding (Balanchine took steroids?); not the depiction of Balanchine brooding in his own sort of wheelchair (so curiously similar to Twyla Tharp’s fantasy of him in her memoir, Push Comes to Shove); not the beautiful dancing girls forced to clean the floor with their white evening dresses as they’re dragged along, à la Jerome Robbins, every which way; not the egregious misunderstandings of what Balanchine taught dancers and the choreography he made for them (some of which looks more than a little like Susan Stroman’s); not the tutus that make every dancer look as if she were between an aerobics class and a club date; not the score, which, for the most part, consists of hacked-up J.S. Bach, the orphaned sections strung together with terrifying illogic, like the limbs of the monster in Salvador Dalí’s painting of the American Civil War (although, thankfully, including nothing from the music for Concerto Barocco or The Crucifixion of Christ)—no other affront approached the deeply skewering effort to fabricate a reality show from the Job-like tragedy that blighted the marriage of Balanchine and Le Clercq. To present the result on the floorboards of Balanchine’s home stage adds an extra, bamboo-under-the-fingernails layer of cruelty to those hypersensitive fans who remember Balanchine’s company under his personal supervision, some of whom saw Le Clercq dance, and all of whom saw her occasionally in her wheelchair, watching his ballets from the end of an aisle on the orchestra level. Eifman gets us, so to speak, where we lived. That will please a lot of people; my “we” has been publicly excoriated by NYCB eminences for our written opinions going back to Lincoln Kirstein’s diatribes. Still, I haven’t encountered such cruelty to an audience who takes the past seriously since Tina Brown ran a profile of a dominatrix in The New Yorker.
Of course, for individuals who arrive at the New York State Theater without a context or special feeling for Balanchine’s world or that of his audiences, or who feel, reasonably, that if you don’t like stuff of this type, stay home, nothing that I’ve just written will much matter, just as, for most of Eifman’s audiences, it doesn’t much matter what he did to the images of Spessivtzeva and Tchaikovsky. They’re long dead. Their immediate families are long dead. Their lawyers are long dead: who the hell cares? And yet, the blank slate is clearly not the individual whom Eifman is addressing, or, at least, not exclusively addressing. Musagète is at once so knowing and so disorganized in its insider suggestions about Balanchine’s career and NYCB’s repertory—passing itself through shards of reference at a dizzying clip, from the famous trailing black dress of Balanchine’s lost 1933 ballet Errante to Jerome Robbins’s appropriation of Anna Sokolow (the line-up of dancers at the lip of the stage) in N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz—that it’s reasonable to wonder what sort of point the choreographer is trying to make in a subtext. British audiences wondered something similar about Balanchine, himself, when, at the opening of Union Jack, he rang changes on and elaborated the famous drag step used in British military tattoos on somber ceremonial occasions (in particular, state and military funerals) into something with a cheeky swing to it. It turned out that Balanchine had no subtext, no agenda, other than that of making something interesting to look at for a marching ensemble in a ballet whose mission was to celebrate The American Revolution on the anniversary of the country’s Bicentennial. As Kirstein observed in New York City Ballet, his company history, in 1976 Richard Nixon had disgraced the White House to such an extent that an invocation of Great Britain seemed NYCB’s only recourse. Yet some of those overseas audiences remain offended. I happen to love Union Jack; however, I had no associations with the movement materials before I saw it. I love it while aware that my joy treads on someone else’s aggravation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a difference of kind and of magnitude between taking a step from one country’s traditions out of context in order to entertain another country’s audiences and taking the most painful episodes in people’s lives out of context, injecting them with disfiguring melodrama for the purposes of entertainment, then force-feeding the result to an audience that includes surviving friends, colleagues, and admirers of the subjects. The drawing of a distinction like this is what I meant by “sentimental.”
That Balanchine underwent periods of intense depression has been recorded by people who knew him since his early years, when he was forced to starve and freeze during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and later, when he was forced to scramble for money as an expatriate; to spend a year in a sanitorium with a lung that would be permanently collapsed from tuberculosis; and to lose ballerinas, wives, friends, and lovers during his and their many career changes and reinventions of self, in a country essentially inhospitable to supporting its artists. Eifman is hyperbolic on that issue—since Balanchine very rarely confided his turmoil or let it show—but not entirely out of line. Where, for me, he crosses the line is in rendering Balanchine’s experience in the studio as something tortuous and obsessive. By all accounts, the studio is where Balanchine thrived and was at peace. His ability to rise above his anguish in day-to-day situations was probably, in large measure, owing to the fact that he could be himself there in the sense of being able to work freely at what he was made to do: to paraphrase him, he was a horse who was in a position to be a horse. However, not until the Ford Foundation grants in the 1960’s (for his teaching rather than his choreography) did he begin to enjoy the celebrity—and his company, the economic and institutional security—with which we now associate them. The reports of depression and emotional vulnerability tail off with the resurrection of his energies for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival: the last ten years of his life—in his own theater, fed by its own school, with a company of devoted and marvelous dancers and adulation from what is surely one of the most well-educated ballet audiences in history—permitted a self-assurance, even, according to some memoirs, a streak of high-handedness, that would not have been possible in his younger years. In a recent public panel, Anna Kisselgoff called Balanchine and Kirstein “ruthless old codgers,” and she added that “Balanchine couldn’t have cared less” to be called that. But Musagète was not made for Balanchine and Kirstein, codgers or no. It was made for dancers and audiences at NYCB in 2004, with a special set of allusions for the subset of the audience that knows enough to recognize them. And, intentionally or blindly, it treats those dancers and audiences who do recognize them as if they were dirt. In my memory, it compromises all the good performances that NYCB has delivered in this celebratory year: it shames the entire company, beginning with the current ballet master-in-chief, Peter Martins.
A number of my colleagues have written strong briefs, pro and con, on Musagète this week, and I urge you to read them: Joan Acocella (www.newyorker.com); Robert Gottlieb (www.nyobserver.com), Robert Greskovic (The Wall Street Journal, 24 June 2004; available on line only to paid subscribers), Robert Johnson (New Jersey Ledger), Anna Kisselgoff (www.nytimes.com), Gia Kourlas (www.danceviewtimes.com), and Tobi Tobias (www.artsjournal.com/tobias). Deborah Jowitt’s review is planned for publication a week from this coming Wednesday (www.villagevoice.com).
The last performance of NYCB’s spring season was given over to an astounding display of virtuosity by The Georgian State Dance Company, an organization of 80 dancers from the country of Georgia, where Balanchine’s ancestors once lived and with which he felt a close bond. As dance critic Pia Catton quotes him in the Playbill, “We Georgians are not Russian in culture, not at all. We are Mediterranean people, like Italians.” (As she notes, biographer Bernard Taper was the original interviewer who elicited this comment.) Catton also explains that the idea to bring in the Georgians was that of Barbara Horgan, of The George Balanchine Trust. Once his assistant, Horgan remembered how much he delighted in the company when he first saw it in 1968, in Germany, and revisited it in later years. The Georgians also performed in the U.S. on at least one or two previous occasions, always to admiration and affection among both audiences and critics. Their dancing—bourrées that glide as if on ice, point work in soft boots, complex step combinations at eye-popping tempos, multiple air turns that retain sculptural positions in air and land on the knees—is truly out of this world, and the older works in the repertory, especially, include some of the most breathtaking ensemble choreography you will ever see on a stage, with revolving towers of dancers; wheels within wheels that make the space seem to expand as far as Broadway; one of great courtship dances on earth; a dance for combatants with swords that weaves them into configurations as fluidly as if they were skeins of thread.
The Georgian State Dance Company was founded in 1945 by the husband and wife Iliko Sukishvili (1907-1985) and Nina Ramishvili (1910-2000), who had both danced for the Tblisi Opera and Ballet Company, in Georgia. Its current artistic director and choreographer is their son Tengiz, and its current chief choreographer is their grandson Iliko, Jr. (Before the curtain went up, Tengiz and two of the dancers presented a posthumous prize to Balanchine for his lifetime achievement, which Peter Martins accepted on behalf of The Balanchine Trust.) The company’s older repertory—the dances that Balanchine saw in the 1960’s and 70’s—are impeccably and lovingly preserved, complete with the austere codes of chivalry that permit incendiary bravura to the men and snowflake delicacy and cool to the women. Most of these fantastical works were on the first half of the program. After intermission, we saw newer choreography, with the women taking on more active, virtuosic roles and the ensemble patterns more loosely woven. There are few transformations in these newer dances, and almost no sculptural imagery. The music—by the wonderful band playing accordions, bagpipe-like pipes, drums, and stringed instruments—also sounds much more contemporary, the melodic lines thicker, the pulse a kind of worldbeat. Nevertheless, the relationship to the first half is clear and persuasive, and the dancers remain marvels.
The sister of one of the young men was seated near me, and she explained to several of us in the audience that the average age of the dancers is 20 or 21, that they study dance (including classical ballet) from their earliest years, and that they love the old dances.
The audience, transfigured by pleasure, screamed and roared for the
dancers. It was an inspired conclusion to the season.
Photo: Frederic Franklin at curtain call for Coppelia. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Photos of the Georgian State Dance Company by Paul Kolnik.
last updated on June 8, 2004