writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Real Time

Live from Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center Celebrates Balanchine 100
Public Broadcasting Corporation
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva
published 10 May 2004

If you saw the all Balanchine New York City Ballet Spring Gala broadcast on PBS, you already know what a misnomer "Live from Lincoln Center" is. "Televised" from Lincoln Center is more like it. Real time broadcasts of ballet are not the real thing, or the real deal. They do the works performed no credit—they are invariably chopped up and distorted by the camera, or in the rare case of a stable camera, they are seen from such a distance that they have all the impact of an ant farm. The only arguments in their favor involve publicity (building an audience for dance, and so forth), and community (the shared experience of a live event). Of course the same argument can be made for any live telecast, whether a basketball game, the hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, or the live pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white van.

Still, the broadcast had intrinsic interest, on two counts. The first was how well suited to the small screen are some of the company's dancers who can seem see ill-suited to the stage. Here, the television close ups are invaluable, showing to the viewing world what one only knows from the very front rows of the New York State Theater (where I happen to like to sit). The second virtue was the permanent documentation of two performances by Kyra Nichols. These will be best experienced as an aide memoire to seeing her, or having seen her, in the theater–the dance equivalent of pressed flowers. It would be wonderful to have really excellent films of ballets like Liebeslieder Waltzes, and Vienna Waltzes—just think of the wonderful film of The Royal Ballet in Ashton's Enigma Variations—but "Live from Lincoln Center" is better than nothing.

There are two huge problems with live dance on television. The first is the framing of the dance. In conventional ballet, the choreographer chooses where you will look, directing your eye by design. In like manner, a ballerina will further refine your gaze with her own, directing your eye to her feet, or her partner, or off into space. Or she will create the illusion of looking right at you, which is divine in the theater but on camera looks like Gloria Swanson ready for her close up in Sunset Boulevard. The second huge problem is a lack of gravity. The television screen is essentially undifferentiated space, without fixed points–your eye constructs the conventions of three dimensions. This is why tapping is especially successful and pleasurable in film. The sounds lets you know that there really is a floor.

With the exception of Concerto Barocco, greatly legible because Maria Kowroski works on a grand scale, and because the camera work achieved, uniquely in this work, a good combination of being upstairs and being in the front row and being within the work, the best thing to see on the "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast was duets. Here the camera could hold the entire performance in a reasonable equilibrium. You could see detail and you could see the whole thing at the same time. Thus Duo Concertante was entirely pleasurable. Peter Boal is a far snazzier dancer than Yvonne Boree, his partner, but she is so beautiful, and of such harmonics proportion , and has such a lovely way of leaning her head to her partner's shoulder that on television she was his ideal mate. In the theater, when you see her dancing next to other ballerinas doing the same thing, you don't doubt her beauty, but you can doubt her ease. There is something herky-jerky about the placement of her arms in space, something tense that is the enemy of grace. Alone in close up with Boal, none of this applied. She seemed natural, at ease.

The other dancer to whom the camera is a natural, easy friend is Niles Martins. He happens to be an excellent camera actor. (One wonders what his career would have been in a company that performed mostly narrative ballets, like Tudor's. He might have had a good time.). His large handsome face is clearly legible, and he is ardent without being silly. (This is also true in the theater.) Of course it isn't hard to love his partner in "The Man I Love," Alexandra Ansanelli, though in truth her love affair is never really with her partner, whoever he is. She has other loves. The first is dancing.( I've never seen a dancer happier to be dancing, and it makes you happy in return.) The second is us—meaning the theater audience; she did not play to the camera. For Ansanelli, the audience is the partner of choice, and her partner is our stand in. Martins was perfect in this regard. The fact that you couldn't see his feet at all times might have been frustrating to some, but it didn't hurt his performance. His feet are not his strong point, nor is his line.

In that department, where Fred Astaire is the peerless exemplar of making clear shapes in screen space, the New York City Ballet equivalent turns out to be Wendy Whelan. In the final rondo from Brahms-Schoenberg, dancing with Damien Woetzel, she was clarity itself, no matter how far away the camera. Detail at long distance is one of her specialities. Not so Damien Woetzel's. His is a performance type—he is an escape- from- gravity artist—that really demands live viewing. Besides which, gypsy costumes on men look dopey in close up.

On the other hand, male evening dress looks excellent in close up, in real life, on the stage, or on the screen. First off, there is none of the whole vexing convention of having some of the men dance with jackets and not pants that so plagues the ballet, where the hero often (as in Swan Lake) appears to have forgotten his trousers. Second, a good suit does so much for one's line. Thus Jock Soto has never appeared better than partnering Kyra Nichols in the second half of Liebeslieder (she did Charles Askegaard the same favor in Vienna Waltzes, though this was much more apparent in a live performance on Saturday than on the screen earlier in the week.) It made one sorry not to have seen them dance together more. Nichol's more frequent partner, Philip Neal, here danced with Darci Kistler, which is not really a fortunate pairing. She makes him look callow. On the other hand, Nicolai Hübbe and Jenifer Ringer—the fair and the dark—were heaven together. Miranda Weese doesn't seem to need a partner, but Jared Angle obliged nonetheless. But theirs were not memorable appearances. The televised Liebeslieder belonged to Nichols and Soto.

The beauty of their duet turned on the phrasing, of the lifts in particular. Soto can look stressed in lifts, at which he nonetheless excels, but he lofted Nichols as if she were thistledown, so that the timing and trajectory in the air were a matter of artistry, not necessity. In fact, the entire matter of putting the ballerina down at all looked optional. Thus the Nichols gift for shaping movement became airborne.

There was a lot of what you might call "added value" to the broadcast, which boasted a glamorous hostess (Sarah Jessica Parker, in a series of glamourous outfits, and at least three different glamourous hairdos) the best of which was archival footage of Balanchine himself. ("You don't have to accentuate time to mean time," he said to Stravinsky.) The worst was probably the musical director and choreographer Susan Stromam, whose appearance (in a black turtleneck and baseball cap) as a taped narrator made no sense at all. Then again neither does her choreography make sense in the NYCB repertory. The company's own Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins would have been a much better choice, and one wonders why he didn't leap to the task. He did appear on stage to drink some vodka, at which time he did not, mercifully, ask the audience to "sing "Happy Birthday to George Balanchine." This has actually occurred in the past, and it is a very weird moment. Who sings "Happy Birthday" to the dead?

Speaking of which, it often crosses my mind that Balanchine is one of the world's busiest dead people. For someone who hasn't been beatified, he leads an active death. Choreographers imagine him in their studios. His repetiteurs seek his advice. Former dancers speak to him on a regular basis. Etc. Still, at times he gets to take a break and float somewhere in the ether at the top of the New York State Theater, during a performance. Usually that happens when a ballerina is particularly invested in his choreography, and in imagining the pleasure he would have taken in the performance ("So beautiful") you imagine him back. So it was during the "Rosenkavalier" section of Vienna Waltzes, with Kyra Nichols alone on stage, and then joined by a partner who, though theatrical alchemy, appears to the viewer's eye as imaginary. Sometimes when you see this duet you feel the ballerina is dancing with a lost love. Sometimes you feel the love has been lost to death. It depends to some extent on the actual man dancing the part.(Adam Lüders, for instance, used to be extremely believable as a ghost, palely drifting in from the tomb.)

I've seen Nichols dance the role different ways, but her current version is unique to her. Not only her partner is imaginary—the whole ballroom is imaginary. Her white satin dress is imaginary. She is a girl, drifting around in her room, imagining herself in the arms of a handsome man. Hers is a dream of dancing, and dancing as dream. Into the partnering she brings a wealth of nuance, particularly with her swan-like arms. (You can indeed think of the Merry Widow—who in the full ballet dances the previous number in glittery black—and the Marshalin as Odile and Odette, if you want to. They come from Swan Lake as surely as from the Lehar and the Stauss.) As her moments on the darkened stage brighten into a bright ballroom full of waltzing couples, Nichols transits from the dreamy to the real. (This can be very clearly seen in the theater, perhaps less so on the video.) Her delighted full smile at her partner is very much in the present tense, and his delight is just as authentic. Nichols wraps up many of her roles now in these deceptively simple single performances, calling up such of them as she will—or perhaps she just dances, and everything is there. This is the very definition of mature artistry. The videotape of this performance will be as cherished, to her fans, as is Margot Fonteyn's late career Juliet.

At the conclusion of the live broadcast under the credits—after Placido Domingo sang "None But the Lonely Heart" a second, taped time, and Martin Bookspan vamped until you thought he was going to have to start naming the gross national products and most frequent exports of small foreign countries— the show's director ran some slow motion of footage from what we had just seen live. If you stuck with the program you know that this was truly magical, the slowed arc of the leg, the untethered floating jump, the sense of flight, of time, or space. And it was eerily familiar. Hadn't we just seem something like that?

We had. In Liebeslieder, when Soto lifted Nichols, stepped across the stage with her, and set her down. Great dancers don't need cameras to pull off their effects. Get hold of the videotape and take a look at them. Watch the ballerina take all the time in the music, which is, in Balanchine, the same thing as taking all the time in the world. In real time.

First: The crowd outside State Theater watches the gala inside. Damian Woetzel and Wendy Wheelan in the Rondo of Brahms-Schoenberg.  "Detail at long distance is one of her specialities."—Nancy Dalva.  Photo: Paul Kolnik

Second: Yvonne Borree and Peter Boal in Duo Concertant, with Cho-Liang Yin, Violinist; Cameron Grant, Pianist. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 10, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on May 3, 2004