DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Looking forward to the 100th anniversary of George Balanchine’s birth, on January 22nd, the Public Broadcasting System will air the 120-minute documentary from 1984, Balanchine (in two parts, each an hour long), on Channel 13 in New York on Wednesday, 14 January, at 9:30 p.m. If you see nothing else concerning Balanchine this year, try to watch this program. Written by Holly Brubach and researched by Nancy Reynolds, it tells the vast, ranging story of Balanchine’s life as an artist with concision, liveliness, high taste, and a remarkable understanding of how narratives are absorbed through television. It also includes film excerpts of some of the greatest performances of Balanchine’s choreography ever to go before the camera. (Among those clips, incidentally, is Balanchine’s own performance in the ballet from the 1929 movie Dark Red Roses, the only film record known to exist of the choreographer as a dancer in performance. Dark Red Roses, the first talking film in England, was thought to be lost—indeed, Robert Hofler’s article in the current NYCB program declares it lost—however, just before the Balanchine documentary was put into final form, a copy of the film was discovered in an English barn, and the producers were able to pop it in.) [Ed note: for more information about this program, see Dale Brauner's preview below]
One of the most illuminating passages of Girish Bhargava's bravura editing of Balanchine is a series of clips that show a line of great Apollos, beginning with a handsome 1969 performance by Peter Martins and working backward through a joyous and musical excerpt from 1960 with Jacques d’Amboise to the astonishingly physical and godlike Lew Christensen, shown on stage in 1937. When one is able to compare performances this way, instantaneously, one can recognize the qualities that make individual dancers great and set them apart from anyone else. With the image in mind of Christensen’s blazing approach to role of the young god, it is deeply saddening to contemplate a story about the dancer that d’Amboise recounted this past Saturday, in a “Times Talk” (Balanchine @ 100), moderated by Anna Kisselgoff, chief Dance Critic of The New York Times, and featuring dancers from several eras. D’Amboise’s anecdote concerned Christensen’s breakdown on a battlefield, when he served as a soldier in World War II, and the discovery of him by Lincoln Kirstein, then serving as a driver for an officer in Patton’s army.
In my account of the panel below, which represents my handwritten notes taken during the hour-long discussion, I haven’t included the details of the story. Perhaps one day d’Amboise will commit it to paper himself. Still, in looking around the packed audience while he told it, I began to wonder how many people there would go out associating the name Lew Christensen with anything more than the tragic moment in his offstage life. This is one of the great problems with dance, particularly dance from eras before it was routinely filmed. D’Amboise, of course, was speaking in a context where he would presume that his listeners already knew and valued the dancers he was discussing. Indeed, one of the things that is happening in the various panels and talks about Balanchine that are being given around town is that the greatness of all the artists and intellectuals involved in his work, as well as the basic facts of dance history, are being taken for granted. We are hearing personal details and stories that are not usually brought up. While this material is undeniably fascinating and sometimes helpful to enlarge our appreciation of the ballets, one is also one is reminded, once again, how easy it is for the beauty and artistic mission those ballets embody to take second place to the chaos and welter of conflicting emotions and ambitions that accompanied those works into being.
In my view, the most important biography of Balanchine—that of his imagination, intellect, practicality, and spirit—is contained in his ballets. Everything else is either footnotes or marketing. And so, when the New York City Ballet delivers a sumptuous and, in places, positively thrilling performance of, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it did on Saturday night (Andrea Quinn conducting, Kyra Nichols as a Botticelli Titania, Tom Gold as a hummingbird Oberon, Pascale van Kipnis as a Hermia with such detailed and surprising physical accents that one could hardly believe one had ever seen the role before, the corps de ballet and the children authoritatively placed and quiveringly resonant with the music), the choreographer is alive. Of course the minutiae of his hardships, his miseries in love, his cruelties to others will remain of incidental interest. Yet even they will lose their attraction if the ballets do not speak for themselves. I hope very much that, as this celebratory year goes on, the distinction obtains, and that, in keeping a focus on the glories of the work, the practitioners will be able to overcome personal differences in at least a momentary service on behalf of something larger than any individual.
Parts I & II (1984)
Talk”: George Balanchine @ 100
Merrill Ashley, Jacques d’Amboise, Peter Martins, Arthur Mitchell.
Arrive at noon as program is starting. Several ushers from the Times at door, each with headset for emergency communications. One asks for ticket, says sweetly, “May I hold your newspaper?” (happens to be The New York Times) while I excavate ticket from purse. Hands cold, slow finding ticket. Usher throws paper on floor with big clatter. Says (not so sweetly): “You’ll have to hold it yourself!” Find ticket. Pick up paper and go inside. Auditorium almost completely filled. Take seat in last row of chairs, against back wall. Put coat on adjacent empty seat. Same usher creeps over, picks up coat, sits down, and holds coat on lap. Suddenly hears something in headset. Throws coat on floor and walks away. Consider just sitting down on floor myself to avoid stooping. Decide to save action for Martha Graham @ 150. Stuff coat and newspaper under chair: woefully un-Balanchinean.
Tone throughout the panel is convivial yet spirited. D’Amboise and Martins are a little less verbal than I’ve seen them be in other public events, while Ashley, though she speaks less frequently, is a little more verbal. Mitchell is exactly the same as I’ve seen him: generous, funny, apparently unarmoured yet invulnerable. Kisselgoff poses detailed questions, often speaking as a full participant, a colleague, rather than as an interviewer.
She asks how each panelist, in turn, came to join New York City Ballet. d’Amboise remembers being student at School of American Ballet in boys’ class of three: himself, Edward Villella, and a boy who gave up ballet for banking and eventually went to jail. Mitchell remembers Balanchine telling him, “Hands not very good. Why don’t you study Spanish dancing? They have beautiful hands.” Also remembers exchange with Balanchine from Mitchell’s first performance with NYCB, 1955:
Mitchell, having just donned costume, runs to Balanchine and wails: Mr. Balanchine, these pants don’t fit!
Balanchine: My dear, you’ve got them on backwards.
Mitchell speaks of how courageous it was for Balanchine to hire an African-American dancer and to pair him with white ballerinas in 1955.
Kisselgoff: 1955! You must mean 1957: Agon.
Mitchell meant 1955, the year he joined the company. “Paired me with anyone. I have a letter that Balanchine wrote to Lincoln in 1933, saying he wanted to start an American company with six black dancers and six white dancers.”
Kisselgoff: That’s true.
Kisselgoff tells Ashley that Balanchine once commented on his pleasure in Ashley’s performance of Emeralds. Ashley: “That’s nice to hear. Glad he told you.” Ashley’s first role in a Balanchine ballet: 1964, as a student at School of American Ballet, was first Candy Cane to come out in the Hoop dance of Nutcracker. Personally coached in entrance by Balanchine.
Ashley on staging Ballo della Regina: “Because the steps are done at such high speed, everything must be efficient. Nothing can be extraneous. The visual impact of the step is related very clearly to the technique. You have to keep your weight on the balls of your feet. If you go back on your heels, you’re finished!”
Kisselgoff notes that Balanchine once told her that “art is technique,” explaining that word for art in Greek came from word for technique in Greek.
Kisselgoff asks Martins, an alumnus of the Royal Danish Ballet, about legacy of Balanchine’s brief period there as ballet master in early 1930s. Martins relates that Balanchine told him he was brought to Denmark then to stage ballets by Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine. “He said, ‘Massine. Imagine!’”
Kisselgoff explains to audience that Balanchine hated Massine’s work, it’s public record.
Martins continues that Balanchine struck a deal with Royal Danish Ballet: for every two ballets by Fokine and Massine he staged, “he would do one of his own.”
Martins relates “real story” of how he joined NYCB: Company was performing at Edinburgh Festival in 1967 and d’Amboise, slated to dance the title role of Apollo, became injured. D’Amboise agrees that he was injured. Balanchine had heard about Martins’s performances of the role with the Royal Danish Ballet and sent NYCB ballet master John Taras to Copenhagen from Edinburgh to audition Martins. Performance was next day, so Taras asked for audition at 11:30. At night.
Martins to Taras: “Couldn’t it be in the morning?”
Kisselgoff to audience: “He was a principal dancer.”
Taras explained that Martins would have to be on plane to Edinburgh in morning. No audition, apparently. Martins remembers that Balanchine’s first words to him on landing in Edinburgh were, “Go rest!” Martins notes that the flight was only an hour long. d’Amboise surmises that Balanchine was worried about Martins getting injured. Performance took place that night, with Martins performing role of Apollo as he danced it with Royal Danish Ballet. Martins: “The next day, he took me apart. He took off his jacket and started showing me the ballet.”
d’Amboise remembers that, at S.A.B., he had “fencing lessons, modern dance with Merce Cunningham, music theory and harmony with John Cage.”
Kisselgoff: “Cage? Are you sure?”
d’Amboise is sure. Kisselgoff to audience: “He was a student of Schoenberg’s.”
Great male American dancers of the 1930s and ‘40s are recalled. D’Amboise remembers that “William Dollar, often forgotten now, was a great dancer; his ballon.” He goes on to relate tragic battlefield anecdote about Lew Christensen, Balanchine’s first American Apollo. Tells audience to read a poem called “Vaudeville,” in Kirstein’s collection Rhymes of a PFC: “Pete Peterson—Lew Christensen.”
Kisselgoff has a theory. She notes that Kirstein was, for three years, managing director of City Center. While NYCB was in residence there, “it is accurate to say that it was still a Lincoln Kirstein company.” Things “changed after the company got to the New York State Theater [in 1964]. It was Lincoln who brought in Robbins, Tudor, Freddie Ashton.”
d’Amboise: Lincoln gave them ideas [for ballets]. He stopped John Cranko. In 1952, Jerome Robbins tried to take over the company. . . .
Kisselgoff: Let’s save that for another panel.
d’Amboise (turning to audience): What Anna’s trying to say is that Lincoln called the shots until we got into the New York State Theater. Then Balanchine said to him, “Stay away. Stay in the school.”
Kisselgoff: In a book review, I described them as “two ruthless old codgers.” Some people were upset, but Lincoln liked that. Balanchine couldn’t have cared less. They were ruthless, and they couldn’t have accomplished what they accomplished without being ruthless.
One or two panelists look momentarily. . .confused? There is a small silence.
Mitchell discusses Balanchine’s way of working in rehearsal: “Balanchine would never say anything, but he would do things. In Agon, my skin color on her [Diana Adams’] skin color [in the pas de deux]. . .he was very aware when my hand would be on top or her hand would be on top. That’s part of the choreography. Balanchine said to me of [the construction of] Agon: This is hard; it has to be absolutely perfect. It wasn’t the style so much [that he meant]; it was the look.” Mitchell noted that he was a tap dancer and had an innate ear for picking up rhythms. He rose to his feet and said that, at one point, Balanchine stepped out a certain rhythm: DA-da, DA-da-da [I think that was it. Mitchell stamped it out with a kind of grapevine step.] “I said, ‘What’s the step? What’s the step? He said, ‘I don’t know; I haven’t made it yet.’” [Note: This gift for abstracting the rhythm before the content was also possessed by Balanchine’s age-peer, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who would hear a line of poetry as a kind of “buzzing” before he attempted to put down specific words.] Mitchell: “I see the germ of many steps he started in 1929 in Agon. He would use whatever was there. One day his knee was bothering him. (Mitchell does a stiff-legged walk.) That became the opening step of Agon. In “Phlegmatic” (the solo Mitchell danced in The Four Temperaments), he said, ‘Like you go to party, women very snooty.’ You do his ballets, and you get a technique.”
Kisselgoff: Lincoln always said, “There is no Balanchine Technique. There is only classical technique. He [Balanchine] had a style.”
Ashley: In the finale of Emeralds, we did this [arabesque] penchée: we were supposed to be candles in church. Penchées in other ballets would be completely different. If you can get the steps exactly as he wanted, it’s easier. And then you can incorporate his images. But you need the steps as a foundation.
Ashley also noted that when she goes to other companies to stage Balanchine ballets, the dancers speak of how wonderful it is to dance his work and of their appetite to learn everything about it.
Kisselgoff remarks to Martins that Balanchine admired the choreography of his first ballet, Calcium Light Night, and urged Martins, for his second ballet, to set The Magic Flute. “Nothing to do with Mozart—a ballet he had remembered from the Imperial Theater.” (Music by Drigo)
Martins: I asked him, “What is the story?” Balanchine said, “There is no story. Well, there is. But make it up.”
Martins wanted to make the point that Balanchine believed, “If you can tell a story, make some nice steps, then you can do anything [as a choreographer].”
Kisselgoff: For contemporary dancers, he freed dancers to be bodies in space.
Kisselgoff tells Mitchell that this affects the way she watches all companies, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem. “When I look at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, I see dancers first, not their skin color.”
Mitchell: Either you make the magic when you hit the stage, or you don’t make the magic. That’s what I learned from him.
Mitchell also suggests that Balanchine’s La Valse was inspired by an idea of Katherine Dunham’s [with whom Balanchine had worked when he directed Cabin in the Sky] and that Balanchine told him of a dream he had had of staging a ballet about the quadroon balls in New Orleans. [There are notes about this idea in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo materials in the Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.]
Mitchell: He empowered everyone there [at NYCB]. He made everyone feel special, no matter who you were. The last girl in the last row of the ballet had something special in the costume, to make her feel special.
A woman in the audience asks Martins whether NYCB had plans to stage Concierto de Mozart, which she had seen danced by the Tulsa Ballet.
Martins: I heard about the Mozart ballet, and I heard about it from him. He said, “Don’t ever do it!,” as he said about many other ballets.
d’Amboise: À la Françaix?
Martins: “Stay away!”
d’Amboise: He was a musician who choreographed. Everything was there (d’Amboise touches forehead). But not the steps. He makes that up with people.
Martins: And sometimes gives them away.
Martins relates how Balanchine made “a beautiful step” for Martins and Kay Mazzo in their “Merry Widow” section of Vienna Waltzes, then, the next day, Martins saw that the step had been given to Suzanne Farrell, for her section. He went to Balanchine and asked what happened to the step for him and Mazzo?
Martins: He said to me, “Don’t worry. I make something better for you.”
* * *
Construction Company presents
The beautiful photograph you see here shows a moment from Italian Suite, a recent ballet by Christopher Caines, set to Stravinsky's Suite Italienne for violin and piano--one of several suites that Stravinsky made from the same compositional elements. Italian Suite II, Caines's new staging of the version of Suite Italienne for cello and piano, will be performed at the Merce Cunningham studio on Saturday and Sunday, 17th and 18th January, at 8 p.m., on a shared program that Caines is curating. The three other dances on the bill are by Catherine Gallant, who will present Sonata, to Fauré’s Sonata for cello and piano, op. 117, no. 1; by Ezra Caldwell, whose work is a collaboration with members of Ezra Caldwell/Daniel Caldwell and the Leverage Group, to Barber’s Cello Sonata, op. 6; and by Carolyn Lord, who will perform Tangent, a solo to two short works by Astor Piazzolla (“Serenade” and “Pastoral”). All music will be performed live by the cellist Stefano Bonomi and the pianist Giovanna Pezzetta, who are travelling from Italy for the shows.
Caines’s Italian Suite is a revised version of a work he made last year for his Christopher Caines Dance Company, one of many small, financially-challenged dance groups in New York City and yet also one that consistently manages to produce wonderful programs, marked by innovative step-making and dance imagery, exquisite musicality, and very fine dancing from such company members as Sabra Perry, featured here. In my experience, Caines is the most musically sophisticated choreographer under 45 in the United States. For reservations and information, call 212-924-7882. You can also visit The Construction Company —Mindy Aloff
Portrait of George Balanchine; photo: George Platt Lynes.
Caines Dance Company in Caines's
Sabra Perry with (L to R) Christopher Woodrell; Gelan Lambert, Jr.; and
the choreographer. Photo: Robert Polkosnik
last updated on January 11, 2004