“Wartime, here as abroad, made everyone more eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet. More people could also afford tickets. And in wartime the fact that no word was spoken on the stage was in itself a relief.” from Looking at Dance by Edwin Denby
Last Thursday morning I went online and impulsively bought a single ticket to that evening’s Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC, at New York City Center. The theater was mostly sold out; the best available seat was in the nosebleed section but I took it anyway, hopeful that I would find a single seat closer to the stage during the first intermission.
As curtain time approached, I began to regret my purchase. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay home? My husband would be out for the evening and I had laundry to do. I imagined myself folding and sorting while watching Law & Order reruns followed by the Kelly File. Perhaps I would phone the box office and tell them to donate my ticket.
Then, at the last minute, I shook off my malaise and made a mad dash to the theater, settling into my seat just as Leto was giving birth to Apollo to the strains of Stravinsky’s Apollo Musagete. I’ve seen this Balanchine ballet many times over the years and each time it’s a revelation. Last night was no exception with the versatile New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild stepping into the lead for the injured Herman Cornejo. Damian Woetzel, a former premier danseur with the New York City Ballet and the director of the Vail program, wisely restored the opening birth scene that Balanchine had omitted from later productions because he was “bored with it.”
There’s a narrative line to the ballet that follows Apollo’s growth—together with Calliope, Terpsichore, and Polyhymnia--from boyhood to maturity. Here’s how the brilliant dance critic Edwin Denby described Apollo in 1945:
Apollo is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature. It depicts the birth of Apollo in prologue; then how Apollo was given a lyre, and tried to make it sing; how three Muses appeared and showed each her special ability to delight; how he then tried out his surging strength; how he danced with Terpsichore, and how her loveliness and his strength responded in touching harmony; and last, how all four together were inspired and felt the full power of the imagination, and then, in calm and with assurance left for Parnassus, where they were to live. . .
So Apollo can tell you how beautiful classic dancing is when it is correct and sincere; or how the power of poetry grows in our nature; or even that as man’s genius becomes more civilized, it grows more expressive, more ardent, more responsive, more beautiful.
As I had hoped, a kind usher found me a seat, front-row mezzanine, at intermission. I was seated next to Gal, a young Israeli tap-dancer who had traveled around the world to take classes the MacArthur Fellow tap-dancer Michelle Dorrance, who was next up on the program. When her performance began, an electric charge seemed to course through Gal’s body. Dorrance was joined by three others, the Jook dancer Lil Buck, Robert Fairchild, and Melissa Toogood, formerly with Marsha Graham. Dorrance’s clapping and tapping provided the music for this rapid improvisational performance that maintained a fever pace throughout. (If my husband were reading this, he would say that Melissa Toogood is the best name for a dancer since Maria Talchief.)
The evening’s program was a festival indeed, with six dances following Apollo. Those employing the classical vocabulary of ballet left me breathless and trying to hold on to what Arlene Croce called “afterimages,” the fragments that remain for the inward eye to recall when the dance is over. I was stunned when Gal told me she didn’t care for Fandango (choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, music by Boccherini). It is full of surprises and has the feel of a spontaneous encounter between music and dance, executed with good humor and stunning virtuosity by the powerful Sara Mearns of whom Gal said, “I don’t know what she is trying to say.” “Isn’t the beauty of the music and her amazing technique enough?” I said. Gal was not convinced.
The festival concluded with Lil Buck @ City Center: A Jookin’ Jam Session. Jookin’, a Memphis style of hip-hop, reminds me of the break-dancing I used to see on NYC subway platforms in the 1980s, taken to an extreme. It is fascinating to watch in the way that watching a dancer on point is; the body executes moves that are completely unnatural. A Jookin’ dancer moves as if without joints or bones. The head slides from side to side seemingly independent of the neck and spine. The arms undulate fluidly and call to mind those videos of a suspension bridge during an earthquake.
Thursday’s jam session began with Lil Buck and Prime Tyme emerging from the audience to “Gangsta Walk” by YOUNG JAI. I’m guessing that this is the music to which Jookin’ was originally performed. What followed was a demonstration of Jookin’s adaptability to a global range of music, from traditional Galician bagpipe, to Kazakh folk, to Chinese Sheng, to Bach. Among the musicians was cellist Yo Yo Ma, who arrived on stage without fanfare and who closed out the evening with Camille Saint-Saëns haunting “The Swan.” The audience went wild.
I don’t remember what was happening in 2009 that inspired this post by David St. John, but it describes perfectly my feeling and state of mind as I walked home on an unseasonably warm evening, grateful that I had chosen dance over news:
Last night, I decided to go with friends to see The San Francisco Ballet, which has become one of the great American companies. It was exactly the right thing to have done. Watching the dancers carve the space of the stage with their bodies, each drawing a shifting calligraphy of flesh and bone along those pages of music, against the insistence of linear time, well ... it mattered. It made a difference. As each of the ballets passed through its sequence of emotive circumstances, the bodies of the dancers first stilled, then erupting, then collapsing, I felt something in me also quietly unclenching. I felt my own body, which had felt so fiercely coiled and provisional, assume a sense of its more natural place in the world again .. its place in the physical as well as the cerebral, imaginative world. I felt, for those few hours, slightly less mortal. It's one of the things that art can do -- defy time, and time's smug billboards announcing it, Time, will always go on, but that we, the living, will not. Yet art does go on, poetry does go on. And so as I said a week ago, closing the very first piece I wrote for my guest week here: We continue; we go on. Let me say it once again. We too continue. And we go on.