Watch for Jacques d'Amboise's entrance at 3:14. He's performing in Stars and Stripes (Balanchine/Sousa, one of my favorites) and it looks like he's been shot on stage out of a canon.
When asked why he choreographed to Sousa's marches, Balanchine replied, "Because he makes me happy."
The anticipation of Mindy Aloff's posts gave me a hankering for the ballet. As it happens both the New York City Ballet and The American Ballet Theater are in town right now and I had to make a choice. I went with the NYCB for a variety of reasons but mostly I was swayed by two ballets on the program, both by Balanchine. Concerto Barocco, to Bach's Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, in repetoire since 1948, always seems fresh and new and Sunday's matinee performance was no exception.
But it was Who Cares? (music by George Gershwin) that made up my mind. I saw the original production in 1970 when I was girl, and have seen it many times since. It is irresistable. (You can search YouTube for clips.)
Here's what Lincoln Kirstein writes about the original production:
Balanchine had an early opportunity to work with George Gershwin: In 1937 Gershwin asked Balanchine to come to Hollywood to work with him on Goldwyn’s Follies(released 1938), which included a Romeo and Juliet number with a mock duel between ballet-dancing Montagues and tap-dancing Capulets. Thirty-three years later, Balanchine choreographed Who Cares? to 16 songs Gershwin composed between 1924 and 1931. Balanchine used the songs not to evoke a particular era but as a basis for a dynamic that is uniquely American and, more specifically, evocative of New York City: Balanchine’s choreography brings out the exuberance of city life.
Who Cares? is both the name of a ballet in the classical idiom by George Balanchine and an old song George and Ira Gershwin wrote in 1931 for Of Thee I Sing. The dictionary says “classic” means standard, leading, belonging to the highest rank or authority. Once it applied mainly to masterpieces from Greco-Roman antiquity; now we have boxing and horse-racing classics, classic cocktail-dresses, and classic cocktails. Among classic American composers we number Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, and George Gershwin (1898-1937). First heard 50 years ago, the best of Gershwin songs maintain their classic freshness, like an eternal martini – dry, frank, refreshing, tailor-made, with an invisible kick from its slightest hint of citron. Nostalgia has not syruped the songs’ sentiment nor robbed them of immediate piquancy. We associate them with time past, but when well sung or played, or preferably both at once, they not only revive but transcend their epoch.
The Gershwins’ beautiful manners and high style, their instant melange of insouciance and shrewd innocence, their just estimation of the imaginative elasticity of an elite audience that they had developed, have left a body of words and music that lives unblurred by vulgar rhetoric or machine-made sentiment. To combine an intensely personal attitude with a flagrantly popular language is a feat that few popular artists manage, and it is appropriate that Balanchine has used the songs not as facile recapitulation of a lost epoch, but simply as songs or melodies for classic, undeformed, traditional academic dances, which in their equivalence of phrasing, dynamics, and emotions find their brotherly parallel.
Anyone who visits this site knows I'm mad for ballet and am a devotee since childhood of the American Ballet Theater, which performs regularly in New York City.
Some of my favorite poets were inspired by ballet: Marianne Moore, Frank O'Hara, Hart Crane, Edwin Denby, and Denise Levertov, to name a few. The similarities between the two art forms are clear to one who loves both. To paraphrase poet and critic Jack Anderson, both seek to create something which is uniquely itself, something which can be expressed in no other terms.
Because of this love, I was sad to learn that balletomane Carley Broder, the sister of a close friend, died on February 25. I want her good works to live on in the form of support for Project Plie, an initiative to increase racial and ethnic representation in ballet and diversify America’s ballet companies. Won't you join me? You can find out more about Carley Broder and make a much appreciated donation here.
Anyone who has been visiting here knows I'm absolutely mad about ballet, especially as performed by the New York City Ballet company. When I was a child, my parents subscribed to the NYCB's Sunday matinees. We traveled by car to the city from our suburban home and had a pre-performance picnic at the 79th Street Boat Basin, where Roy Cohn docked his 95 ft yacht.
Our seats were in the Fifth Ring of the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch theater). They cost $1.00 and were arranged one behind the other along the railing. From that vantage point, the dancers were mere dots on the stage below. My father justified the seats by telling us that from this height we would take in the entire stage and be able to observe the architecture of the ballet. Apparently, he was onto something.
When I was finally able to afford better seats, watching a ballet up close was a revelation, in ways both good and bad. On the one hand, you could see the dancers' faces, their lightening quick footwork, the grace of their arms, the beauty of the partnering, but you also saw them working. Hard. Sweat would fly off their bodies, their costumes could become soaked through. There were occasional grunts and after an especially grueling sequence, you could see the dancer fighting to keep his or her heavy breathing in check. Still, one of my favorite sounds is the pad of ballet shoes across the stage as the dancers assume their places.
It wasn't until many years later that I came to appreciate the gift of ballet that my parents gave me. We were witness to the finest choreography of the twentieth century. We saw Balanchine and Jerome Robbins ballets performed by the very dancers on which they were made. I sometimes imagine that Frank O'Hara and Edwin Denby were in the audience for some of the same performances.
The world of ballet is endlessly fascinating. It is a closed world with its own hierarchy and culture. Ballet dancers give their all to their art. Their careers are usually over by the time they reach forty. If they're lucky and manage to be injury-free, they may eke out a few more years in the less demanding roles.They are not wealthy when they retire.
I'm always surprised that more young people do not attend the ballet. While tickets can be expensive, there are usually discount programs available. Who wouldn't want to see young highly trained individuals executing difficult moves to beautiful music? Beats me.
Perhaps this new series, launched by AOL and produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, will change minds and influence how young people spend their money. Instead of blowing $100 on a few fancy cocktails, why not take in a ballet? The Nutcracker Suite begins on November 29. And I'm happy to make recommendations for the 2014 season. Won't you join me?
Jerome Robbins's new ballet, seen for the first time in its final version at the New York State theater on Thursday night is a work of such amplitude and grandeur that it can make you fall in love with the human body all over again. What a piece of work is man! And with what ballets does Mr. Robbins celebrate that workmanship!
I was in the audience with my parents for the Sunday matinee following the Thursday night premiere. It was May, 1971. We sat in the 5th ring, where the seats were $1.00 and arranged in a single row along the railing (in which, during a previous attendance, I had carved my initials with a hairpin). My father insisted that watching ballet from that vantage point was ideal; you took in the entire stage and sometimes, depending upon how many dancers took the floor at once and the variations in their costumes and movements, you could imagine you were looking into a kaleidescope with its magical changing patterns.
The other day the local classical music station played the Goldberg Variations and I finally learned the story behind Bach's composition, comprising 30 variations on a theme. According to the program host, legend has it that Count Kaiserling, the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, commissioned Bach to compose the piece, to be performed by Kaiserling's musician-in-service, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Kaiserling, it seems, was frequently troubled with insomnia, and requested Bach to write some reposeful keyboards pieces which Goldberg could perform as a soporific.
It pleased me to hear this anecdote. Though I was in the audience for a historic performance, and though the original cast of the Goldberg Variations included some of the most celebrated dancers of all time -- Sara Leland, Gelsey Kirkland, John Clifford, Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomason, Karen Von Aroldingen, Peter Martins, Anthony Blum, Merrill Ashley-- I missed the show. As soon as the curtain lifted and the pianist struck the first cords, I placed my head on the railing and fell asleep, only to awaken, 90 minutes later, in time for the record seventeen curtain calls.
Forgive my meandering way of saying you must check out these recent publications of Bill's work. The first appears in the current issue of The Coffin Factory alongside work by Lydia Davis, T.C. Boyle, and Charles Simic, among others. “Postcards” is from “The Museum of Emotions” from Bill's film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone, which we've written about elsewhere on this blog.
The second link leads to Psychology Tomorrow magazine and Wilhelmina Frankfurt's memoir of George Balanchine. Bill's photos of Frankfurt illustrate the piece and they're stunning. In her piece, Frankfurt describes her final encounter with Mr. B. Shocking but not surprising.
About a year ago, the Chicago based theater artist Erica Barnes approached David Lehman for permission to adapt his poem "Mythologies" for the stage. According to Erica, she was in the midst of a somewhat fallow period when on a whim she visited the Poetry Foundation website, clicked on the "Poem of the Day" and "fell in love." David's sequence of thirty sonnets "Mythologies," first published in the Paris Review issue 106 (1988) and awarded the Bernard F. Connors prize, was the Foundation's featured poem. Erica has this to say about David's poem:
We need new myths. Our old heroes are too unattainable, too perfect, too… heroic. David Lehman’s poem ‘Mythologies’ tells the story of a man struggling to construct new myths in the wake of the disintegration of his expectations. Blending the language of poetry with the ritual of theatre, ‘Mythologies’ searches for the answer to the age-old question -- what is it to be human?
David granted permission and over the next several months Erica dispatched periodic updates of her work- in-progress. She secured funding, hired a full cast and crew, found performance space, and held rehearsals. On November 1, "Mythologies" opened at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater in Chicago. "It was a success," writes Erica, and her excitement is palpable. She sends along this preview video, which makes us wish we could put the production on the road:
Erica promises to send more photos of the performance, which we will share here. Meanwhile, you can find out more about "Mythologies" in Chicago by visiting the dedicated website. You will find Erica's interview with David here.
"Mythologies" will be included in David Lehman's forthcoming New and Selected Poems (Scribner).
I now find myself here for more than three years, immersed in its culture and people, el castellano (the particular Argentine Spanish), and the tango. Dancing the tango, singing the tango, painting the tango.
There is poetry in the forbidden, the languid nights, the time spent and misspent dancing the tango to the weeping of the bandoneón and the low sighs of the double bass.
Dancers sway in each other’s arms, on city streets, on choreographed stages, in meat-market milongas, in private homes, in the heady sweetness of a complex mathematics that looks at once simple and elaborate and only sometimes involves the heart.
A poetry of the body, a heightening of the senses that exalts the communication of the body between one person and another, a poetry of the senses overwhelming the five senses of the body — the tango. The tango was born in the Rio de la Plata region that encompasses Argentina and Uruguay. Some of the great musicians and singers of the tango came from Uruguay. Much the way Chile made its wines famous all over the world, Argentina made the tango its brand.
The tango is sultry and sensual, not sexual — that is for después. After 17 years of being involved with the tango and relationships of the flesh and the heart, I have come to realize that every relationship is a tango, every movement between that leads from here to there, if it affects us, if it afflicts us, if it calls to our heart and recalls ancient memories.
The tango is more than just a movement, or a series of movements — it is that connection between yourself and your partner, between two hearts, two memories, two bodies moving as one.
I have found that more important than the dance itself is the relationship, a relationship. Give and take. Not just give, and not just take. The follower gives of herself, the leader gives. If the energy is just right, there is a balance, and both are refreshed, renewed. An exchange at once spiritual and sensual, a figure eight that is emblematic of eternity.
Buenos Aires is a city of intense passion, city of song and dance, pot-beaters and rioters of an unstable economy. Things are taken light-heartedly and explained by “es lo que hay” — that’s what there is. A city where if you can take the ups and downs and believe whole-heartedly in luck and the lottery, you can remake yourself in body and spirit. But into what?
Jorge Luis Borges in “El Tango:” Esa ráfaga, el tango, esa
diablura, / los atareados años desafía; / hecho de polvo y
tiempo, el hombre dura / menos que la liviana
melodía, / que sólo es tiempo.” (This gust, the tango,
this mischief, / the busy years challenges; / made of dust
and time, man endures / less than the light melody / that
is only time.)
A city caught and trapped in dust and time, while the mischievous tango endures.
The streets Corrientes and Cordoba surround my apartment. The people are still primal, raw — connected more to the skies, to each other, to the universe than to any technological gadget. One sees the desperation in the eyes of a child of four, reflected from the eyes of her parents.
Where the two main roads intersect, 9 de Julio and Corrientes, there rises a great obelisk, an emblem of the city itself. It is a streak of ego and daring into the sky, as if to say: This is who we are, this is what we aspire to, this is what we were. If we may but look inside ourselves, to what stirrings this ambition may lead us to . . .
This is the city where Borges masterminded and directed the great library, wielded his pen and the labyrinth of his mind in soaring blindness and darkness.
Where mind must function over matter, making matter immaterial. Where a song is heartbreak, heartbreak is forever, and forever is longer than a thought.
For every motion, there is an equal and opposite emotion. For every desire, a non-desire and a lurking fulfillment. Everything — this too is about to extinguish . . . this feeling, this emotion, and desire.
This is the moment I am most alive. The moment I cross the street to meet you, eyes moist. All the threads of a life . . .
Tango que fuiste feliz,
como yo también lo he sido,
según me cuenta el recuerdo;
el recuerdo fue el olvido.
— Jorge Luis Borges: “Alguien le dice al tango,” with Piazolla
(Tango that you were happy,
as also I have been,
following memory’s recounting;
the memory that was oblivion.
— Jorge Luis Borges: "Someone says to the tango," with Piazolla.)
(Translations by Mong-Lan)
Mong-Lan left her native Vietnam in 1975, on the last day of the evacuation of Saigon. A poet, writer, dancer, visual artist, singer, and educator, she is the author of five books and two chapbooks, including her book on the tango, Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art (the bilingual version: Tango, Tangueando: Poemas & Dibujos). Find a complete list of titles here. Mong-Lan has won the Juniper Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association's New Writers Awards, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Fulbright Fellowship. She received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona. Mong-Lan’s poetry has been frequently anthologized -- in, for example, The Best American Poetry. Visit: www.monglan.com
George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that dancing is "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music." For proof, just watch this Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers scene from the 1934 film "Night and Day."
I love Toni Bentley's analysis of this dance in her New York Times review of Kathleen Riley's The Astaires: Fred & Adele (OUP): "Put down the Kama Sutra and its impossible acrobatics," writes Bentley. "Rent The Gay Divorcee and watch Astaire seduce a resistant Rogers, transforming her from a feisty, fast-talking, fast-walking, too-good-for-you dame into a dewy-eyed ingénue, slowed and silenced by love." She continues:
In the Cole Porter number “Night and Day,” Astaire pursues her about the dance floor with the wit of changing rhythms, sometimes syncopated, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes pausing to breathe the moment. He chases her, coaxes her, mirrors her, challenges her and goes hip to hip with her. He even spoons her, vertically. She isn’t sure, she turns away, she reconsiders, gives a little, gives a little more, then, overcome, bends backward and surrenders completely to the rhythm, the moment and the man. He flips her around, catches her, sends her off spinning alone only to meet her, unexpectedly, when she slows, pulls her in tight and takes her into a thrilling crescendo, then to a fantastically casual ending, as if to say, “That? Oh, that was nothing,” his modesty after brilliance his most disarming charm . . . As “Night and Day” closes, Astaire lands Rogers gently on a steep incline — she’s mesmerized by the magician who just took her on the ride of her life — bends over her suggestively, pulls back and says, “Cigarette?”
Admission $10.00 will support this fascinating project by one of our most talented photographer/filmmakers. Find more information here.
looking at New York again, in the high white February sunlight, the childishly euphoric climate; looking down Second Avenue, where herds of vehicles go charging one way all day long disappearing into the sky at the end like on a prairie; looking up a side of skyscraper, a flat and flat and a long and long, and the air drops down on your head like a solid. Like a solid too the air that slices down between two neighbor skyscrapers. Up in the winder sunlight the edge of such a building far up is miraculously intense, a feeling like looking at Egyptian sculpture. Down in the streets the color, the painted colors are like medieval color, like the green dress of the Van Eyck double portrait in the National Gallery, intently local and intently lurid. And New York clothes -- not a trace of charm, dressing is ritualistic like in Africa (or the Middle Ages); the boys are the most costumed; dressed men and women look portentously maneuverable; one set looks more dry-cleaned than the other, and those count as rich. New York is all slum, a calm, an uncomfortable, a grand one. And the faces on the street by day: large, unhandsome, lumped with the residue of every possible human experience, and how neutral, left exposed, left out unprotected, uncommitted. I have never seen anything so marvelous."
from "A Letter on New York City's Ballet" by Edwin Denby (Dance Writings and Poetry, Yale University Press, 1998)
Today is George Balanchine's birthday (he was born in 1904) and I am over the moon with excitement about tonight's New York City Ballet all Balanchine program. I splurged on orchestra seats (with a little help from my former colleagues who gave me a gift certificate as a going away present). On the program: Prodigal Son, Mozartiana, Stars and Stripes. Among my many "afterimages" (those snippets that are burned into one's mind's-eye) is a vision of Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Prodigal Son. She was the Siren, he was the Prodigal and when their bodies were entwined, the heat was palpable. At the time, Baryshnikov and Kirkland were rumored to be having a torrid affair and that gossip further enflamed the imagination of this young balletomane.
Tonight's program closes with Stars and Stripes,a ballet that always leaves me a little teary-eyed. Sousa has that effect and when the great big America flag unspools behind a stage filled with dancers in their red, white, and blue costumes, well, I lose it. After Iran released the US hostages on January 20, 1981, Balanchine scrapped part of the evening's program and replaced it with Stars and Stripes. He was a most patriotic American, grateful for everything this country gave him. When asked why he choreographed to Sousa, he replied, "because he makes me smile."
Is the audience for dance engaged in a kind of group voyeurism? What is really going on when we watch young and highly trained thoroughbreds push their bodies to unnatural extremes for our entertainment? Is the effect titilating? Listen to the audience as a dancer executes an especially challenging passage, say, the thirty-two fouettes of the Black Swan. And when a dancer falls, is there an element of pleasure in the audiences’ collective gasp?
These questions swirled around me after watching the most recent performance in the continuing Bill Hayward / Miranov Dance / Redress Films The Intimacies Project. Eight of us gathered in Hayward’s studio where he had constructed a mock window out of a plastic sheet and rigged it with an irrigation system to simulate the look and sound of falling rain. We were instructed to stand in front of the barrier to watch the performance on the other side, as if we were looking into a stranger’s apartment. The only props in the “apartment” were a long low steel bench with a moss-covered sphere at one end.
As the house lights dim, we hear a plaintive harmonica and heavy breathing. From behind us, a man (Jason Nowak) carries a limp woman (Jordan Marinov) upside down – his arms are wrapped around her calves. It’s as if he’s carrying a lifeless sack. He places her on the bench, where her hands drop toward the floor. After he leaves, she rouses herself and begins to move about. The music changes from Charlie Chaplin's haunting "Smile" to the driving beat and percussive lyrics of The Roots' "Walk Alone." It was during the next fifteen minutes of solo dance that my comfort level was pushed to its extreme.
Jordan Marinov (pictured above) is a compelling dancer. With her mile-long legs, angular features, and intense expression, it’s tough to take your eyes off her when she’s performing. Even when she’s still, she radiates energy. Watching her through a window felt illicit, yet it is impossible to look away. She makes full use of the space, by turns cowering, uncoiling, reaching, crawling, stretching. Now she’s a frightened animal, now an angry aggressor, a supplicant, a lover. She moves the bench across the floor to below the window, climbs upon and continues to move. She looks out the window, but over, not at, us. We’re eye level with her thighs and torso and her dance is an invitation to examine her bare skin. She’s that close. Yet there’s a barrier, we can’t touch. Then, in a brilliant stroke, we're shaken out of our reverie by Marinov's voice. "I knew a guy once," she says. So rare is the sound of a dancer's voice that the effect is unsettling.
In previous performances in the series, Marinov danced with a partner. Together they animated the push-and-pull of two individuals at once yearning for and repelled by true intimacy. This time, she was alone for most of the performance and drew the audience into her evolving emotions. Without the usual comfort of a theater seat – we stood throughout – or the distance that typically separates the audience from the stage, we felt exposed, vulnerable, perhaps even more so than the dancer before us. I have a feeling that this is exactly the response Hayward / Marinov were hoping to arouse.
George Balanchine (pictured here with Suzanne Farrell) had a mischievous sense of humor that came out at unusual times. Toasting Stravinsky he reminisced, "In Russia, we drink the health of the guy that died." When Balanchine was presented with the Handel Medallion he said, "I can't Handel it. . .so I'll Haydn it."
When Balanchine and Richard Rodgers embarked on the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the composer was unsure how the collaboration should proceed. "Did he devise his steps first and expect me to alter tempos wherever necessary?" The choreographer immediately set Rodgers's mind at ease. "You write it, I put on," he said. That was exactly the way they worked. "I don't think that our arranger, Hans Spialek, had to change more than thirty-two bars," Rodgers wrote. The result was a masterpiece.
My favorite Balanchine line: "I disagree with everybody, and I don't want to argue about it." -- DL
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.