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
Cynthia Gregory was one of the great prima ballerinas of the last century. I'd seen her American Ballet Theater performances countless times and the "after image" of her Odette-Odile in Swan Lake is indelible. She was memorable for her long expressive line, her subtle acting, her intelligent interpretations that always seemed to find something new in classic roles. She was the epitome of elegance.
Shortly after I moved to New York City in the late '70s, I went to a movie at an uptown theater. I don't recall the feature, but before it began, this short film of Gregory dancing with Ivan Nagy rolled. It has haunted me ever since, and based on the comments below this YouTube video, which surfaced recently, others had a similar reaction. What do you think?
During those years, my sister Amy and I often attended the summer weekend matinees at Lincoln Center. One afternoon, moments before the first curtain, we grabbed a couple of empty orchestra seats we had spied from our perch in the balcony. Just as the conductor tapped his baton,a voice came over the loudspeaker to announce that Ms. Gregory would not be dancing. "Damn," I said. "You can't plan on anything these days." "Sometimes we have injuries," said the woman seated to my right. I turned. It was Cynthia Gregory, and her ankle was bandaged. I hadn't recognized her in street clothes and without makeup.
On another occasion, my sister and I had a post-performance snack at O'Neal's Balloon, a casual restaurant that faced the State Theater dressing room exit. Just as our drinks arrived, Cynthia Gregory stepped onto the street and into a cab. Her arms were filled with bouquets of lilies. She was wearing a white silky summer dress and a white straw hat with an enormous brim. Was she a vision or a waking dream?
If you're in the San Francisco area, head on over to the The War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center to catch the US premier of The Little Mermaid, by Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier. The ballet features an original commissioned score by renowned composer (and BAP blogger ) Lera Auerbach.
According to the SF Ballet program notes, Neumeier’s contemporary version of The Little Mermaid "is a haunting tale of two divergent worlds: the serenity and simplicity of underwater life and the complex, often flamboyant lives of humans. The mermaid heroine travels through both worlds, enduring torment because of her committed love for a prince—but through her own strength in the end—transcends."
Watch a behind the scenes video here.
The San Francisco ballet is a world class company. I'm hoping they'll take this program to New York.
Balanchine is tremendously quotable – if only because so
many of his bon mots are adapted from others. When he declared himself to be
“not a man but a cloud in trousers,” for example, he lifted the line directly
from one of Mayakovsky’s greatest poems. Usually, however, the matchless
choreographer offered not a straight quotation but an unacknowledged
paraphrase. Here is a handful of Mr. B’s observations.
"God made men to sing the praises of women."
"When you have a garden full of pretty flowers, you don't demand of them, ‘What do you mean? What is your significance?’ Dancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We're like flowers. A flower doesn't tell you a story. It's in itself a beautiful thing."
"The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener. "
"Dance is music made visible." (Also, “See the music, hear the dance.”)
“There are no mothers-in-law in ballet” (also known as Balanchine’s Law).
“We all live in the same time forever. There is no future and there is no past.”
"Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don't agree with that because policemen don't have to look beautiful at the same time."
"In fact I disagree with everybody and I don't want to argue about it."
And when he received the Handel medallion, he said, "I can't Handel it. . .so I'll Haydn it."
See Arlene Croce's "Balanchine Said" in The New Yorker (January 26, 2009): “In later years, [Balanchine] waged a personal campaign against the twentieth-century fetish of originality. . . . He saw no harm in appropriating; and he stole and was stolen from – that was the way of art.”
Above: George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell rehearsing Don Quixote in 1968.
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.