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August 13, 2005

Loving the Muse

I think it was Twyla Tharp who said she needed to fall in love with a dancer to hire them. I’ve hired dancers that I haven’t fallen in love with, but I know what she means. My personal life might seem somewhat detached to an outsider: many friends and acquaintances, no lovers. Things always change, but at least until now it’s not been my role. Like some other artists, I’m the Observer.

A muse is not a lover, but the relationship similar in a classical sense. It’s symbiotic with clearly defined roles. The artist is the lover; the muse is the beloved. When I made a ballet in California in 1999, I explained to a dancer why there were so many promenades in her pas de deux. “I want to show that you are beautiful at every angle.” There are plenty of instances of the relationship going awry – just like love – but just like love both parties can be immeasurably enriched.

Amy was my first partner and first muse. I still call her Moo. She

got that nickname at about 14 from Jody Fugate, who called her Emu because she was so gangly and long limbed. It got shortened to Moo. Though she was 8 years younger than me, she was the only person I could talk seriously to at Madame Darvash’s studio. I had started dance late at 17 and came to the studio at 21 after getting my college degree. At college, you’re expected to ask questions. That’s a mistake in a ballet studio. Even at 14, Moo was the only one who thought like me, and it’s probably why she’s now getting her PhD. She knew better than I when not to ask questions, though.

I made my first ballet on her in 1990, Rondo Capriccioso to the Mendelssohn of the same name. It was a showpiece pas de deux in the Tchaikovsky pas de deux mold. I wanted to do a virtuoso pas de deux, but I also did it to help her. The music is in the form of a slow introduction followed by a longer allegro. Moo was a “moonlight and roses” dancer, so she got the adagio that fit her like a glove at the beginning and then . . . six minutes of flat-out jumping and turning that stretched her hard, but not to the breaking point. My natural instinct as a choreographer was in what I did best – petit allegro. Because of her own natural gifts – few people understood better how to let a man do his job as a partner – Moo taught me how choreograph adagios.

I met David after I met Amy but I made my first dance on him a year earlier in 1989; Forest. David was five years younger than me and tall, spidery and blond. David taught me about partnering and how to use it in choreography. He was a great partner and had a strange presence onstage that struck some (including me) as magnetic, but others as shrouded and off-putting. My best work with him was in 1994. Among the other works, I reset a Mozart piece Rondo for Five. Moo had created the female role in 1991 that David now acted as the partner for. It was a piece of straight-up classicism and I had rented from Ballet West stunning tutus and tunics designed by Peter Cazalet for their Sleeping Beauty. The curtain closed on Rondo and rose on David shirtless in we could go on like this all night. The woman’s part was far weaker; I unfortunately never developed any rapport with that dancer, but the man’s part was built right to David’s vocabulary; his ability to dope out unorthodox partnering and his quirky lines. I made him do them back to back because I wanted to show his range. At the cast party for the show we slept together in exhaustion. There wasn’t any sex; it was sleeping together – an adolescent hero-worship thing even though I was nearly thirty. I never got the prince before. We woke up bleary eyed the next day and delivered the rolled up Marley floor back to Queens.

It had to end badly. 1995 was an annus horribilis. His girlfriend was dying. There were other entanglements. I put David in the center of a quintet called Sauve qui Peut: Every Man for Himself – the title was a pun about masturbation. I confronted my own demons about homosexuality and David got to go along for the ride. It was a good work in a very unloveable way. We all went a little crazy. David retreated and during the entire rehearsal period acted like an asshole to the other dancers. I got angry and in my own inimitable way, acted like a vicious cunt. Molly died on the second night of performances. I revived the dance in 1996 without David and Jonathan, who took his part, was completely at sea. He kept asking me why certain things in the dance happened and I wouldn’t tell him. Because by then I knew that I had done certain things in the ballet to try and provoke a reaction from David; to see what he would do if I made him suck his finger (it was pretty obvious that sometimes a finger is not a finger) and kiss a man onstage. I can’t believe how little slack I cut him.

My relationship with Mary is more easygoing but she affected my choreography as profoundly. I follow my muses and go where their gifts lead me. As another friend said to Mary, “You’re not a dancer, you’re an actress masquerading as a dancer.” My ballets became more theatrical because of her. Scherzo Fantastique from 1999 was made for her – we called it the Tennessee Williams ballet because she got to crack up like Blanche DuBois. The relationship was symbiotic. Her part in Quodlibet the next year was straight technique; something she hated. I pulled her aside quietly and said, “You realize that I’ve given you all your steps?” I constructed it, like Rondo Capriccioso for Moo, to be difficult, but to show her off. I wanted her to be comfortable with straight technique.

The same year I used her gift for comedy in The Elevator, a ballet I would and could never have made without her. Mary played in one memorable scene a mad Giselle misplaced on a park bench who turns an unsuspecting and unwilling passerby into her Albrecht. Her character inspiration was a certain former NYCB ballerina of legendary stature (and weirdness) who shall remain nameless (but she wears shoelaces in her pointe shoes.) I barely choreographed that part – I explained the situation to her and Robert, put on the music from Giselle and off they went. Each show she’s been in has included one ballet specifically for her; Green in 2001 was the world’s tiniest romantic ballet. When she’s taken other dancers’ roles in revivals she’s always redefined them to her strengths. Her final ballet with me was A Waltz Remembered. She changed it completely, but the original couple from a decade before on the very same stage, was Amy and David.

I’m not sure it isn’t presumptuous for me to call Peter a muse. I made fewer ballets on him than on any of the others, and he was never “mine”. But doing a ballet on Peter was like putting my brain onstage and letting it dance. It may have even been the weakest part of our work together; there was a tendency in each of the three works we did towards white-on-white. He moved almost too much like I thought; there was no contrasting tension. Though it was always warm, our relationship is not personal. To this day I really only know him as a dancer, but that’s enough.

Peter gave me some of my happiest moments ever choreographing. I made my first solo on him, A Shropshire Lad, in 2000. The ending was emotional (the character is dead) and Peter usually marked it. We had finished the entire work a day or so earlier when the publicist came to the studio on other business and sat down to watch. Suddenly there was an audience and everything was different. For the first time Peter actually did the ballet and I got to see the ballet I made on the most talented dancer I will ever work with in my life. I had to leave the room briefly at the end to compose myself.

I commissioned my first score for Peter’s solo, Equilibrium, in 2002. We usually rehearsed at the School of American Ballet, and rehearsed to a tape the composer (Eddie Guttman) made on piano though the piece was composed for cello. The cellist, Ariane Lallemand, was rehearsing at Juilliard next door and dropped by to see a rehearsal. Eddie was there watching and taking notes as well. As she was watching, Ariane asked Peter if he liked the tempo as given and suddenly the cello was out of the case and she began to play. The acoustics in the studio are wonderful. I sat on the floor and listened as the rich sounds of the cello filled the room. It was only the four of us in an unadorned room: a choreographer, a composer, a musician and a dancer. We were all talented at what we did and we were making art as equals in an ordinary miracle. It was what I want from my life.

You get possessive of precious things in your life, even the things that aren’t really yours. I’d sometimes make Peter do a section in rehearsal again just because I wanted to watch him. He probably knew; he didn’t seem to mind that much. In 2002 he was asked to put together a program for the Joyce Theater and he called me to tell me that I was not one of the people he was asking. I knew he was being a gentleman by telling me rather than letting me find out and I did not ask why. You don’t ask someone why you’re the fifth prettiest girl at the prom. Later when I could say what I felt rather than what I knew, the word that came out of my mouth was “whore”. But in art, as in love, there are people that come into your life that will affect you much more than you affect them. And you take it, because it’s not their fault and because you’re better off for having that small piece of them than nothing at all.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at August 13, 2005 11:49 PM

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This is certainly a very revealing and personal statement! It makes me have a lot of respect for you. Cheers.

Posted by: petipafan at August 15, 2005 12:22 AM

Congrats on a wonderful first 6 months of your blog. Very touching, very personal - someday, a book?!

Posted by: Kitri_nyc at August 15, 2005 9:09 AM

Leigh. Catching up a bit on your blog here, and...
and I find myself sitting here in tears. Thank you, friend.

Posted by: Alison in Palo Alto at August 15, 2005 1:21 PM

I welcome and cherish the opportunity to get to know more of the fuller person.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 18, 2005 11:22 AM

I have "been affected" by fewer people than you can count on one hand, ever. The first ones I never told. The next I did, I was happy enough with myself to think that what I felt meant something, but her did not feel the same way. He said he cared for me as a friend and thank god for the fact that he still does. The fifth I don't know. I just realised that the closest I can get to describing it, is that I am his muse. I am trying to deny to myself how I feel about him. I am not naive enough to say I am in love, but I know that I could easily be, if I allowed it. But I can't because he is already somebody else's. It hurts so bad.

Posted by: Mia at August 24, 2005 6:01 PM

I was just skimming and you caught me.

Remember how we used to discuss how one selects what to put in a work and what to leave out? This adds a whole new dimension to the question of selectivity in art, doesn't it?

I like to think of those people who affect us so deeply but that we don't have any claim to as "catalysts." Somehow when they're around, we think differently, become intensely someone that we aren't with anyone else. Being around them is addictive, almost like the attraction to a new love but without the sexual side. And yet, when whatever event brought us together is over, we go away with nothing but the realization that the relationship is a construct of our own making.

Posted by: Margaret in VA at August 25, 2005 7:56 AM

I loved reading this (as I do love reading the rest of your blog too).

Posted by: Ariel at September 11, 2005 6:22 PM

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