May 11, 2007

Word of Mouth: David Parker tonight & tomorrow at Dance Theater Workshop

I really enjoyed David Parker’s Hour Upon The Stage last night at DTW. David is a deft choreographer and he and I have been friends for well over a decade. It isn't right for me to review it, but speaking personally here, this was the best thing I've ever seen of his. It may be because he wasn’t in it. The distance that allows gave the work a sharpness and the excellent dancers gave it a glow.

The dance is a group work, most sections without music. The hallmark of David’s choreography is percussive movement that creates its own accompaniment. His source is primarily tap but there are many felicitous borrowings from soft shoe and this time a lot from ballet. His chameleon borrowing is happy. His dancers are comfortable with ballet technique without looking like ballet dancers and it’s nice to see someone borrow from ballet with affection rather than issues. Hour Upon the Stage is very sweet natured with some poignant partnering - another hallmark of David's choreography. He has a way of letting what looks like a gag blossom into something thoughtful. All the dancers are really personable – you connect with them quickly. The only thing I did not like was the usual modern dance structure of a longer work without intermission - my brain likes 20 minute chunks.

It's only on until tomorrow, alas, but a very enjoyable evening. I wish I could have let people know sooner.

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March 16, 2007

Word of Mouth: The Lady in the Fur performs!

Rajika Puri, the woman who introduced me to Indian dance and helped teach me the rudiments of how to appreciate it, will be performing Conversations with Shiva: Bharatanatyam Unwrapped next Thursday to Sunday at Joyce Soho. I'm going to be out of town and will have to make do with the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, but go. I've enjoyed her skilled work many times, it's both theatrical and lucid. I've seen bits of this in rehearsal; what she's doing (examining the structure of a traditional form by gently picking apart the pieces) is very clear to Western eyes. The performance gives a good introduction to the language and ingredients of classical Indian dance, which has conventions that need the same initiation as the secret code of ballet mime.

To imitate Rajika, you must go! Please do, and tell me what you thought.

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February 20, 2007

Chicago Thaw


Looking over the bridge on LaSalle Street, 2/19/07

Despite the inauspicious beginning it was a lovely trip.

I saw the Saturday and Sunday matinées at the Joffrey. The long version will be in Ballet Review, the short version is it was worth the trip, and the alternate version lives here – Franklin, a fellow knitter and blogger was my companion on Sunday. He provided excellent company!

I saw several other good friends and got more sense of the city – what’s to get a sense of, it’s a grid, right? Yeah, and so are New York and San Francisco. Chicago’s grid has the added benefit of forcing you to memorize the early presidents in order.

Before going to Chicago, on David B’s recommendation I read Devil in the White City, a book that runs the parallel courses of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and Dr. H. H. Holmes one of the first serial killers who used the fair as a lure for victims. It bills itself as pure history; historians I know roll their eyes when that is said. There’s plenty of research in the book; there’s also plenty of conjecture. It’s You Are There history.

The author, Erik Larson, is better on the Fair and its architects than he is on Holmes. It’s probably a good thing, but he has an easier time making more comprehensible men such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Olmstead come to life than a psychopath such as Holmes who is fascinating in a grisly way, but ultimately reads as a cardboard cutout villain.

That said, Larson does some great things in this ripping yarn. The conjunction of the two plot threads isn’t just historically correct; Larson teases out the opportunity and energy in both Chicago and fin de siècle America that fed both builders and madmen. It’s a portrait of a city and a country that rings true. Larson also pays special attention to architecture that opens your eyes. It could also be that my friends David B. in Chicago (whom I just visited) and David S. who just moved to Atlanta from San Francisco are an architect and a landscape architect respectively. I found myself noticing the lampposts on Madison Avenue as my bus moved uptown on the way to Boston, and staring upwards at cornices and molded decorations.

Larson’s book captures one of Chicago’s most vigorous architectural periods; a trip downtown will bring you face to face with some of the buildings described, except, alas, the World’s Fair itself. What remains of it is far to the south; David took me there on my first visit to Chicago. My hotel (the Club Quarters Central Loop – gotten again on Priceline for $68/night) is right next to the Rookery, which housed the firm of Burnham and Root. Go to see the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre and you are in Adler and Sullivan’s masterpiece. To cap it off, go up the stairs in the Art Institute of Chicago towards their phenomenal Impressionist collection. There is an exhibit of fragments of ironwork and moldings from buildings designed by these very architects. You really are there.

After lunch with David on Monday, as he said with satisfaction the first day above freezing in Chicago in more than a month, I had two hours to kill before heading to O’Hare, and they were profitably spent at the museum. With only that length of time, I decided to see only the Impressionist and American collections, but that means one sees Caillebotte’s amazing scene of Paris in a drizzle, Seurat’s La Grande Jatte and van Gogh’s haunting and claustrophobic picture of his room in Arles. The American collection has Hopper’s brilliant Nighthawks and the iconic American Gothic, a painting that's a good deal better than the image that resides in everyone's imaginations. It was an excellent farewell to a vigorous city.

And to make mischief . . . Franklin looks very hot in leather.

⟨skips merrily away&rang

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February 15, 2007

Leigh's Dance Card - Chicago Edition

Goin' to Chicago. . .to see the Joffrey in Destiny's Dances. I'm seeing Saturday and Sunday matinée to see both casts of each ballet and then (what else?) SHOWTUNES! at Sidetrack.

It wouldn't be Sunday in Chicago without it.

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February 8, 2007

Leigh's Dance Card - Go Greyhound! Edition

I'm racking up Road Rewards points this week!

Tuesday 2/6 - New York. Armitage Gone! at the Joyce. On duty for Danceview Times. This is going to be hard to write, because it was a first viewing of her work and I was neutral about it. It's a lot easier when you have a stronger opinion about the work.

Thursday 2/8 - Philadelphia. Giselle - Pennsylvania Ballet. On duty for Ballet Review. I think Julie Diana should be perfect in the role, but she did not perform last Sunday. I'm hoping I won't get there and be disappointed by a cast change.

Saturday-Sunday 2/10-11 Boston. A Midsummer Night's Dream - Boston Ballet. On duty for Dance International, but combined with a personal reason; I've known Tai Jimenez since we were students; it will be her debut as Titania on Saturday matinée.

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February 4, 2007

Four nice things about San Francisco

Tina LeBlanc – 42 year old mother of two. Danced the lead in Divertimento No. 15 on Friday, a lead in both The Dance House and Blue Rose on Saturday night and a lead in Artifact Suite on Sunday matinee. Looks fabulous. We hate her.

Artifact Suite – for someone as ambivalent about Forsythe as I am, these are strong words, but it’s the best ballet of the post-Balanchine/Ashton era. The first part is gimmicky with a fire curtain dropping with a clunk to the audience’s giggles, but the second part is an atomic age ballet blanc of extraordinary power. It’s on program one on Feb 8 and matinee and evening on the 10th. If you can see it, don’t miss it.

EOS Wine Bar
– My friend Don and I went to dinner there before Saturday evening’s performance so I didn’t drink, but the food there is marvelous. It’s “fusion” which is more gimmicky as a concept than a result. The food is delicious, roasted Brussels sprouts with sesame, winey dumplings stuffed with shiitake in mushrooms, sea bass and especially black pepper filet with eggplant.

Opal Hotel – A very solid hotel bargain. $44 a night on Priceline got me a room. The décor is uninspiring (mmm, tan!) but the rooms are clean and the bed is comfortable. The price includes in room wired access (bring a long Ethernet cable), a fitness center with only barbells but good Lifecycle cardio equipment, and a convenient if uninteresting breakfast. The staff is helpful even if the room I got was close to the elevator. For $44, I wasn’t complaining.

Of course, the nicest things about San Francisco are Peter, Mark, Randy, Jim, Don, Jenny, Rachel, Paul and Helene. The only thing missing is David.

Be back home tomorrow.

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January 31, 2007

Leigh's Dance Card - Bicoastal Edition

On the road again. . .

New York
1/30 - NYCB Essential Balanchine - Square Dance/Liebeslieder Walzer/Stars and Stripes. You want variety, they give you variety. If you're curious about Balanchine's range, this is a great program to see, although Liebeslieder is not beginner's Balanchine (it's long, though it doesn't seem so to me). At last night's performance, there was an unannounced tribute to Melissa Hayden. Jacques d'Amboise came out and reminisced for close to 20 minutes before Liebeslieder. It made for a very long evening, but it was mesmerizing. I'm on duty for Danceview Times.

San Francisco
2/2 - SFB Program 1 - Divertimento No. 15/Aunis/Artifact Suite
2/3 - SFB Program 2 - Blue Rose/The Dance House/The Firebird
2/4 - As 2/2

Nice work if you can get it.

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January 27, 2007


It’s probably been done before, but it was a first for me. At Soaking WET, the dance performance series curated at the West End Theater by David Parker, I sensed something amiss during Wendy Blum’s piece. Well, I heard and smelled something amiss. Some idiot was making microwave popcorn, and then cooking dinner during her dance with loud popping and frying noises and a microwave “ding”. David told me afterwards it was actually part of the piece. Audacious, but I think it needed to be made clearer. The dance onstage had no associations for me with the cooking. I assumed it was accidental smells and disturbances from a nearby kitchen; we were in a church that had a lot of other functions.

Also on the program was Daniel Gwirtzman’s spoof of a rehearsal that was tightly made and quite nicely danced, as well as Jody Sperling’s beautiful evocation of Loie Fuller’s work with fabric and light from the turn of the last century. Wearing yards of white fabric in a simple circle and using colored light, one would think the effect would wear thin, but it’s endlessly fascinating. A second program was Fiona Dolenga’s thoughtful “Aftermath”. Dolenga’s aesthetic mixes the Judson Church with the club scene – she shares some reference points with choreographer Stanley Love, but her take aims more towards high art.

Soaking WET is in the church of St. Andrew and St. Paul right near the 1/9 subway on 86th Street (walk one block west from Broadway, the church is on the north side of the street) on until Sunday and cheap - $15. The box office telephone number is 212-337-9565

Tonight I’m going to see the new Christopher d’Amboise ballet in tribute to Lincoln Kirstein at NYCB, on duty for Danceview Times.

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January 22, 2007

Beauty, discussed

We interrupt the knitting to bring you some dance!

Apollinaire Scherr, dance writer at Newsday and proprietor of Foot in Mouth and I have been talking over there about Sleeping Beauty. I’m going to take the liberty of continuing my responses here, because it gives me something to put on my own blog (daily content is a chore!)

Apollinaire and I are coming at this from slightly different angles, which can make things constructive. One of the most useful dance discussions I had with a friend was over Boris Eifman, a choreographer I loathe. By the end of the discussion, I loathed his work no less, but I understood why she liked it. It may not have convinced me, but it helped me see another point of view.

Apollinaire was discussing suggested revisions to Peter Martins’ production of The Sleeping Beauty, some of which I questioned her about. You can see the original discussion here.

I’ve seen versions of Beauty by most of the major companies: ABT’s Macmillan version, about to be supplanted by McKenzie/Kirkland, NYCB’s version by Martins, the Kirov’s “New/Old” version as well as the Soviet one, POB’s version by Nureyev as well as an earlier Nureyev setting for National Ballet of Canada, and the Royal Ballet’s current version, which I saw five times this year. My aesthetic for the ballet is probably most shaped by that last version.

To me, the widest gap between Apollinaire and I (and if the conversation travels down this road, great!) is between innovation and advocacy. I think both of us see advocacy the same way – as illuminating the text. I also agree with Apollinaire that a stager has the right to forego absolute fidelity to a text; in dance, that’s impossible anyway because there isn’t a concrete text. But I think we’d draw the line at acceptable variants at different places, with me being more traditional in outlook.

To take the example at hand, I don’t think the court/fairy dichotomy in Beauty that Apollinaire suggests is constructive, primarily because Beauty is about the court - in many ways it’s not-so-subtle propaganda for the glories of monarchy. The fairy world may be eternal, but in some ways it is in fealty to the court. I don’t like the entrances at NYCB either, but that’s because the wing everyone enters (mid stage right) is way too tight. It feels as if the King and Queen enter separately because there is no room for them to enter together. In the Royal version the fairies enter through colonnades at the back – the main entryway for most other characters. It works quite well. The change I would make there is architectural rather than choreographic; have a grander entryway.

Carabosse’s music. After having seen the Royal version and then NYCB’s version shortly after I noticed the large cuts in the music Martins takes for the first time. In fact the first time I heard them, in 2004 awkwardly edited into a tape at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, I didn’t even know where the music was from, a rather poignant reminder that tradition is What You Are Familiar With. That said, I don’t think the music was conceived for dancing, as I believe Carabosse was not conceived as a dancing role. In the Kirov reconstruction of the version from 1903, Carabosse is played en travesti by a man. Also, once you’ve heard it enough, you can hear the difference between music for mime and music for danced steps, though as Bournonville said, mime is dance for turned-in feet. I do agree the music moves, but I think that movement is for Carabosse’s attendants. It diminishes her stature to have her dancing.

Giving the prince the entre’acte as a variation. Careful. I’ll point to two examples of an Act II variation. Nureyev’s has already been discussed. It’s really awful. Ashton also has one to a brief portion of an excised Sarabande that was made for Anthony Dowell. It’s much more modest; yet many of the old-timers who recall the 1946 production *hate* it (as much because it necessitates the Prince not wear his long red coat, which they loved). I don’t have that historical allegiance, but of the Princes I saw, the only one out of five that could do the variation justice was Rupert Pennefather. A true prince can show as much character standing still as in motion. Cast the role correctly and the variation is unnecessary.

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January 19, 2007

Leigh's Dance (and Music) Card

It's a busy weekend.

Tonight, 1/19. NYCB for the Stravinsky/Balanchine bill. On duty for Danceview Times. These ballets are always a pleasure to see, but I've written about them several times already for DVT alone, to say nothing of elsewhere. This isn't a bad thing; if you've already said your piece on Agon (and I've said that many times over) it makes it easier to stay brief and keep to the performance at hand.

The APAP conference is happening in New York right now so there are showings everywhere, most of which are open to the public at a low cost (it looks good to draw a crowd).

Tomorrow night, I will try and check out Dance Gotham at Symphony Space - I've not seen Larry Keigwin's work in a while.

On Sunday night I'm going to Joe's Pub to see Zippo Songs and John the Revelator by composer Phil Kline. These are off duty.

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January 17, 2007

First Steps, Again

I started making a ballet today again for the first time in over three years.

It started with a series of emails in October. Mary, one of the dancers I’ve made the most ballets on, sent me an email saying she had talked to Frankie (another classmate who also worked with me) and they had got to talking about how they missed working with me and that they had decided I needed to do a pas de deux for them before they got too old to do one anymore.

Yes, it made my day.

The hardest thing for all of us at our ages isn’t body issues – both of them at least are in unnaturally good shape. It’s our schedules. It took several months to find time we all were free to work together. I blocked off Wednesday nights and finally once Nutcrackers and the holidays were out of the way we got together.

It’s nice to work with friends and contemporaries. Frankie and Mary are still in good shape, but we have experiences in common as well as training and colleagues. I know how the two of them move and how they think. It makes things very comfortable, though it doesn’t make me feel any less rusty. Steps, what are those?

I had been joking with Mary for years that I was going to make a ballet for her loosely inspired by the character of the child vampire in Anne Rice’s novels. When she and Frankie approached me (both of them seemingly, and irritatingly, ageless – Bitches. I hate them.) it seemed like the right time to do it. I’ve never made a narrative work before. Because I was too lazy to find music that perfectly fit the plotline (and because I like it when people get to work) I asked Eddie Guttman, who made the cello solo for Equilibrium in 2002, to compose a piano score. He’s out of town; we’ll hear fragments next week.

To give everyone (especially me) a chance to ease into things, and because it’s hard to make real progress without a score, we worked tonight mostly on plot, character and motivation. Who these people are; what brings a seemingly young girl and an older man into the same deserted alley late at night. It’s interesting to see how motivation inspires and enriches movement – you touch someone’s head differently when you decide that the reason you’re doing it is to check for a bruise or cut. The interesting part is to then translate back this movement to ballet vocabulary. Rising onto pointe will be an important part of how to communicate this little girl is not what she seems – little girls can’t rise onto the tips of their toes.

What feels most different is there was no build up to rehearsal. With Dance as Ever there was so much preparation involved, and much of it was administrative. There’s only so much artistic preparation I can do before I walk into a studio – it still feels made up on the spot. I can’t prechoreograph. This is far more casual; there’s no performance date, and no music either (yet). I’ve deliberately not worried about finding a venue; I don’t mind being released from the ambition and hopes I had when I was younger. It’s just three friends in the studio, working.

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January 8, 2007

A favorite quote on choreographing

Said by a friend, Arnie Apostol:

Make a piece. If it sucks, make the next one better. And if that one sucks, make it shorter. That's all.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 18, 2006

A new resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet

Wayne McGregor's appointment has been chronicled at Ballet Talk and with being more positive and Ballet Talk at best ambivalent.

Brendan McCarthy posts his thoughts on the appointment and now Zoë Anderson has a very interesting interview up with Wayne McGregor at the Independent.

I’m firmly among those who are concerned. There’s no reason McGregor shouldn’t work with the company; but a resident choreographer – as McGregor says himself –

. . . develop[s], over a period of time, a programme of work that will have some impact on the way in which the dancers move.

And as Anderson comments:

A resident choreographer is in a position to make fundamental changes. It's not just that the Royal Ballet will dance more works by McGregor. Mason has already used the Ashton repertory to change the way that the Royal Ballet dances. By concentrating on those ballets, she built a shared style, redefining the company's identity.

The company was in a slump for several years, and only brought out of it by rediscovering the Ashton that was at the core of who they are. If McGregor sees his association with the company as more than that of a guest choreographer he could easily endanger that by making works that pull them in a different direction. If you think the company can be a servant of two masters, look at history. Classical style, as Alexandra Tomalonis has said, isn’t something you can take down off the shelf like a cookie jar and leave unattended until needed again. It needs constant maintenance. McGregor is not trained in ballet; his wriggling, eel-like vocabulary with no center or axis, is antithetical to classical training. He isn’t qualified to be a resident choreographer at a major ballet institution. See Alexandra’s humorous take at Danceview Times.

There’s a good chance he doesn’t intend that sort of association; reading the article he has rather grand plans for collaborations and mentoring but no intention of giving up any other of his many committments.

That's a very old-fashioned perception. This is a much more mobile, fluid, multi-modal kind of arrangement. I want to develop a new set of relationships with the building and the organisation, to do things that aren't currently happening.

Actually committing yourself to an institution is so very single modedly Old School, you know.

He goes on to say:

I want to develop more choreographic mentoring, in-house here, to provide more opportunities for young choreographers.
Which should tick off the people at the ROH who already have these programs in place that he says are not happening.

Reading between the lines, one senses McGregor’s talent, if not for choreography (Chroma was a good work, not a great one – and the other stuff I’ve seen of his has been like watching MTV) then certainly for ambitious self-promotion. I would like to see dance regain respect among intellectuals at well, but can't we do it with less pretentiousness?

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December 15, 2006

Some signs of good dance (or other critical) writing

This is like one of the tests in Cosmo: Are you being attacked by a rabid wolverine? Answer these 10 easy questions and find out!

It's good dance writing if:

All the signs don’t have to be there. But the good stuff has a few of them.

For the knitters - a knitting post is coming up soon, I promise.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:43 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 14, 2006

How not to write a press release

From a release received today from Dance New Amsterdam:

B.J. Sullivan, the New York native responsible for “safety release technique”, created Walk-in-Closet in an attempt to eradicate the dichotomy between the selves we present to the world, and the selves that we keep behind closed doors.

What wrong with this description? It sounds like a grant proposal rather than a release because the sentence describes not what the dance is, but what it's trying to do. As I've said before, the goal of a critic isn't the same as the goal of a grant maker. I don't care what the social benefits of the dance are or what the dance is trying to do (I'll make that decision myself from watching it, thanks); I need to know what it is. What's the music, how many people are in it. Is it possible to describe a moment of the dance - particularly one that gives a picture of the entire mood? Use descriptive language and get a picture in our minds.

The language choices don't work here. "Attempt" weakens the idea that "eradicate" wants to convey. "Dichotomy" in context seems pretentious. The idea of a walk-in closet as a metaphor for a private life is a powerful and familiar one; better language could connect the dots. A possible example (with completely made up facts - my apologies to BJ Sullivan)

BJ Sullivan breaks into the hidden spaces in our lives in Walk-in-Closet, a tense dance for women who spy on each other's private moments while Bernard Hermann's movie soundtracks drone ominously in the background.

Also, while "release technique" is familiar to most NY dance writers, "safety release technique" without an explanation just provokes humorous visions of Susan Klein and Barbara Mahler dancing to Men Without Hats. I know space is limited, but explain the idea - and why I need to know about it - or leave it out.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:10 PM | TrackBack

December 13, 2006

Critiquing the Critics

Time Out New York has just published an article critiquing the New York critics in several fields including dance. Like much of what TONY does, it’s aimed more at titillation than at stimulating discussion. TONY decided to work in the form of a survey, which dooms the enterprise at the outset: There is too small a group of respondents (though there may be more I don't know, in the list of panelists I recognize seven names as dance professionals) for any type of real analysis. But numbers and rankings are more sexy than a discussion. I’m rather surprised TONY didn’t give each of them stars.

Here’s a do it yourself guide to evaluating a critic. It takes more work, but you’ll learn more from it:

Go to a performance, one popular enough that you know it will be reviewed by several papers. Think about what you saw. Now read every report you can possibly find on the same performance.

Apollinaire Scherr, a critic at Newsday, blogger at Artsjournal and one of those reviewed, wisely notes that, “to say that a critic's got ‘good taste’ is just saying, ‘She's like me!’” At the same time, how close a critic’s viewpoint is to your own – I refer to it as “overlap” – is important and useful to know when reading them. I’ve learned that certain colleagues will usually dislike something I enjoy and with others I have a relatively close overlap. Overlap does matter. Reading a review by someone with whom I have almost no overlap is like visiting a parallel universe. Often it’s instructive; sometimes it’s disorienting or even infuriating. Still, reading contrary opinions helps you define your own aesthetic.

There are less subjective criteria. Depth of viewing is important. Openness is as well, the openness to realize that each performance needs to be judged on its own merits, and that not only is ballet not modern, but French ballet is not American ballet is not English ballet is not Release Technique is not Graham is not Cunningham is not Tanztheatre. A critic should not judge one form or aesthetic by another’s goals. (And that, Mr. Rockwell, is another reason why the differences between them matter.) The nuts and bolts of being a good writer matter as well, although there is one writer I can think of, who when someone criticized that critic’s pedestrian writing style, I responded, “But at least I know I went to the same performance.”

Update 12/15/2006: More thoughts on the subject here.

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October 30, 2006

Todd Bolender (1914-2006) on Agon

In honor of Mr. Bolender's life I'm offering the transcript of the phone conversation we had regarding Agon. It was the only contact I ever had with him. The Library for the Performing Arts has Bolender on film in the 1960 taping of Agon discussed below, and I also recall a very interesting interview with him conducted by Billie Mahoney for Dance On.

Leigh Witchel Interview notes with Todd Bolender (by telephone) on Balanchine's Agon 4/9/97 8:30 p.m. (EDT)

Do you have any idea why you were cast to do Agon?
I haven't the faintest idea.

Do you remember how Balanchine taught the ballet? Counts, Rhythms, Metaphors?
He taught the opening quartet first. The solo parts came later, though he worked very fast.

Were the rehearsals usually full-cast or only specific parts?
Done totally in piecemeal - worked a lot at night, because they were on Broadway and classes were held in the studio during the day. They would work on different sections and in different studios. He recalls many rehearsals being on stage.

Were there specific corrections he gave repeatedly? (i.e. sharper, jazzier - et al?)
He was always after clarity of movement and dynamics, he didn't push with words, just asked you to try again, and he would demonstrate how he wanted it.

Were there changes made in the first year?
"There were no changes I know of until I left. - upon reflection, there was one thing changed in the finale of the trio." It was a minor change, but doesn't remember specifically. [Bolender left NYCB in 1962 - returned in 1971 to dance The Concert] "No one else danced the role until I left, I didn't teach Villella the role. The only person I ever taught a role to was Arthur Mitchell, in The Four Temperaments." [Phlegmatic].

Was the ballet set to counts - were the counts of the ballet always the counts of the score, or did it have an independent rhythm? Were counts added later?
"I got to a point where I simply gave up counting. He taught it to counts, but they were always so peculiar" Milly [Melissa Hayden] and Diana [Adams] insisted on counting - and they were insistent about their correctness. They were counting on stage "to the bitter end." He remembers hearing them hiss their final count under their breath as they took the last pose with the arm across the chest in the opening. "I finally did it primarily by ear, sometimes it would be necessary to close your ears to their counts. I almost never counted anything ever." For the variation, he did it by listening, the relationship to the music was so specific.

How hard was the ballet for the original cast?
"It was 'breath taking'" - very taxing (he remembers always feeling like there was not enough time between his var and the coda in the pas de trois. The female duet is very brief.) "The intricacy of the movement made it exhausting and the precision necessary. I remember working endlessly [with Balanchine on the pas de trois] before performances, even after we opened, on the pas de trois, it was the heightening, to make it even better. And it was always somehow the last rehearsal in the afternoon before performances." Kept trying to refine it. No changes of steps, pushed dynamics.

About how long did it take to make the dance? (The order in which it was made?)
made VERY quickly

Were there changes that occurred in the ballet the first year? Simplifications?
No changes, but as he said, refinements, and Balanchine kept rehearsing it to get specific precise dynamics.

The 1960 filming:

Do you remember anything about the circumstances of the film? Was it a difficult shoot? Was any spacing or steps changed?
"I do indeed, because I lost my shoe at the beginning of the variation - during the drags on the heel at the beginning of the variation, I pulled the heel off." Bolender kicked his shoe off at the grands battement; it shot it into the wings. "John Taras used to say when re-setting 'Agon', 'Now this is is the place where Todd loses his shoe.' That was terrifying to Bolender. 'What do I do? Bend down and throw it off stage?' [The shoe comes off his right foot on the last heel drag. He battements it into the wings a few seconds later when he does a back curve.]

Seeing the ballet again after leaving the company (must have been late 60's, early 70's)
When he saw Agon again, he saw how difficult it was - and how wonderful Tony Blum was in his role. Very pleased to see it performed in such in such a manner. Not sure if he ever saw Eddie [Villella] do it. Might have seen Allegra in the lead, quite different from Diana (majestic, commanding) but quite wonderful (seeing something something so beautiful, but it's inconceivable that it could happen in just that way.) fragile, feminine. Balanchine would often cast a totally different body type as a successor to the role. Did not feel that the performance and quality of the lead affected the other dancers, though "It certainly would have never affected me." He would watch quite a bit (since his part was in the beginning) and loved to watch the work. Liked Watts and Tobias particularly. Was never asked to coach the role, and feels that he would refuse, simply a question of memory. "With Four T's it took me years to learn how to perform that, and it was by doing it over and over again, and with Agon I didn't have that time."

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October 21, 2006

Portland: Coming and Leaving II

Bernie dropped me off at the hotel and I met my friend Joan Schrouder shortly after to go to Oregon Ballet Theatre. Joan is a knitting buddy. She teaches nationally; she and I met a decade ago at Stitches. After a quick Thai meal we walked to the Keller Auditorium. The crowd milling in front of the theater was more dressed up than I had anticipated; I forgot this was the opening night of the season.

When I invited Joan, I described the program as being “a great program for someone who doesn’t get to go to the ballet all the time.” This isn’t an insult; that’s 99% of OBT’s audience. We’re spoiled in the dance capitals. The company was bringing The Four Temperaments and The Concert to Portland for the first time. It was heartening to see the house very full. OBT danced 4Ts as I’ve seen other smaller regional companies do it – like a precious gift. It’s great to see it from a fresher perspective. Francia Russell, artistic director Christopher Stowell’s mother (and director emeritus at Pacific Northwest Ballet) set this version – which is slightly different than City Ballets (think pink lampshades instead of white ones). We know each other tangentially from the series of interviews I did with her in 1997 about Agon and Melissa Hayden’s coaching sessions at the Balanchine Foundation but we’ve talked more often than she’s seen me. I waved at her from my seat and she returned the greeting with the sickly look I recognized from the times I’ve had to warmly greet someone while I was racking my brains trying to figure out who they were.

A group of PNB dancers (I recognized Benjamin Griffiths and Jordan Pacitti) were two rows behind me to cheer on their fellow dancers; sure enough, there was Peter.

“You again!” I pointed at him in mock accusation.

“You’re everywhere,” he said, bemused.

The best part of all was that Joan loved the evening. It’s such a joy to take someone to the ballet that doesn’t usually get to go.

Sunday morning I was scheduled to meet internet knitting buddies at Mabel’s, a yarn shop/café. Just as I was about to find the #4 bus Gary called and asked me if I wanted a ride in the rain. We drove through bohemian neighborhoods across the Willamette River. I met Duffy and Melissa there and we spent a relaxing morning knitting and gabbing. I worked primarily on the sleeve of Owen Robert’s Aran. Duffy was starting the toe of a sock; Melissa was working on afghan squares in a mauve ombre alpaca and Gary was making a very simple scarf but in the most tactile yarn – Jo Sharp Alpaca Georgette. Really tasty stuff; we were all copping a feel. I took a tour round the shop, but beyond the Blackberry scone (thank you, Gary!) and the almond hot chocolate; I remained on my yarn diet.

I met Bernie and his daughter Gwen at the matinee. Gwen is getting ready to go down to Miami City Ballet to study at the school. Unfortunately but understandably, the Keller auditorium was more sparsely populated than at the opening and the performance was slightly weaker. One of the big differences between a smaller company and a major one is the depth of the company in casting. That’s a direct function of size. OBT may double cast each ballet, but they don’t really have two casts.

After the performance we walked around the fountain directly opposite the theater and I took a picture reminiscent of the Japanese Gardens.


We then went out for the seafood I had been craving at Jake’s. When in Portland, go to Jake's (Yes, it's part of a chain. No, it doesn't taste that way at all.) Get the crab and shrimp cakes, and also the Dungeness Crab Leg cocktail. They go perfectly together. If you ask nicely, the waiters might do half orders (ours added a crab cake to the plate to make for even splitting). I placed myself in the amiably pushy waitress' hands (I like waitresses who tell you what’s particularly good on the menu) and she insisted I have the locally caught wild salmon and then the Chocolate Bag for dessert. The salmon was cedar plank roasted with slight woody tang and exactly as she promised, the chocolate bag containing white chocolate mousse and berries in raspberry sauce was lighter than the description made one suspect. It was an absolutely wonderful meal, as was the company.

On Monday morning the sky began a sodden gray, but as in Vermont, the weather in Portland changes rapidly because of the mountains. It brightened up about an hour later and I had just enough to have time for a walk along the river – the hotel was right next to it. There were flocks of geese, leaves turning colors, boats and joggers.


I bought a blueberry muffin from a shop on the walk and sat down on a bench to watch the river.



By the time I rode back to the airport on light rail it was overcast again, but the scenery was still lovely with grays, greens and yellows. Portland, like Seattle, is a city that prides itself on quality of life; clean public transit and free wifi in the airport. It seems almost quaint to a New Yorker, we don’t do “quality of life” here. But then again, we can’t.

On the walk back from the river just as I got back to the Four Points, I paused to admire a climbing rose on the side of the hotel. Most of the flowers were fading, but lower down one was still in full flower.


It was a lovely way to say goodbye to the City of Roses.

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October 3, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - the season revs up

Three performances this week, all on duty for Danceview Times

10/3/06 Reich@70 at BAM - Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Akram Khan each perform dances to Reich's music.

10/5/06 Fall for Dance at City Center - a mix including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Random Dance, Christopher WIlliams and Farruco

10/6/06 Pandit Birju Maharaj - a legend of Kathak dance, at Symphony Space

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October 2, 2006



I sometimes wonder about my willingness to travel great distances for only a short period; it took as long to get here as to get to London. It was worth it; Seattle is quite pretty and it was a very productive weekend.

United Airlines flight 689 to Seattle involved a plane change at O’Hare but both planes operated with the same flight number. I packed lightly and dutifully put my toiletries in a Ziploc bag as part of our country’s ongoing War on Moisture. Security lines were slightly longer than I recalled but this was a peak time. At 3 pm on Friday it took about 20 minutes from arrival to the gate. I had requested to upgrade my fare with miles, but United had sent the wrong plane; an Airbus 320 that was part of their TED fleet instead of a Boeing 757. TED planes are all coach seating; I got no upgrade but what the hell, the fare was $141 roundtrip. I bet there were at least a few mildly ticked off elite passengers. A fellow in my row was bumped out of Economy Plus into a middle seat of . . .what’s the regular area called? Steerage? Economy Minus? Because of the late arrival of the incoming plane and runway delays at LaGuardia we were nearly an hour late into O’Hare; we arrived in B concourse and my connection to Seattle left from C17 in 33 minutes. I’m glad I packed light. I sprinted to C17 and said to the gate agent, “Hi, I just arrived from the New York leg of flight 689. Do I have time to pee?” Luckily, I did.

The ORD-SEA leg was on the proper aircraft (do they levy a fine for flying an Airbus into Sea-Tac airport, original home town of Boeing?). An hour into the flight I realized that the woman behind me was also knitting a sock, so that led to a very pleasant conversation that passed the hours until landing. We made up time on this leg so I only arrived in Seattle 30 minutes late and took the Kings County public bus into downtown. It’s the most inexpensive way to get downtown ($1.25) but there was quite a cast of characters on the bus; several inebriated vagrants, one of whom shouted “WOLVERINES!” when we hit Michigan Avenue, a pack of black girls jeering the vagrants and in the front several hapless tourists including me, all clutching our suitcases bemusedly. It wasn’t at all threatening. Just odd.

I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel at about 11:30 pm PDT. I left the office at around 1:45 pm EDT so it was more than half a day’s journey and my body thought it was 2:30 am. Though I arrived late, luck was on my side. The nice desk clerk gave me a corner room (perhaps a junior suite? It’s a living room and a small bedroom) on the 21st floor with views.






So they’re of the highway, what the heck. The large buff colored building down the highway at the right is the headquarters for Amazon.

The Renaissance a nice hotel, though about due for a renovation; the decor feels slightly stale. At the price I paid ($65/night), no complaints at all. Free wireless in the lobby; a fitness center on the 28th floor. The fitness center is not great, not merely because the treadmill attacked me without provocation. There’s one Universal weight machine and no bench so weight training is limited to impossible. If all you want to do is use a stair climber or treadmill, it should be fine. There is a pool and whirlpool as well.

My friend Sandi and I met the next day and we caught up and then played tourist. Lunch was at Maximilien in the public market; the food was good, the view of the sound lovely (Sandi obligingly pointed out the mad parasailors madly parasailing in the cold water). The service was fine until when Sandi requested the check and the waiter pointedly put it in front of me because I was the man. Dude, I know you’re French, but it’s Seattle.

We played tourist and walked through the Public Market. I got fresh doughnuts from one stand; Sandi went to her favorite bakery and got croissants; in between we went to a cheese maker. As Sandi noted, they eat well out here. I’ve been to Seattle for only three short visits, but it did seem to be a city that prides itself on lifestyle. After lunch, we did a drive along the water – several different waterfronts. Seattle’s surrounded by them. In the evening, we went to PNB together.

I haven’t seen Peter Boal since well before he left for Seattle; we spotted each other immediately as he came from backstage into the auditorium. It was a warm meeting, but we each were trying to be respectful of the fact that there was a professional conflict; I was reviewing his company. What the hell, at this point I’m used to it. I’ve written my review and honestly believe it’s not different than what I would have written had I not known him. It was not, however, the review I thought I would write. I took a different angle. I assumed I would spend most of the review on Carla Körbes – for a New York audience she’s the most newsworthy thing – but she only danced in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and did fine, but she’s not a natural choice for the role; she’s a little too soft. So the review became more general. The company looks fine; rather than coming in and overhauling, Peter has mostly continued the work Kent Stowell and Francia Russell started.

I saw the matinee the following day. Walking there I took Sandi’s doughnut suggestion and stopped off at Top Pot Doughnuts, considered Mecca for the doughnutophile. I had a maple dipped old fashioned and a Double Trouble (a chocolate glazed chocolate doughnut). They were cakey and moist, but I’m about as discerning with doughnuts as I am with wine. I liked the ones I had in the Public Market more because they were still warm.

In the Middle got an electric performance from the first cast. Patricia Barker is retiring at the end of the season (Peter announced her farewell performance, which will be put together by him and Barker – as June 10, 2007); her performance in In the Middle was a fine way to say farewell to the role. Carrie Imler sailed through Theme. No surprise, she’s another CPYB girl; I know of three in the company (Imler, Noelani Pantastico and Kara Zimmerman).

For dinner, I wandered to the waterfront because I had a fish craving. I tried Elliott’s Oyster House and spent good money on good fish; a Dungeness Crab cocktail to start and a more elaborate grilled Coho salmon dish. The quality of the both the crab and salmon was quite good, but I still have nostalgia for when there were simple fish dives you could get a plate of broiled fish (and the plate had a blue or red rim), a baked potato in silver foil and two side dishes. I bet Seattle has them; I just don’t know where they are.

I got a tremendous amount of writing finished on this trip; an article on knit care for Knit.1; two pieces revamped from this blog for the newsletter of the Dance Critic’s Association and the PNB review. I even got plenty of knitting done (progress on a pair of socks and a baby sweater – I’ll blog on both soon.) Put me in a clean hotel room with a handsome view and the possibilities are endless.

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October 1, 2006

Out of Britain

The British are still writing about dance as if it mattered.

In the Guardian, John O’Mahony is reporting on Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies, described in its press release as "The most damning comment on the horror, personal devastation and hypocrisy produced in any art form since the Iraq war began." Forsythe has never been one for understatement.

O’Mahony managed to get a written statement out of Arlene Croce that almost replayed the Still/Here controversy of ’94:

Choreographers mix dance with politics because it is the only way to get attention. And get grants too, probably. The importance of a work is equated with the nobility of the sentiment it expresses. I've stopped attending dance attractions because the last thing I want to see is dancers wasting their time on some high-minded godawful piece of choreography. I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am.

Croce’s not one for understatement either. Useless vitriol aside, there is a lesson there. I harp constantly on the best use of a medium. Dance depicts emotional states beautifully. It does facts and figures badly. It can be made to do it by mixing media and using the spoken word or projections, but there comes a point when what a choreographer wants to do no longer wants to be a dance. At that point it’s time to start thinking about doing an essay or a play.

If a choreographer is going to mix media or do topical work, it’s no longer only judged as a dance. Unsuccessful dances that included written narrative in them didn’t fail because the idea couldn’t work, but because they were made by talented choreographers who were untalented writers. In the same way, if you do a dance on Iraq, you need to be as knowledgeable about Iraq as you are about choreography.

In the Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen talks about the British reality series Ballet Hoo and Brendan McCarthy at Dancerdance, which has happily reanimated, takes the opposing view.

I’m sympathetic to Christiansen, possibly because the incomprehension of the difference between professional and amateur is more pervasive in the United States than in Britain. It’s part of our national fantasy that in the same way that anyone can grow up to be president, everyone is interesting and capable of being an artist the moment they put pen to paper, paint to canvas or step on a stage.

Of course, and alas, none of this is true. But when arts advocacy groups talk about the large audience numbers for ballet, that number probably includes all the families that went to see a dance school recital. They may have gone to see a ballet in name, but what they’ve really gone to do is see their daughter on stage in a sequined costume. The moment she gets bored with it and plays soccer instead, their association with the ballet ends. What Christiansen calls “the post-Victorian tradition of self-motivated self-improvement” happened here too, but is dying out. A senior dance writer whose father was a truck driver talks of his family making regular Sunday trips to either a museum or the symphony or the ballet, all from the simple firm belief that culture was self-improvement.

There are plenty of reasons this is dying out. Television isn’t helping; it offers entertainment without effort or expense. Ticket and admission prices are costly, especially for dance and live theater. But I also think the very belief that culture improves one is under attack. This is why I agree with Brendan that shows like Ballet Hoo are important. Christiansen is right that the fantasy that amateur art is professional is debilitating but the art has to be on their radar in the first place. The most important thing we need to do is get parents and children away from their TVs and into museums and the theater. Not only for children’s theater as a franchised extension for TV entertainment – “Dora the Explorer” live on stage! All that manages to do is reinforce TV watching habits – but for them to get used to the theater as a place of communal expression of culture. And therein lies the conflict – whose culture? Who decides?

In Spiked Online, Josie Appleton takes up the culture cudgel with a vengeance in an interview with Jeffery Taylor, “Where are the Margot Fonteyns?” Mr. Taylor is the proverbial Grumpy Old Man. “In my day, our teachers groped and insulted us and WE LIKED IT.” I’ve had inspiring old school teachers and abusive old school teachers. I’ve never heard of a parent who, when the need for touching a student was explained, didn’t allow it. The teachers I recall most fondly (it’s not actually a ballet teacher, but my 7th grade French teacher, Jacob Miller, a tough bastard with a very tender heart known as Jake the Snake) was the most stringently demanding. Kids respond to challenges, especially when they know that the teacher passionately cares.

I recall (happily with amusement; I was 20 by then and was old enough to handle such things) a teacher who taught a stretching class and put his hand right in my crotch to “show” a stretch. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I really wanted to say, “I don’t turn out from there. Really.” A few years later in men’s class I jokingly commented to a friend regarding the teacher, “He’s groped every other guy in the class. I guess he doesn’t like me.”

People aren’t objecting to touching, they are objecting to abusive touching. They are not objecting to demanding the best from a student; they objecting to demeaning, insulting abuse. Abusive behavior in a situation of absolute authority such as dance training is going to happen sooner rather than later without supervision and self-policing. Abusive behavior masquerading as Old School teaching sounds like a bad excuse for not having learned a better way to inspire and motivate students.

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September 25, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Bicoastal Edition

9/26 - Joyce Theater, New York. Shen Wei Dance Arts, Re - and The Rite of Spring on duty for Danceview Times. I've met once Wei briefly; we both became Guggenheim Fellows the same year.

9/30, 10/1 - McCaw Hall, Seattle. Pacific Northwest Ballet, Director's Choice It's a program of tried and true works; Fancy Free, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated and Theme & Variations. I'm on duty for Ballet Review, and curious to see how Carla Körbes, newly promoted to principal dancer, is doing. And yes, what Peter Boal is up to, but that's a no-win situation for me to write on (if I like it, I'm toadying; if I dislike it, I'm bitter) and why I picked this program because I could legitimately focus on the dancers rather than the direction.

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September 17, 2006

New Ballet Choreography at the Miller Theatre

I’m off duty, so this hasn’t gone through a several drafts and polishings, but for the record – here it is.

Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, directed by George Steel, and Mary Sharp Cronson’s Works and Process presented three choreographers, Tom Gold, Edwaard Liang and Brian Reeder in an evening of new ballet. Liang’s work is the only one I’ve seen before.

Gold did a work to songs by John Zorn played live by the Masada trio. The live music all evening was a wonderful hallmark, and something I’m sure both co-producers of the evening are known for and proud of. Masada Songs was most remarkable for bringing Ashley Bouder back to the stage after an injury as well as having four more NYCB golden girls in the cast. Surrounding Bouder with Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, Ana Sophia Scheller and Georgina Pazcoguin is an embarrassment of riches.

The work itself didn’t live up to the cast. Gold doesn’t list any other choreography in his bio so I assume it isn’t his main focus. He doesn’t think like a choreographer; there were things that should have been learned and hammered out before having an audience see your work. His choreographic sense isn’t sharp – it equates Jewish songs with indeterminate Oriental head waggling that Edward Said would have been thrilled to see at Columbia. The work also showed a hidden trap for inexperienced choreographers: Don’t work with dancers better than your ideas. Instead of forcing you to confront and fix them, they will make them work somehow.

Liang did two small pas de deux, one for Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans to Phillip Glass and the second for Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. The first work, Softly as I speak, worked as a vehicle for Kowroski to show how far she has come in focusing her artistry. The music for the second work, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, was only recently used by Christopher Wheeldon in Quaternary, his piece for SFB, and that seems applicable to the familiarity of the choreography as well. In both dimly lit pieces, the dancers were the usual couple contorting and groping towards understanding. At this point, Liang is making generic Modern Ballet Pas de Deux and he hasn’t yet found the thing that will separate him from the other trees in the forest. His musicianship won’t help; for an evening of New Ballets to New Music, choosing Glass and Pärt is about as far inside the comfort zone as possible. One got the sense that Steel, who called the evening as jovially as possible “New Ballets to New-ish Music” in his curtain speech knew this too. Perhaps Steel needs to start exercising some curatorial imperative instead of allowing mass market music choices in a musical season that’s otherwise built on artistic daring.

Reeder is the most experienced choreographer and it shows in his facility with phrasing and craft. He also worked well with unfamiliar music, a Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 2. Friedman is a young composer and his quartet was interesting and listenable. It seemed as if it was not composed with dance in mind, but Reeder rose well to that challenge. Them had a hint of a plot involving the interactions of an outsider (Joseph Gorak) against a group. For every ballet, there seems to be a balance of narrative and abstraction that is the right one; Them seemed to be uncomfortably stuck in a place where it wanted either to be more abstract and have the narrative allusions edited out or to have less abstracted dance and concentrate on telling the story. Because of this, the ballet wasn’t as affecting as it could have been, but I’d like to see more of Reeder’s works. I would not be surprised if a future ballet gets that balance just right. Reeder’s dancers, members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, are less professionally advanced than the other dancers in the evening but showed no less promise. The men (Gorak, Roddy Doble, Thomas Forster and Eric Tamm) all have the sort of pulled out proportions and legs that seem only possible in the young.

As a dance house, the Miller isn’t a perfect fit. The sightlines from the audience aren’t good (I was only four rows back and my view was blocked by people in front of me) and the stage doesn’t breathe. The low proscenium pens in Kowroski, a dancer with opera house proportions, and leaves too little air and space around her. But as with the other less than perfect houses for dance in the city, thanks to them for making the effort at all. The Miller is primarily a music house; Steel’s specialty is new music and overlooked music from other eras and he’s made a name for himself as a discerning curator. It will be exciting to see the dance curation achieve the same level.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:46 PM | TrackBack

September 15, 2006

Leigh's Dance (and Knitting) Card

The dance season is starting again for me -

Tonight I'm going to see the program of new choreography at the Miller Theatre. I'm not on duty with this one (my friend Aleba is doing the PR and I assisted slightly with that, so I'm happy to avoid yet another conflict of interest)

I'm teaching a workshop on entrelac tomorrow at the Long Island Knitting and Crochet Guild's "Day of Learning". I've got a love-hate relationship with the technique; you can make some gorgeous mosaic-like effects with it, but it's incredibly fiddly. I do it once every several years after I've forgotten just how tedious it was the last time I did it.

On Sunday, I'll be at the New York Knit Out, a chaotic yarnapalooza in Union Square. When I'm not overwhelmed by the crowd and hiding in a corner, it's a lot of fun and I get to see a few people I only see a couple of times a year.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 4:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 6, 2006

Kschessinska's memoirs

I’ve actually finished a book recently. This is more of an accomplishment than it sounds, since college, especially since I took up knitting because no matter what I try I cannot knit and read at the same time, I feel like I’ve become a functional illiterate.

But in dribs and drabs I managed to finish Mathilde Kschessinska’s memoirs, Dancing in Petersburg. Kschessinka was a prima ballerina assoluta (one of the few who legitimately held the title) of the Mariinsky Theater and also the lover of Tsar Nicholas II . . . as well as several of his relations, eventually marrying his cousin, the Grand Duke André.

It’s a juicy story and she lived in, as the Chinese say, interesting times, but her memoirs are even more fascinating as a study in narrative voice than they are as history. Kschessinska is decidedly selective about what she tells the reader and even as she tells an incident you’re aware that facts are being left out. She was ebullient, scheming, self-justifying, talented, affectionate, beautiful, formidable and a survivor. A cuddly monster.

The book gives a vivid picture of court and theater life at St. Petersburg before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Her stories about her run-ins with theater management or her ambivalent relationship with Pavlova are fascinating – especially the way Kschessinska tries to gloss over the fights. Beyond her servants, Kschessinska is blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) with the life of the working class in Russia and the forces that impelled social upheaval, but their invisibility to her tells you something as well. I wish she had written more about the ballets she danced, but like many great dancers she only seems to know them from the perspective of her own performance; the accolades - and the presents - she received.

She wrote her memoirs in the 1950s and died in 1971 just shy of her 100th birthday. Close to the end of the book she becomes briefly philosophical.

Nijinsky’s memory leads me to an analysis of what separates us from the new generations. Modern dancers, I am happy to say, greatly surpass their predecessors in technique. It is only natural that technique should advance. But few of these dancers are comparable with Rosita Mauri, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vera Trefilova, Olga Preobrajenska, Olga Spessivtseva. Their acting is not as powerful as that of the ballerinas of old.

. . .

Today’s dancers, ready to sacrifice everything on the altar of a frenzied technique, seem to forget that virtuosity without soul is dead art. Their technique is so extraordinary that one wonders how they achieved such results; but these feats leave us cold and cannot give the spectator the least feeling or emotion.

(Kschessinska Memoirs p. 266)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Kschessinska is probably comparing dancers from an extremely strong period in the Mariinsky’s history to dancers from a fallow period at the Paris Opera, which could be part of the complaint. There is also a human tendency to believe in deterioration. Part of what we see as deterioration is a shift in cultural expectations and cues. In correspondence I had with Bob Gottlieb, who’s been watching dance in New York a good three decades more than I, he described a dancer as uninteresting and cold. I found that dancer warm and fascinating; there was a gulf in perception that was more than just taste. The cues he learned that say “fascinating” to him are different than the ones I learned and that the cues and standards of people twenty years younger than me are already different as well. Gottlieb’s standards aren’t incorrect, nor are mine. But I’m already seeing the same gulf after only two decades and I imagine it will only get more pronounced when I’m older and complaining that they don’t make ‘em like Darci Kistler anymore.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:12 PM | TrackBack

August 30, 2006

Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Pinky?

Jaimie Tapper today announced her retirement from the Royal Ballet.

She was only publicly announced in casting for Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker, so those will have to be re-cast, but that's only the immediate effect.

It means there's a slot for a female principal open.

Doubtless it won't be filled immediately, but looking at the roster of female First Soloists you can guess who my money is on.

I don't think it's just bias. Given her situation and the fact that (like the recently promoted Sarah Lamb) she dropped down in rank to come to the company, I think she's the most likely candidate.

I'm curious to see if how they re-cast Tapper's performances gives any sense of how the wind is blowing. Tapper was to dance Beauty with Bonelli and Nuts with Pennefather - Alexandra did Tschai pas with Bonelli and is dancing Beauty with Pennefather.

We shall see . . .

[Thanks to Jane for the tip!]

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August 23, 2006

Food for thought

George Jackson pens a very interesting opening to his review at Danceview Times of Trey McIntyre's work at Jacob's Pillow.

Expectations differ for up-and-coming ballet choreographers and for their counterparts in contemporary dance. In ballet the choreographers themselves and their clienteles put more emphasis on craft than on vision. It is the nuts-and-bolts, the tooling, the finish of a new ballet that gets comments from fans and from the press. Making a piece in the manner of this or that famous example is expected and, indeed, considered desirable. So what if the work has no singular, original, innovative vision? Skeptics even argue that there’s no such thing as real novelty because, if you look closely, ballet choreographers have been copying their teachers’ dance pieces since the dawn of the artform and only the handwriting is new.

He's certainly describing how I judge a ballet work. I'm not looking for pastiche, but I do think originality as a driving force for creation is overrated, and if a work isn't soundly crafted, I usually don't care how expressive it is.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:28 PM | TrackBack

August 17, 2006

R.I.P Clark Reid

The first item a few days ago in the links section at Ballet Talk was one I really did not want to see – Clark Reid’s obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal - the city where he had a long career as a principal dancer in the Louisville Ballet. There is a second obituary with a photo, guest book, and condolences in the Salt Lake Tribune; he had danced with Ballet West before going to Kentucky.

Clark and I knew each other informally as occasional ‘net buddies way back when on alt.arts.ballet and he invited me to participate in the Choreographer’s Showcase at Louisville Ballet in 2002. He was a decent man who kept his word, honest and passionate to a fault. He treated me very fairly, and assembled a cast of dancers for me that was better than the one I could have picked myself.

I think I only saw Clark dance once, back in 1990 when I was dancing in Lexington and went to Louisville to see their company. He danced in Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets, playing the resistance fighter who gets hanged. When I mentioned it to him, he wrote back,

When I thought I had done just about everything on stage, I get bound, hung upside down and shot. And then dragged around in a pas de deux.
Typical Clark.

Clark’s great role was Billy the Kid. I asked to see the ballet while I was in Louisville, all they had was an archive tape shot in wide angle, but I got to see it. Clark excelled in character parts from a vanishing repertory, Billy or Mac in Filling Station.

Clark posted infrequently on Ballet Talk, but once when I asked him he wrote about Billy (look for the post by "cerky") and his approach to the role. He jokes about not being much of a writer, but you can see his understanding was the deep instinct of a performer – he didn’t analyze a role; he experienced and lived it.

He was a beloved teacher but there was so much he could have taught. 51 was way too young to go.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:21 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 10, 2006

Melissa Hayden 1923-2006

Photo by Carl van Vechten, 1956

Milly Hayden was one tough cookie.

I met her only once in 2000, for a coaching session under the aegis of the Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreter’s Archive and wrote the first piece in a series on the project. I had conducted a phone interview with her nearly three years before, regarding Agon.

Anna Kisselgoff’s obituary captures her spirit as a performer better than I ever could. She retired from NYCB close to a decade before I started watching, and now taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I had heard the horror stories. She ate adolescent girls for breakfast. One of my favorite students from Burklyn Ballet would call me in tears; finally she quit. The boys always said they had an easier time with her.

When I called to interview her, she asked questions suspiciously, rapid fire. “Well, what to you want me to say?” she snapped.

I guessed that she was like Antony Tudor and this was a test. Back down, and she would move in for the kill. So I didn’t.

“Why don’t you just talk and I’ll type?” I said. So she talked. As she talked, from the questions I asked about her variation, she realized that I actually knew it. Her demeanor changed. We talked for well over an hour, at the end of which she admitted in surprise that she had a wonderful time. After I stopped sweating, so did I.

In her memory, here are the notes of that interview – they’ve not been published in raw form before.

Interview with Melissa Hayden, June 6 1997 by phone at 12:00 noon on the subject of Agon

Do you have any idea why you were cast to do Agon? (laughs) Not a clue.

Do you remember how Balanchine taught the ballet? It was a wonderful experience. Called to a rehearsal on 83/Mad in the small studio. Called to a rehearsal alone, which made me assume I had a solo. We walked in, and there is Mr. B and no pianist. But he sat down at the piano and played the notes - for himself. He then got up and said "try this". He indicated what he wanted, I did it. He said "This [the first phrase given] is now 7 counts." "Now try this" - and he made phrase of five, and another phrase of five and then a six count phrase. He showed the movements, and then he played, and I could hear what he meant. 7-5-5-7 and a 6. It fit perfectly. [the castanets moved in a regular 6 underneath an irregular rhythm. He was very much aware of this as he choreographed] The first part was made in half an hour - then the pianist came in another half hour and the variation was completed.

Were there specific corrections he gave repeatedly? (i.e. sharper, jazzier - et al?) I never got corrected, I did what he showed. He didn't change anything in the variation.

Were there changes made in the first year? Timing got off in the coda of the pas de trois - it had to be rehearsed more, but no changes were made.

Was there a rehearsal assistant? By the '60s, Rosemary Dunleavy.

The 1960 filming: [L’Heure du Concert, CBC]

Do you remember anything about the circumstances of the film? Was it a difficult shoot? Was any spacing or steps changed? Were there any alterations in the 2nd pas de trois for Verdy vs. Hayden? Why didn't Hayden do it at the filming? Was not there for the filming, was doing something else. She showed Violette the variation once, late at night. After that she did not have anything to do with how Violette did it. See below for further comments.

The move to State Theater: What sort of changes were made to accommodate the larger space? Very few changes. It's still done as if it were danced on a smaller stage, like Barocco. It can't be opened too much, you lose the patterns.

Who would have been responsible for the ballet at that time? Balanchine didn't bother with a ballet too much once it was done. After he did a ballet, it was finished - although when we traveled, he would rehearse the ballets more intensively at those times.

Did you see Suzanne and Allegra in the role? Do you think they changed how the company danced Agon as a whole? Vast difference between Suzanne and Allegra. Diana was stiffer and looked more manipulated. The most important thing about Balanchine is "sound" not music - its feeling, it "sings" underneath the movement. Villella was wonderful, he danced the pas de trois with Pat Neary and another woman. The original girls [Barbara Walczak and Barbara Milberg] got lost in Todd's performance, and were not very distinguishable - one only remembers Todd's performance, they were like fringe. She taught Karin von Aroldingen the variation. It was closest to the way she did it. The final pose is done with the hands primarily and was very subtle.

She went back into her part in the second pas de trois for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. By this point, the duet for the two men had become so that it was danced more straight up and down, more " two dimensional." She saw this in rehearsal and remarked to Balanchine, "Hey, this is the way the boys used to do it." "Oh yeah" and Balanchine began to show it more off balance. "It's's games." How you get from one step to another is up to the dancer. There are steps changed in the middle of the coda of the second pas de trois, to modify or simplify the movement. The changes were there by the time Gloria Govrin was there - slight changes, nearly the same, the original was possible and could have been done, but was slightly awkward.

The steps for the men in the 2nd duet haven't really changed. The style has changed. "Mr. B originally choreographed my variation at about 60 beats/minute, a very comfortable tempo. Then Stravinsky came and was checking tempos, the first pas de trois was just what he wanted, the second pas de trois entree was just fine. Then mine. The two heads came together. [She imitates Balanchine's nasal tone] 'Milly do you think you can dance it a little faster?' Well I did it, and there was still some room for style. The heads came together again. 'Milly do you think you can dance it a little faster?' Well it got spastic, and they saw the look on my face. It became a compromise between a 60 and a 72 tempo (66) How do I know that? I checked with the pianist." When we went to Russia it got so fast...

Did the 1957 premiere, through 1972. Came back to role because of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. It became a "tall" role when Gloria Govrin took the part. The tempo may have been slowed when the "big girls" did it. The variation has to be done with the accents up.

Extra information on the existence of films: To celebrate Stravinsky's 80th Birthday, a program consisting of Apollo, Orpheus (with Villella), and Agon was filmed in Hamburg and I was in it in the early 60's. Films of the company were made in the late 50's during the tour of Japan by NHK. Agon not filmed as it was not performed on tour. The pas de deux with McBride and Mitchell was filmed in Toronto around the early 60's.

Somewhere in Russia there is probably a film of Agon from the Bolshoi visit to NYC in 1959. They came and watched Serenade, Agon, Sym in C. put on stage without costumes. Diana Adams probably did 2nd mvt, she did 3rd mvt Sym in C with Eddie Villela. She remembers that day very clearly ("I wore a little pink skirt...")

Ballet tempo may have slowed when the big girls did it. Accents up.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:25 AM | TrackBack

August 9, 2006

Sound and Fury

Well, it’s August.

Lewis Segal started it off with a bang, with Five Things I Hate about Ballet, an article that looks like it was designed to stimulate more chatter than discussion. And people did indeed chatter.

I’m not sure refuting Segal’s arguments is worth the effort; the piece doesn’t seem to have been written to be taken too seriously but rather as fodder for a slow season. Then again, what is a blog other than chatter?

So here goes:

Paraphrasing his five points:

1. Ballet has less history than it pretends. Segal’s real objection seems to be to shoddy versions of the classics.

[D]on't let the myth of ballet's ancient primacy and long hold on Western culture keep you from openly dissing all that's dreadful in the contemporary perversions of 19th century classics that companies keep merchandising.

Fair enough, but it would be better stated as such. Ballet does have a history and tradition; the legacy needs better care rather than abandonment. Are we supposed to hate Swan Lake or campaign for a better one?

2. Ballet reinforces prejudiced and racist stereotypes. And so does The Merchant of Venice, but we still produce it. There is only so much one can judge art by standards that changed in society after it was made. I agree that there are certain stumbling blocks, such as parts in blackface – the Mariinsky still does this for the children in Bayadère – that either should be changed or given context for the audience. Still, I think the stereotypes Segal talks about are, in the end, less important and universal than the work itself. A feminist Giselle may be worth seeing, but it is no longer Giselle. People need to – and do – relate to Giselle, as a woman who rightly or wrongly dies for love and redeems her lover by her forgiveness. The original transcends the issue simply by committing to portraying its world wholly and honestly, and without the original, none of the variations have a context.

3. Ballet infantilizes and mechanizes its participants. Didn’t this one go out of fashion with Off Balance and Dancing on My Grave? As most of Balanchine’s ballerinas attested, no one let them feel more like themselves. In the years I danced, what Segal describes as infantilization I chose to accept as a form of voluntary discipline. It wasn’t easy, and I would not ask others to do it unwillingly (nor does it give a license for abuse of authority) but it’s like a religious vocation. The rewards are intangible and those on the outside may never fully understand why.

I recall dancing in the corps de ballet in the Snow scene of the Nutcracker over 15 years ago – a version with men in it. We had done 14 Nutcrackers in a row. I was tired and wondering where I was going to find the strength to do another show. The music came on; the snow started to fall. I listened to the Tchaikovsky. I lifted Eleanor, my partner, in a soaring arc to enter and I felt my place in the landscape and inside the music. I was there, with the other dancers, making something bigger than all of us. You can call me a cog in a wheel if you wish, but at that moment I knew more than any other exactly why I danced.

4. Ballet stars are compromising and not advancing the art. Well, I’d like to see a generation of better stars, but is this really one of the five biggest things you hate about ballet, Mr. Segal? Hollywood movie stars are earning millions of dollars for steaming piles of celluloid crap and you’re carping about ballet dancers selling out?

5. True beauty is endangered by mere prettiness. Again, Segal has a very good point. But is it a reason to hate ballet? Demand beauty! It is out there. Don’t settle for prettiness.

As others have pointed out, Segal is in Los Angeles, and the ballet situation there is transient. There’s no resident company (they’ve tried again and again, another one is starting up even now) and the touring companies he sees are world renowned, but on tour one sees snapshots rather than process.

John Rockwell at the Times weighed in as well. We are generally on the same side in this argument, so I wish I were not taking exception, but there is a point he makes that needs to be addressed because he makes it continually – it’s his shtick.

It seems as if every fourth article Rockwell brings up the specter of the Luddite balletomane who is against all progress. Occasionally they appear as “high minded critics” while he stalwartly represents the vox populi.

Fanatic balletomanes resist such change on the very grounds Mr. Segal uses to chide all of ballet. For them anything but classroom ballet technique degrades the form, and a search for relevance is a descent into gimmickry and perversion.

There are so many ballet magazines and ballet Web sites out there now that simply assume the superiority of ballet to all other forms of dance that it is nice to have a corrective.

John and I have had this discussion before. I’m calling bullshit. Let me try and make this explicit and clear.

John, if you’re going to insinuate that balletomanes think all dance forms are inferior to ballet, then you’ve got to come up with a better example than Jennifer Homans’ article, which I (a fanatic balletomane if ever there were one) didn't agree with either and where it’s only what you inferred. You’ve convinced yourself of this.

No one is arguing against change. Nor is anyone is arguing for absolute purity. If you say we are, cite it already.

We are arguing that the stuff currently being produced by crossover choreographers for ballet companies is lousy, often because they aren’t skilled enough at ballet and don’t know how or in what proportion to integrate it with their own vocabulary. I use this analogy frequently, but if you add a teaspoon of soy sauce to a pound of steak you get a well flavored steak. If you add a pound of soy sauce to a pound of steak you wind up with something inedible.

We are also not arguing against ballet and other forms ever mixing. We are arguing for better ballets, and we don't think the road to them is looking only outside the walls.

Anything but classroom ballet technique does not degrade the form. Any ballet without mastery of it does. A search for relevance is not a descent into gimmickry or perversion, but I’m far more interested in the artist saying what’s on his or her mind honestly than trying to be relevant.

Look, we all like ballet here. But you’re the chief dance critic of the chief paper in the United States. Enough with the strawmen already.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:35 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 28, 2006

San Francisco Ballet and the Ballet Pantheon

San Francisco Ballet’s visit to NY has been interesting as much for the good dancing as the calculated PR. I don’t feel “slimed” by the company's publicity efforts but I do feel like they’re here to show off. I talked to someone within the company who admitted as much. It was said off the record so I’m not ID’ing the person, but I doubt this is a secret, nor is it a bad thing.

The opening gala was well chosen to do show off. It was an assault (14 Ballets! FIRE ONE! Vertiginousthrillofexactitude! FIRE TWO! SwanLakeActII!) that deployed almost all of the soloist and above ranks at the company – and that is its strength. I’ll be writing more about the company for Dance View, Dance View Times and Ballet Review, but SFB’s ambitions got me thinking about what it means to be a top ranked company today.

The generally accepted Big Guns today are (in no order)

New York City Ballet
Royal Ballet (England)
Paris Opera Ballet
Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
Bolshoi Ballet
American Ballet Theatre
Royal Danish Ballet

I don’t know that the companies can be ranked, but I’ve seen them all.

New York City Ballet – there for one simple, enormous reason. Balanchine. But his legacy assures its position in the top ranks. Their performances of full-length classics are becoming more frequent and with a few exceptions can best be described as an accommodation.

Royal Ballet – the repository of Ashton’s work. People who have been watching longer than I have rightly complained that their versions of the classics are not as good as earlier versions. I can’t argue that, but I can say that their versions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are still better choreographically and logically than any other company’s on the list. With Monica Mason’s tenure, the company has also been in a period of consolidating its identity and strength. Right now, I find them inspiring.

Paris Opera Ballet – The best trained dancers of the lot. When these dancers bring their feet to their knees in retiré, they don’t fool around. The position is impeccably, perfectly isolated with level hips and shoulders and imperturbable placement. The Nureyev versions of the classics may “be discussed” as the French would say, though not his tenure as director. Tempestuous as he was, his eye for dancers was incredible and the company is still running on the momentum he gave them a decade and a half ago. The company has rarely had great repertory and today is no exception; it consists of a lot of barely ballet foisted upon it by a directorship uninterested in the classics. Paris is a sleeping giant; because of the excellence of the school it can lay moribund for years and awake at full strength – and it has before.

Mariinsky Ballet – I have not gotten to watch either of the Russian companies in the same detail as I have the previous companies. The Petersburgers are also well trained, though the French beat them on placement. I’m not fond of the Soviet versions of the classics (Swan Lake has a mandated happy ending in the Sergeyev setting) but they’re not the worst versions out there. At its best, it is magnificent but on my trip to St. Petersburg it looked like it was running on fumes (many people have said this is a company that is better on tour). The Russian coaching system (their top dancers are assigned coaches who mentor them in roles) is a wonderful thing but the company right now is in a leadership struggle between the director of the theater (Gergiev) and the director of the ballet (Vaziev) that has not yet erupted into its denouement.

Bolshoi Ballet – I’ve only seen the Bolshoi 3-4 times. There are a few ballets they own – their Don Quixote is delicious excess. What I have seen fit the stereotype; it’s the big passionate company where the Mariinsky emphasizes refinement. The company already went through its period of fighting in the directorship and with the relatively new tenure of Alexei Ratmansky seems to be heading into a good period.

American Ballet Theatre – Presently it has two New York seasons; a larger one at the Met where it performa mostly full-length ballets for economic reasons and then a shorter fall season in Oct. Nov at City Center when it does shorter works. Of the major companies, the one with the weakest identity. It has had some major works made for it (Antony Tudor worked here for many years, but after Lilac Garden; Balanchine made Theme and Variations for ABT), but its great selling point has always been stars – mostly imported but some home-grown. Though it has had a school intermittently, it hasn’t yet made a mark on a company style. The company's full length classics suffer because of this. It does a fine Giselle but its Swan Lake is execrable. Its eclecticism hurts them in the end; it's a company that's good in many things and great in nothing.

Royal Danish Ballet – also on this list for one reason only: the ballets of August Bournonville. Without them, it's another European state company.


San Francisco Ballet is not at the level of these companies, but it’s breathing hard down their necks. At the soloist level and above, they can compete. The corps is a notch down. Not all the top companies (metaphorically) have a corps; the heavy hitters are Paris and both Russian companies. NYCB’s corps, like everything it does, is particular to the Balanchine repertory. The Danes have never had that sort of institutional corps, it doesn’t even suit their theater where the stage is only 31 feet wide.

If San Francisco wants to move into the pantheon it needs to do one of several things. If it wants to compete with the Russians in the classics it needs to develop a corps de ballet on that level. If it wants to compete with the French it needs to be developing dancers of that caliber in its own school. If it wants to compete with NYCB it needs to produce, rather than import, repertory. Or it can take a path I haven’t even thought of, but the final requirement to join the top rank is that rather than following trends impeccably, the company will have to create them.

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July 25, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - I left my heart. . .edition

San Francisco Ballet is here this week and I'm covering it from several different aspects:

I'm covering the opening night celebration and the mixed rep program for Ballet Review, Mark Morris' Sylvia tomorrow night for Dance View Times and interviewing Yuri Possokhov for Dance View (print edition) as well.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 4:33 PM | TrackBack

June 19, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card

Tuesday June 20 - NYCB. Friandises, Slice to Sharp (new Diamond Project piece by Jorma Elo) and Vienna Waltzes. Off duty, but I want to catch Pascale van Kipnis returning to repertory after a long injury. Michael Popkin reports on the Elo piece at Danceview Times.

Wednesday, June 21 - NYCB. Russian Seasons (a new Diamond Project piece by Alexander Ratmansky) In Memory of (Miranda Weese and Jason Fowler make debuts) and Western Symphony. On duty for DVT.

Friday, June 23 - Neil Greenberg at DTW. Not-About-AIDS-Dance and Quartet for Three Gay Men. Recommended. I wrote a long appreciation of Greenberg's works in '98 and think that along with The Disco Project, Not-About-AIDS-Dance is his best work. Also on duty for DVT.

Also at DVT: Lisa Rinehart discovers that maybe Giselle ain't so bad, after all.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:29 PM | TrackBack

June 9, 2006

I hate to admit it, but Balanchine was right

With every trip to see the Royal Ballet my affection grows, but there’s one way in which I do agree with Mr. B. on the company. I know the English think our hands look like claws when we dance, but to me, their hands, with the fingers held together, DO like mittens!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 4:25 AM | TrackBack

I saw the Queen!

Last night was a gala for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Ballet that was also part of the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday. Security was higher at the Opera House (sniffer dogs and policemen) though I practically walked right in. The Queen arrived last to the Royal box – which is in the Grand Tier on house right – the large box that is third from the stage. It was decorated with her herald and a large garland of flowers. The assembly stood as she entered; the orchestra played “God Save the Queen” and we sat after she was seated. From my vantage point in the Stalls Circle I could see her enter and sit - people to my right could not see her at all. She’s in millions of photos, and as is no surprise, she looks like her pictures. Another way to mark an American – I did know the etiquette on what to do when royalty attends an opera house (in 2000 I was caught unawares when Queen Margrethe attended the Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen. "Why is everyone standing? OH!!") but the only words I know to that anthem are “My country, ‘tis of thee . . .”

After the gala (Carlos Acosta can certainly work up a stir. He outdid himself in the Corsaire pas de deux with astounding elevation) Monica Mason led the assembled company and school in what I thought might be a formal defilé but was a modest and charming moment. “Your Majesty, we have danced for you tonight. Now we would like to sing for you.” And they sang "Happy Birthday, Your Majesty."

The Queen has a Queenmobile – it’s assumedly a Rolls Royce (but it may be a Bentley – I don’t know car grilles by sight) with her insignia on the roof, and the insignia is lit. Had she been driven in New York, it most resembles a taxi light both in size and placement. Someone probably would have tried to hail it.

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On Wednesday night, I was seated next to dance researcher Stephanie Jordan, who asked me as a greeting, “Are you based here now?” It made me smile; I guess I’ve been there a reasonable amount. We sat in the orchestra stalls; I’m only seated there as press infrequently. Generally I am in the Stalls Circles. The view is slightly different; one main difference is that one can’t see the ceiling, which is Wedgwood blue with gold trim. From the Stalls Circle, one’s impression of the house is entirely red velvet and gold.

My friend John once said his travel was based on people rather than buildings. Mine is mostly based on dance, but what he said is also truer for me than I once realized. At present, the three cities I return to most often (London, Toronto and San Francisco) are as much for friends and family as for dance. Each has a strong ballet company, but taken equally with no other claims of friendship, London is the one that would prompt a dance aficionado to travel the greatest distance.

This trip has given me even more familiarity with the city. There are still things I don’t get. Crossing the street will probably always be harrowing; I rely on the “LOOK LEFT – LOOK RIGHT” signs they paint in the center of London for tourists from places where traffic flows on the right. But I better understand the layout of city; coming from a city mostly on a grid, it was once was an opaque jumble of streets. I’m starting to know where the main thoroughfares (Oxford Street, Euston Road, Knightsbridge and others) where they go – and what names they have in different sections. Like 9th Avenue becoming Columbus Avenue, streets change names here – but they do it more often.

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June 5, 2006

Current Knitting (and other stuff)

I’m again busy knitting fiendishly – gifts for friends on the trip.

The first item finished was a simple blouse scarf in Berocco Glitz. It got cast on before Alexandra and I went to dinner on Friday night. She had an unplanned rehearsal that kept me at the stage door waiting, so I was glad for something to do, but it presented the incongruous picture of a me in a Canali suit and Turnbull and Asser shirt, sitting at the stage door with some unidentifiable piece of fluff in my bag (and occasionally picking pieces of it off my trousers) with something growing from bamboo needles. I don’t like knitting in a suit (it ruins the illusion!) but I hate having nothing to do more. I’m glad I suited up for her, though. She came down in a cream wool ensemble looking like two million bucks, and we went to Rules for dinner.

The scarf was presented to my friend Judith at tea. That was also delightful; the first time I’ve had tea in London, and not the more artificial High Tea, but afternoon tea with cake and conversation at a friend’s home. I hadn’t finished the scarf, so it was knit as we talked about dance – Judith’s husband John is an eminent dance writer and biographer so the conversation was quite amazing; so many things I’ve read about where he was at the premiere. I had to ask him, who was on the list of dancers he wished he had seen, but had not. His answer – Vakhtang Chabukiani. The top of my list is Tanaquil LeClercq – he had seen her, “Lovely.” The scarf grew quickly and got finished before I had to leave for the evening performance at Covent Garden.

Earlier that morning after a few abortive tries I had cast on a simple cabled cap for my brother. I hadn’t brought a 16 inch circular needle in a size 8, so I needed to change wool to one that could be used on a size 6 needle. It’s just six stitch cables separated by four purl stitches. The one useful trick to report is a way to cast on a neat cabled edge: Instead of casting on multiples of ten (6 st cable + four purl sts), cast on the four purl sts and only half the cable sts (3) – in this case multiples of seven. On the first row, pick up the other three cable stitches in the back of the first three stitches. The edge will wave and curl less.

A good chunk was knit on the bus to Bristol, and I hope it will be finished on a drive to Wales today. I’m going with family, but also hope to visit my friends Emily and Brenda in Cardiff for an afternoon of knitting in Cardiff Castle. We’re going overnight, so I’m packing one change of clothing and four knitting projects.

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June 2, 2006

Mariinsky II

The Mariinsky Press office sat me in “extra” seating. IThe ticket situation was a comedy of errors. There is one tiny box office window. Press tickets are “inside, to the right” – I passed through a metal detector to a stairway, most ushers do not speak English besides “left” and “right”. Moving down another corridor there is a lone window, the woman inside gave me a hand written ticket and after asking, a program in English. The seat location was written in Russian. There are no seating diagrams that I saw. I went back to the woman at the stairway. She pointed outwards and to the left. I went through another checkpoint. I headed to a door. The woman looked at the voucher. “To the left”. I found another usher; she looked at the voucher and said something in Russian. Finally I was at the absolute end of the corridor, where an usher was sitting. “Где?!” (Where??) I pleaded with her. She led me to a box, and pointed to two chairs outside the box. Through quick mime she indicated that I was to take one of the chairs outside and sit in it at the back of the box. Good God. I had been warned that the press office gave awful seats, but this is beyond my expectations. If I sit, my view is blocked by the people in front. If I stand, there is a hanging chandelier that blocks the exact center of the stage. I alternate between standing and kneeling on the chair.

This only happened the first night. On every other night I was in the “parterre” which at the Metropolitan Opera House is a separate ring, but at the Mariinsky is the back of the orchestra. There are six small unmarked chairs curled along the side of the house on both sides; these are given out by management. I was placed in one of these chairs each night; the view is fine.

Besides the corps de ballet in Swan Lake (oddly enough, the corps in La Bayadère did not have the same resonance) the most notable thing of the weekend of performances was Dmitri Semionov performing Solor. Russian friends have been telling us to watch for him for years; but he suffered a major injury. He’s got great proportions and an easy, full jump.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:43 AM | TrackBack

May 23, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Three Weeks, Three Countries Edition

Tuesday Night, 5/23 - New York. New York City Ballet - Monumentum-Movements/Tchai Pas/Evenfall/Fancy Free

Friday Night, 5/26 - St. Petersburg. Mariinsky Ballet - La Bayadere
Saturday Night 5/27 - Gala Evening. The Nutcracker
Sunday Matinee 5/28 - The Magic Nut
Monday Night 5/29 - Swan Lake

Wednesday 5/31 - Landing at Heathrow Airport at 17:30 and making an insane dash to London to make it to Sleeping Beauty (curtain 19:30) by at least the first act (20:24).
Thursday 6/1 - Schlepping Beauty
Saturday 6/3 - Schlepping again.

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May 11, 2006

Gala Report

I was at the NYCB Gala last night. The actual particulars of the dancing will be in Danceview Times on Sunday night (sneak preview, the Wheeldon piece is good, especially if you like him when he's doing more balletic work). So, let’s talk about important things.

People’s outfits!

I wore my same damn suit (I have three; they’re getting old . . .) but I’m glad I picked the olive one; it was a sea of black suits. Le tout NYCB was there; if they are not onstage the dancers are expected to attend. Chuck Askegard and Maria Kowroski went together; Kowroski had her hair in a marvelous upsweep and is built to look fabulous in evening wear. Antonio Carmena was seated directly in front of me (nice suit, Antonio); Jon Stafford a few rows behind. Jenny Ringer and Janey Taylor were each walking about at intermission; Ringer looked very Nora Charles in aqua with a retro bob.

The most fabulous outfit was worn by an audience member. One woman, tall and blond, came in a Hippy Chick short fur jacket that she couldn't bear to check, but rather wore into the auditorium to eye-shattering effect. It was canary yellow. As she maneuvered to her seat I watched her in awe. She looked like a Peep. I just wanted to microwave her. Not only that, but her dress, in some sort of upholstery print, had a train. The look was part Foxy Bown and part Laura Ashley, but since she was bloodthirsty enough to tackle, kill and skin either Tweety or Big Bird, and turn one of them into a coat, I held my tongue.

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May 10, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card

Weds - May 10: NYCB - Diamond Project Gala, New Wheeldon and Martins premieres along with the Herman Schmerman pas de deux by Forsythe. On duty for Danceview Times.

Sat - May 13: Nrityagram. On duty for Ballet Review - and once again, go if you can.

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May 3, 2006

Word of Mouth - Nrityagram Dance next week

If there's only one suggestion of mine that you take this year, it should be this one.

Nrityagram Dance will be coming to the Skirball Center at NYU next Friday and Saturday May 12 and 13th.

They were one of the best things I saw last year. The dancing and choreography were immaculate.

Just go.

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April 27, 2006

Where have you gone, Joe Adagio?

I left last night’s performance of Akram Khan’s Ma feeling disturbed and depressed. Not because of the work itself; Khan is an intelligent choreographer and has a particular gift for assembling a crackerjack team around him – the best musicians, quality dancers and even Hanif Kureishi (the author of My Beautiful Launderette) to contribute vignettes of pungent text.



At the end of the performance, there were people on their feet, screaming, especially the young woman behind me who was doing that in my ear. The hazard, I suppose, of remaining seated during the ovation.

I liked the performance. I did not love it. I do not share his aesthetic.

That’s why I went home depressed. Khan’s work, at least this work, looked a lot to me like William Forsythe’s. The vocabulary is not the same; Khan doesn’t use ballet. But the attack and the outlook was. If only it were not so relentlessly exciting. The dance vocabulary is all attack that swirls from the center like the flicking of a snake’s tongue. It modulates, but only from stillness to violence. The glossy look of the designs looks like some of Forsythe. The sets were economical, sleek and brilliant though I could have done without the Theater of Cruelty lighting trained directly on the audience. It’s very well done, but I’ve seen this before and for me it’s something that no longer bears repeated viewing.

It’s what the market demands. Adagio is being excised from dance vocabulary. There were slow segments in Ma, but they were tableaux, not dance sections, and there is a dance vocabulary particular to moving slowly, including partnering – something Khan uses only rudimentarily. Even when a choreographer like Forsythe shocks us with a rare adagio (Quintett from 1993 or Duet from 1996) what’s been combed out of dance more thoroughly than adagio vocabulary is lyricism. Even Christopher Wheeldon, whose early pieces were sweeter in nature, got the message and made his smoky pas de deux like Liturgy or the central movement in Shambards, where Miranda Weese had her neck metaphorically snapped by Jock Soto. His model isn’t Balanchine; it’s Peter Martins and Kenneth MacMillan – both of whom have done the same in their works, and also both of whose hearts are in their darkest works.

I don’t lay the blame for any of this on Khan. I’ve only seen the one work, and I use it because it’s indicative of the trends, rather than the cause. The intelligence with which Khan works makes me think that he has the imagination to see beyond the smoky, sleek and relentless. But I went home from Ma feeling like an old man at 42. But I asked this at the end of a long article on William Forsythe in Ballet Review in 2000 - "Is there no choreographer of our generation who believes in the redemptive possibilities of the form?" I've never looked for Hell in dance, but Illyria. Did it take that little time for the aesthetic I love to become irrelevant?

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April 18, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Knitting Edition

Weds, 4/19 - Sourcing Stravinsky at Dance Theater Workshop. Yvonne Rainer does her version of Agon. I've got to see this.

Fri, 4/21 - In Philadelphia teaching a knitting workshop, so why not see the Pennsylvania Ballet do A Midsummer Night's Dream? Julie Diana is Titania, and that should be good casting.

Both on duty for Ballet Review.

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April 11, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Post-Seder Independents

My week will be leavened post-Pesach with the following performances:

Fri 4/14 - 8:30 pm at the Thalia at Symphony Space - David Parker and the Bang Group. David is a friend from alt.arts.ballet days; he creates brainy, funny dances which specialize in percussive accompaniment formed by the dancing itself.

Sat 4/15 8:00 pm at Joyce Soho - Trinayan Collective is an Odissi dance group - classical Indian - performing Sakshi/Witness. The fabulous Lady In The Fur - Rajika Puri, is the narrator.

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April 8, 2006

Ballet Builders – Building Ballet?

I helped out in some rehearsals for one of the pieces in this year’s Ballet Builders showcase (Helen Heineman’s Badlands Suite - Mary and Abe, two dancers I've worked with a long time, were in it) so I’ll just say I’m pleased with the performance of it and thought the dancers pulled it together nicely. Of the other pieces, Cupid Revealed was a brief, sweet duet to Handel choreographed by Joseph Jeffries and danced by Travis Bradley and the lovely Crystal Brothers, all three associated with Ballet Memphis. It didn’t break new ground but it had charm and freshness all the same and for Brothers, underneath the charm was a core of solid technique. It was a bright spot in what was mostly a weak evening.

One of my disappointments with Ballet Builders has always been that it’s never done much to build ballet. One piece on the program wasn’t a ballet at all; two more qualified listlessly, a fourth was at too low a level to mean much. It’s a bit much to dump the task onto one small independent choreographer’s showcase in New York City, but the name inspires the question: What are we doing to build ballet?

Ballet is an art form with a history and a memory. It’s an imperfect memory but the chain still exists. We take from the past, add our contribution and pass it on to the future. What is our contribution? Balanchine died in 1983, Tudor in 1987, Ashton in 1988. We’ve had about 20 years now; time enough to have made a mark and formed a style. What have we produced, what can we pass on?

It’s a short list. The list is never incredibly long, and it usually doesn’t consist of one-offs but of people like Balanchine or Ashton who worked for an extended period of time with a single company until they had a style of their own. William Forsythe is probably the most influential of the current choreographers and In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitiude will probably persist in repertory. Both of those pieces are now at least ten years old and he hasn’t made much ballet since. He isn’t really interested in ballet beyond as a tool; he certainly isn't interested in it as an institution. Worse still, his style is a dead end for ballet; works he made in 1989 look dated already and he stripped several aspects of technique (adagio, for instance) out of ballet. Christopher Wheeldon, the anointed hope of ballet, is acting like a guest choreographer instead of an artistic director. If San Francisco Ballet is going to move from being a top quality importer of ballet to a company that produces its own works and its own style, that hope lies in Yuri Possokhov but it’s too soon to know. There are other names out there; people like Christopher Hampson or Michael Corder whose work I haven’t yet seen. We need people to make classical dances, dances where the form is essential to the meaning and most importantly dances utilizing the corps de ballet. If there’s someone you’d like to mention, by all means do so in the comments. It’s been 20 years without someone to take the baton and run. How much longer can we jog in place?

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March 31, 2006

“We are full of feelings that we cannot understand”

I saw Don Giovanni at City Opera last night; the first opera I’ve been to in a while. I enjoyed it very much but wasn’t enamored of the production; my companion who has more experience in opera also agreed the acting was flat. The production never got beyond the singing to the characters or the story. Character issues abound in the opera. Like Albrecht in Giselle, Don Giovanni has to have the audience’s sympathies. Donna Elvira needs to reconcile her contradictions; Don Ottavio’s impatience needs to be more than horniness. The best way to do this is the same as in ballet. The singers need to know and believe in the story.

The big eye opener for me was facing the conventions of another art form. From the operas I’ve seen, da Ponte and Mozart seemed to have a formula for a well-made opera both musically and structurally. There’s a celestial trio in the first act, which closes with a sextet. The tenor gets at least one slow aria that shows off his legato but grinds the story to a halt. The lyrics to the arias are fascinating because they go beyond a soliloquy to a narrative to the audience of the interior state. “My heart is broken, yet I still feel pity.” “We are full of feelings that we cannot understand.”

I find Giselle or Swan Lake far more moving than Don Giovanni. Why? Because I know the language and conventions of ballet so that form has meaning. The way a woman rises on to pointe; how a man gives his hand to his partner – there’s as much information there to me as in a paragraph. In San Francisco last month, Muriel Maffre did a tendu in Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania that looked like no one else’s in the world. Her simple motion of her foot to the side was a small tale all on its own. I don’t understand opera in that way: to be able to interpret a singer’s approach to a note the way I can interpret a ballet step. All I have is the plot. A good reminder that ballet looks like secret code to even the educated audience that hasn’t seen it before.

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March 9, 2006

Dance Linkage

It's an old link, but I very much liked this article by Jeffrey Gantz comparing Balanchine and Mark Morris' use of music:

Morris gives us comfort-food dance; Balanchine is Jacob wrestling with the angel. Nancy Reynolds in Repertory in Review describes Concerto Barocco as “a ballet especially for the legs and feet.” Balanchine is all about legs and feet, about limbs and appendages galvanized by the center of the body and reaching, reaching, reaching. The original version of his Square Dance, another dance set to Baroque music (Vivaldi and Corelli), has Elisha Keeler calling, “Now keep your eye on Pat [Patricia Neary]/See what she is at/Watch her feet go wickety-wack.” MMDG feet never go wickety-wack; they don’t do much of anything.

At Downtown Dancer, Rachel is protesting a very odd editorial stance at Dance Europe. For further background see Stephanie Freid's blog and also Steven Weiss' Canonist for a not very productive sort-of exchange between the parties.

The one party I can't find an official postion from yet is Dance Europe. I hope they respond to this, either to confirm or deny. A commenter in Rachel's thread posts to say the statements are inaccurate.

While neither my situation nor my position on Israel would be the same as Stephanie's (she lives in Tel-Aviv) this quote seems particularly apt:

I'm against the occupation too, for the record, and want a resolution to the HLC (Holy Land Central) mess more than does the London Dance Lady because I have more at stake.

But we're talking dance here, folks.

Dance Europe is a dance magazine. Not a political organization. Injustice is a powerful and thorny issue, but when you start blaming the dance organizations in one country for the actions of their governments where do you stop? Are we going to stop writing about American dance companies for Iraq? Indian dance companies for nuclear proliferation? Turkish dance companies for Armenian genocide? English dance companies for Northern Ireland?

Who is the judge of which dance companies are represented by governments moral enough for us?

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March 7, 2006

Aspects of the Feminine

It was a scene almost out of an E.M. Forster novel; a view of India that through western eyes was stereotypically oversimplified – that of elegant chaos. “Dancers with a Difference” was a performance of four female soloists at the Indian Consulate. Hundreds of people were generously invited; the amount that accepted and showed were at least double the seating prepared. A white sheet was spread in the front of the ballroom where the performance took place to protect the oriental carpeting; people took off their shoes and sat down and still there was not enough room; not room for the consul’s guests, nor room for the dancers themselves. We squeezed to the side as they stepped over us to reach the stage. Elderly women were fanning themselves with postcards to combat the excessive heat from the crowd. I shed my shoes first, then my sweater. By the third performer, I wasn’t sure that I could feel my legs. People paid attention, but attention in a different way; they talked, they laughed. I could hear one of the dancers behind me stamp in sympathetic rhythm as she was carried by the beat when another performed. Much the same, in a row of chairs behind the musicians playing; a drummer from a previous performance drummed his thighs. The ballroom of a Fifth Avenue mansion built by the Astors felt like a festival outdoors.

The four soloists, Swati Gupte Bhisé, Anita Ratnam, Rajika Puri, and Janaki Patrik each specialize in a different area of Indian dance; each were allotted fifteen minutes to give us a taste of it. Bhisé showed us “at aerobic speed” Ashtanayika: 8 Broad Facets of a Woman in the Bharatanatyam style. Ratnam performed Neo Bharatam, a forceful amalgamation of classical and modern styles; Puri danced in the Odissi style a section from Devi Malika depicting the story of Radha and Krishna, and Kathak – The Art of the Storyteller gave Patrik a chance to break down the art of Kathak for us. Each style is subtly different. Kathak is marked its spinning charkas and percussive stamps. Bharatanatyam is flickering where Odissi is sinuous.

Bhisé had two students perform with her, beautiful Indian girls of about fourteen years of age. It is quite marvelous to see the movement on young girls; in its oblique innocence it almost seems devised specially for them. Each girl was adept at the motion of rotating the neck and head off the axis of the spine and the beautiful wide-eyed but strangely focused stares that throw us into another world and perception. One of them stumbled and fell during a plié; she quickly got up and it only made her more delicately attractive.

The strange connection I came away from the performances was with the relationship between these dances and drag. It’s certainly not a direct one, but I think it’s there, and if I had to guess how it would be to trace back from Martha Graham’s onstage mystique to Ruth St. Denis’ fascination with ethnic dance. It was most apparent in Bhisé’s dance. She presented us with “8 broad facets of a woman” – what is drag but the same boiling down not of womanhood, but the broadest essences of femininity? In the same way Bhisé’s portraits went beyond womanly to hyper-feminine; the woman who shouts at her lover to leave immediately, and then is furious when he takes her literally. Ratnam showed us seven graces of the Buddhist Goddess Tara; again broad strokes and essences boiled down. Puri’s tale of the love of Radha, as fair as sunlight and the roving Krishna, whose skin is as deep blue as the evening sky was the gentlest of all. It showed another aspect of the eternal feminine; She Who Forgives, part Graham, part torch songs.

The hyper-feminine extends to the idea of the diva; a divahood similar to old-school modern dance. Each woman could hold a stage in an overcrowded, overheated room; Puri readjusted her microphone barely missing a beat from the spell she wove. Amidst the powerful stampings in Ratnam’s dumb show were moments of silent-movie mime. It tapped into the same mystique as a lip-synch of a Pop Goddess. The only westerner of the lot, Patrik’s work was the most direct and constructed like a lecture-demonstration; a simple theme was amplified and varied into impressive elaboration. She was also the one who broke one of the rules of divahood on stage: If the music is off tempo, if the microphones are not working, if the volume is too low, do not let the audience know it is disturbing you. Carry on as if nothing is amiss and kill the offending parties afterwards.

Before sending us out into the winter night, the consulate treated us to a feast that was perfect given what had come before; delicious tandoori chicken, samosas and kachoris were served in a packed room where the waiters ran out of glasses and plates long before the people stopped arriving.

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March 6, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Indians, Modern Dance and Russians edition

Monday, 3/6 Dancers with a Difference. 4 Indian dance soloists performing at the Indian Consulate. Off duty.

Tuesday 3/7 Paul Taylor at City Center (Note to self: not at 8 pm. At 7 pm. 7 PM. 7 PM!). Spring Rounds, which I saw at SFB two weeks ago, Dust and Esplanade. On duty for Danceview Times.

Saturday 3/11 and Sunday 3/12 - I'm getting Perm'd. Sleeping Beauty at the Lehman Center in the Bronx and Swan Lake (if press seating becomes available - it's sold out) at the McCarter Theater in Princeton by the Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet and Orchestra. It sounds like a pickup group but it's not; Perm has a major school and is where Vaganova and the Kirov Ballet decamped during the siege of Leningrad. I'm curious to see them. Also for DVT.

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February 28, 2006

I left my cell phone . . . in San Francisco . . .

Everybody sing along!

It started to rain on Sunday, making it a good day to leave but there was plenty to do before.

The burrito pilgrimage was to El Tonayense, a taqueria in the Mission district on 24th & Shotwell. We found it on a walk two years ago, and we’ve gone together on every visit I’ve made since. Peter gets the super carne asado burrito, affirming my Jewishness I get the super al pastor with grilled pork. Being adventurous and gluttonous, for the first time we ordered something else in addition – a chicken super quesadilla – just so we could explore the menu. The quesadilla was heavenly and unlike those I have had in NYC – this was closer to a burrito without rice. Mexican food in California puts the slop served in New York City to shame. Cal-Mex is a cuisine; NYC Mexican restaurants serve stuff only good as an excuse to soak up the alcohol in a margarita.

Balmy Alley is a few blocks from El Tonayense on 24th; an alleyway lined with murals including this one.


Oh happy womb!

Peter and I walked off our gluttony through the Mission District before I headed to the ballet. Alas, Peter’s back was bothering him and he wasn’t up to sitting through the ballet, so I gave his ticket to an usher who needed a seat. The program was the same as Friday night’s with some cast changes – Katita Waldo instead of Muriel Maffre in Magrittomania, Kristin Long and Matthew Stewart for Rory Hohenstein in Rodeo. Alas, Damian Smith, a dancer I like very much, is replaced in his roles. Magrittomania holds up on a second viewing, though Waldo is not as extreme as Maffre. Spring Rounds looks negligible; as a friend said who saw it in Paris, paint-by-numbers Taylor. Long and Stewart do great work in Rodeo.

It was drizzling before the ballet but as we leave it is raining heavily. I take the short walk to the hotel to pick up my suitcase and then head to BART. The station is immediately next to the hotel – another good thing about the Ramada. I head across the bay to Berkeley to have dinner with my friend Paul.

Paul is one of the most beautiful thinkers I know. Every conversation is tinged with poetry. He’s from the Deep South, which has something to do with it. Very good Thai Beef Salad and Chicken and Coconut soup at Racha Café wash down the conversation on Brokeback Mountain, Mark Morris, Frederick Ashton and aging parents. It’s no use to try and explain what is so special about the way he thinks, just read his review of the programs I saw at SFB (but on different nights with different casts)

Paul drove me to Oakland Airport; when I got there I learned that the same headwinds that had made my outbound flight so long delayed this plane and projected departure was an hour late. I passed through security and headed for the gate. Searching around, I finally found a quiet place with an outlet, took out my charger to charge my phone – and realized I had no phone to charge. After ripping apart my bag, a kind soul let me borrow her phone and I left a message for Paul. He doesn’t have a cell phone, so there was nothing more to be done.

The headwinds worked in our favor on the flight back; it was slightly more than four hours and I slept most of the way. Even with losing my cell phone it was a marvelous trip. I called my phone when I got home, and there was one mysterious message – no voices, just ambient noise. From that, I guessed that it had fallen out of my bag and opened, but did it happen on BART (I made a call to Paul to let him know I was arriving) or in Paul’s car?

Right before I was about to order a new phone I got an email from Paul. My phone was under the passenger’s seat. It beeped at him; it must have been lonely. I’ll see it quite soon.

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February 26, 2006

A whole lotta eatin' and drinkin' goin’ on.

Day two in San Francisco was as good as day one.

I haven’t seen my college suitemate Don for several years. We met in the lobby of my hotel; with the exception of a few gray hairs he looked much the same as in college. “You didn’t think I was going to get fat and bald?” he asked. “I’m glad we’re both vain.” I answered. He had bicycled to the hotel, probably the reason why he looks much the same. He had made a reservation at Absinthe, I laughed and he apologized, not knowing I had eaten there last night. No matter, it was just as good for breakfast. I had the blueberry pancakes, he had eggs and bacon and both were as good as their premium price would demand.

After brunch, we went to the plaza of the Civic Center to talk and catch up. He told me about his wife and children, we both exchanged news about our parents and siblings. It was slightly colder than the day before but clear and sunny; there was some sort of demonstration of various leftist causes in the plaza.

My hotel is only 2-3 blocks away from City Hall; David met me there at 2:30. He also had not gone to seed; he looked thinner and even more like Clark Kent than the last time I had seen him six years ago. Welcome to the era of the Internet where you have close friends you speak to all the time, but don’t see for years on end.

We went to the exhibit of Kyoto artists at the Museum of Asian Art. His favorite paintings were of two waterfalls; I liked those very much but favored the one of a monkey by Rosetsu that is on the linked page.

Dinner followed the Japanese theme; we went to Yum Yum Fish, which is near his apartment about a 20-5 minute MUNI ride from the hotel. The place is a dive (three tables in what looks like a fish market) with top quality sushi for dirt cheap. Six pieces of nigiri sushi (salmon, yellowtail, eel) and a huge plate of rolls (“Dynamite” roll – spicy tuna, BBQ Eel, California roll with real Dungeness Crab, and Salmon belly roll) set us back $22.50 and the fish is fresher than I recall even at the best sushi places in NYC.

We hustled back to the Opera House for Program 2. The highlight is Gonzalo Garcia’s performance in Apollo, which is as good as I recalled it, only the production around him has gotten even more taut. Besides my friends, that was the thing worth flying across the country to see.

I took David out for dinner and gave him an knitted watch cap I made for him in his favorite color - orange of all things. Happy Birthday, Chuckles! David took me out for a drink at the Orbit Room and the cocktails were interesting enough that we both decided to have one instead of our usual safer drinks. I am an alcohol sissy; I usually get a vermouth and soda so I don’t become incapacitated but I went for a Venus Lemonade and he chose a Mojito. We toasted his boyfriend Duane, away on business in New Orleans, but who sent David $10 to buy me my drink. Thank you kindly, Duane.

I stumbled home in a happy state of exhausted mild inebriation. Now, I'm off to shower, pack and vacate the room, then see Peter for a burrito pilgrimage in the Mission District and the matinee at SFB, then dinner with Paul. On the red eye and back in NYC at 5 am. I’m having a delightful weekend.

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February 25, 2006

Mood Swings - A visit to San Francisco

Thursday 2:00 pm EST Mood: Frazzled. Preparation for a trip is usually last minute for me. Two things usually happen; I can be relied upon to not pack to the size of suitcase I had hoped to – (aimed for carry on, had to go one size up and check it) and forget one tricial item. This time, it was my belt, which I discovered as I absentmindedly hitched up my pants. I had to go to the post office anyway, I went to Daffy’s bought one.

Thursday 5:00 pm EST Mood: Panicked. When I plugged my computer into a power supply at the terminal, no power came through and I figured the outlet was defective. My computer had been working this morning, after all. When I plugged it in a second time at a different part of the terminal with the same result, angst set it. I have an old computer and had two batteries, which would have had an hour of computing time at most between them. How to make that last over three days? I had my PDA and a folding keyboard with me that would suit for writing, but even that got recharged via the USB port by the computer. On the plane, I called my friend Peter for magic words. “Maybe I’ve already said them, Darling. So if the computer starts working in the hotel, I will take credit.” “And I will be happy to give it to you, darling.”

In Flight to OAK Mood: Irritated. This was my first time in JetBlue. It’s a completely acceptable economy product, but nothing special. If the plane as packed, as this one was, all economy is cramped and irritating even with a 34 inch seat pitch. I do like the cookies. Flying into OAK instead of SF was not appreciably more difficult except that it involves about a 15 minute bus transfer ($2 exact change) from the airport to the BART station. It probably took an hour from de-planing to get to my hotel.

I alternately worked on an article for Ballet Review and a lace shawl I keep as a portable travel project. I saw the battery indicator on my PDA drop from full to ¾ and my mood blackened.

Thursday 11:30 pm PST Mood: Relieved. Check in to the Ramada Hotel on Market Street is fast and friendly and the hotel is an insane bargain ($45/night on Priceline). Amusingly enough, they gave me the exact same room, room 443 with a single queen bed that I had the last time.


In 2004, when they gave me this room the desk clerk announced that he had “a non-smoking queen for me.” It was all I could do not to break into my Paul Lynde voice and say “Well, heh heh send him on up.”

I plugged in the computer, pulled out the plug, finagled with the power supply, reconnected the pieces, plugged it in again. I’ve never been so happy to see a little green light. It’s a bit sobering to realize how dependent I am on my computer and the Internet. The hotel has wireless service that isn’t stunningly reliable, but it’s free.

Friday 7:40 am Mood: Satisfied. The fitness center at the hotel isn’t great – no elliptical trainer, but two treadmills, two bikes, a stair climber and creaky Universal weight system but it will do.

9:30 am Mood: Elated. I knew that Saigon Sandwich, was only a few blocks from my hotel, but no one told me that so was an entire Vietnamese neighborhood. I bought two heavenly Banh Mi, one roast pork and the other roast chicken and had a breakfast picnic under a flowering bush in a playground near the museum of Asian Art.


There is a show here of 18th Century painters from Kyoto, I am going to see it today.

11 am Mood: Confused. I’m supposed to meet my friend Rachel for lunch, but I only know her email and she hasn’t returned my correspondence. Where is she and how can I get her phone number? I call one friend to get the number of another friend who might have her number and work on other writing in my hotel.

1:30 pm Mood: Resigned. No word from Rachel so I set off for Artfibers, one of the most well-known yarn stores in the city. The walk up Market Street is full of Beaux-Arts buildings and street freaks.

2:15 pm Mood: Covetous. I wasn’t going to buy anything at Artfibers, but I want a souvenir of my stay here. I decide on two skeins of Shibori, a hand-dyed silk/kid mohair in forest colors.


Though it’s expensive, it has excellent yardage and 2 skeins should make a beautiful scarf to remind me of here. The staff is friendly and helpful and they keep sample balls and needles available for swatching as well as a comfortable place to knit. It ain’t cheap here, but it’s worth looking into.

2:45 pm Mood: Bemused. Poor Rachel called me full of contrition. She’s not even in town, her husband and she went to Santa Barbara at the last moment. I’m sorry to miss her, but I’m having a great day anyway, so I do my best to absolve her.

5:45 pm Mood: Hungry. After picking up tonight’s tickets I meet my friends Mark and Christopher and Christopher’s ballet buddy Patricia for dinner at Absinthe. The restaurant is popular and expensive, but the food is commensurate with the price. After a cheese appetizer, we all chose the grilled sturgeon, rightfully recommended by our waitress. I split an excellent tarte tatin with Mark. Dinner with wine was $60 per person. More than I’d usually spend, but meals like that are great fun when shared with others.

8:00 pm Mood: Attentive. San Francisco Ballet Program 3. The most interesting dilemma is to figure out how to compress this into 500 words. I have 5 pages of notes already and two more performances to see. The Taylor piece is formulaic, Magrittomania is fascinating even if I don’t love it and I have a soft spot in my heart for Rodeo. Muriel Maffre, who does the lead in Magrittomania with Tiit Helimets is the world’s greatest Weird Ballerina. She does one wildly extended and arched tendu with a prehensile foot and you see she’s a magnificent freak.

11:00 pm Mood: Flirtatious. We all head to Mecca, a lounge close to the Castro. Randy, whom I’ve known in correspondence for as long as I’ve known Mark but we’ve never gotten to meet in person, comes with his big hunky boyfriend Jim. Jim and I, well . . . hit it off pretty quickly. It went no farther than a flirtation and Randy didn’t seem to mind one bit. It’s confusing, but amusing. Where is Leticia Baldridge to advise on such things?

In any case, it was close to a perfect day. I headed back to the hotel at 1:00 am exhausted and satisfied.

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February 23, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card - Leaving on a Jet Plane Edition

San Francisco Ballet

Friday 8 pm - Spring Rounds (Taylor) Magrittomania (Possokhov), Rodeo (DeMille)

Saturday 8 pm - Apollo (with Gonzalo Garcia as Apollo, who was coached by Jacques d'Amboise and looks it), Blue Rose (Tomasson), Quarternary (Wheeldon)

Sunday 2 pm - same as Friday.

All on duty for Pointe Magazine. I get 500 words.

I am deliriously overscheduled with good friends: Rachel for lunch Friday (and I brought my copy of The Lost Night for her to sign), Mark and Chris for dinner and the ballet, Randy joins us for drinks after and so on. . .

I've come to really love San Francisco but I usually need a vacation from vacations there.

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February 21, 2006

Tempus Fugit (II)

On both directions of a subway ride the other day I started a conversation with a handsome young man reading a book. It didn’t hurt that they were handsome, but it was the books I was interested in: Gravity's Rainbow and Private Domain. The man reading Gravity’s Rainbow was the older of the two, probably 26 or 27, and worked for a literary magazine. He was within the first few pages from the beginning; I jokingly asked if he knew what he was getting into.

I read Gravity’s Rainbow in the summer of 1979, the summer before I went to college. I was 15; I didn’t get most of it. I told the young man that it helped to have a solid background in physics and that there were formulas as part of the novel. “Yeah, but they weren’t real?” he asked. No, I averred, Pynchon studied physics at Cornell – more accurately, he studied engineering physics, but completed his degree as an English major after his Naval service.

We talked about writing classes. He didn’t believe in them; I understand why, but said I had a few very good teachers (Geoffrey Woolf) as well as some dreadful ones (Alice Walker – the worst teacher I ever encountered). When I mentioned reading books to prepare for St. Petersburg he mentioned Ryszard Kapuściński’s Imperium; I’ll check it out.

Heading back home, a young man trundled into the subway car and sprawled open-legged on the seat. He pulled out his book; when I noticed Private Domain I had to comment once more. “It’s a great book, but don’t forget that you can’t trust him. He’s like Ford Maddox Ford, what he says may or may not be true.” He smiled; he was planning to audition for the company so he wanted to read it.

I wished him luck and refrained from mentioning that he’d probably need to bulk up to get into Taylor. We got to talking. He got his training in college in Maryland, had been here for a year. Medium height, slender build, pretty hair, bright eyed and bushy tailed. He was taking class at Cunningham, so we played the “do you know” game – but we didn’t really know the same people – his favorite teacher at the studio is Jeff Moen.

“I’m in 10:00 am class at Cunningham every day so if you’re ever around . . .” I laughed. I stopped taking class in 1998 and my body stopped hurting. When I was studying at Ballet Arts with Jan Miller, Nina Stroganova used to teach class before hand, one that was frequented by many older dancers from the Ballets Russes and other companies. There was tons of amazing history in that class that went foolishly unexplored, but they looked ridiculous to us – they weren’t dancers, they were old people who could barely lift their legs. I promised myself that I would stop taking class before I looked like that.

It’s funny to see books I read as a student being read by new students. It’s funny to talk to a young dancer with his career in front of him pointing to the unknown. Those books, those boys and their place in time remind me of where I am presently suspended in time – not old, but no longer young.

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February 17, 2006

NYCB 2/16/06

Some of what is so beloved about NYCB isn’t on the stage. It’s the sense of family in the audience. My friend Chuck and I had dinner before; when we got there Juliet and Eric were there, and Michael was there with his mom, aged 93. Nina came running up to me to say hello; I caught a glimpse of Frankie at intermission; we hugged and joked. It’s mishpocheh, and this is our hometown team.

I don’t have anything more to say about Baiser de la Fée than I’ve said before. I still haven’t figured out what Balanchine was after; the mood and even the vocabulary of the ballet is inconsistent.

I have some new theories about Tālā Gaisma or as I think of it, “Love For Three Hairstyles”. Perhaps the best was my friend Nancy’s. She thinks the male protagonist surrounded by his three differently coiffed beauties is Warren Beatty and this is a dramatization of Shampoo. Here’s my alternate. The costume for the man is a relatively simple brown unitard, but with some sort of gold design across the chest. I realized today that it looks like Pi. I believe that the man is in fact a Cheerleader for Pi. Go Pi! Let’s hear it for Pi! Miranda Weese showed her usual razor-sharp timing and tight turns; Sofiane Sylve did so many turns in an en dedans pirouette that I lost count. And then there’s Sebastien Marcovici. Let’s just say he redefines partnering.

Ashley Bouder did not debut in the second movement of Western Symphony; Megan Fairchild went in instead. She hasn’t yet worked out the role; she was pleasant enough but didn’t let the audience in on the jokes; Albert Evans has been doing the part long enough he’s got all the jokes down. Jenifer Ringer is starting to develop a new specialty; slumming roles. She does the first movement a lot like the Costermonger pas de deux from Union Jack; she’s a good girl who wants to play at being bad. Her usual Pearly King, Nilas Martins, is also her partner here and he looks his best in these loose informal parts. Teresa Reichlen keeps getting more and more interesting. She’s a little too sharp by nature for her debut in the fourth movement and not yet comfortable with fouettés, but she made the sharpness fascinating and she’s certainly got the legs for the famous diagonal of extensions. Damien Woetzel made a welcome appearance in a role that’s one of his best. The facility and technique is just starting to fade (did he take ballet class up at Harvard?) but the energy he brings to the part is still there.

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February 1, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card

Four performances this week:

Wednesday 2/1- NYCB. Ashley Bouder and Ana Sophia Scheller make debuts in Divertimento No. 15, Jonathon Stafford makes his debut in the first movement of Symphony in C. He seems to be filling in for Ask La Cour during his injury. These sandwich Duo Concertant and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Thursday 2/2 - NYCB. Another Stafford debut, this time Jonathon's sister Abi as the second ballerina in Concerto Barocco. Peter Martins' Songs of the Auvergne returns to the repertory and Sofiane Sylve reprises her performance in Firebird.

Saturday 2/4 matinee and evening - Pennsylvania Ballet. More Balanchine, only in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania Ballet essays Theme and Variations, Prodigal Son and Western Symphony. I'm very interested to see how Julie Diana, to me the company's ballerina, does in Theme.

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January 30, 2006

You know where you stand by where you sit

I was up in the fourth ring of the State Theater on Friday night for the first time in a long while. Press tickets are given either in the orchestra or first ring and the pecking order is perceived that you're more of a Lord High Muckity-Muck if the press office gives you first ring seats. I’m not a Lord High Muckity-Muck, so I get orchestra seats but in my experience the press office at NYCB is one of the most cooperative and I’m very happy with how I’ve been treated.

The conventional wisdom is that you see patterns better from higher up and that’s true. But there’s higher up and there’s way up in nosebleed country. I’m delighted the performance was almost sold out on Friday, but that meant I was in Row N, two rows from the top of the house. Fourth Ring Society discount tickets are in Rows C-O. I find row C undesirable because there’s a railing that can block views from certain angles, and prefer to be around Row E. If the house is uncrowded, I will often sneak into AA or BB, the two rows that are in front of the main access aisle, as soon as the house lights go down. Faces are still discernable in the front portion of the Fourth Ring, by the back you’re looking for different cues. I started my viewing up there; it’s interesting what changes when you become accustomed to the Orchestra. The Fourth Ring is much kinder to dancers with nerves or tics. Stage fright or fatigue that’s palpable from the Orchestra gets smoothed out over the distance. Sharply accented dancers read better than softer dancers as well. We can’t see facial cues, so we’re looking for those from the body.

Where you sit can change an entire dance. The Lord High Muckity-Muck seats for press at Covent Garden are in the Orchestra Stalls. Those seats have a face-on view of the stage. The other press seats are in the Stalls Circle, a horseshoe that surround the Orchestra Stalls. The farther out along the horseshoe you are, the less clear the stage. I saw La Fête Étrange for the first time from seat B36 in the Stalls Circle (relatively far out on the horseshoe, but still in full view of most of the stage) and the second time from the Orchestra Stalls. The first time the ballet seemed remote, the second time it had a subtle but definite impact. Yes, I saw different casts, but Zenaida Yanowsky in the first cast is not a dancer I’ve ever considered remote. The ballet was originally done on the tiny stage of the Mercury Theatre and I think it needed to be seen, if not up close, at least dead-on.

At the State Theater I’ve always had a preference for sitting House Right; my ideal Fourth Ring Society seats are around E2-8. It’s a coincidence, but I believe that Balanchine’s seat in the theater was all the way house right in the First Ring. Then again, I think his preferred place was to watch from the wings. That was something I refused to do with my own work. At some point I needed to abdicate from control of the ballet, because once the curtain went up there was nothing more I could do. So I sat in the audience, except for The New Rome in 2003. The composer, Evren Celimli, would pace nervously in the back of the house. Nervousness loves company, so I would join him to dig a furrow in the linoleum.

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January 26, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card

All NYCB this week. Tomorrow at 8 pm, Divertimento No. 15, Firebird and Symphony in C. I'm off duty; I'm going just because I want to! On duty Sunday matinee for Sylve's debut in Firebird. Also Mother Goose and Episodes. For Danceview Times.

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January 22, 2006

Just call me Cassandra

Via pmeja at Ballet Talk, Molly Glentzer speaks about Stanton Welch's Brave New Houston Ballet:

Five years from now, will traditional classical ballet exist in Houston? Maybe not, if Houston Ballet continues on the neoclassical arc artistic director Stanton Welch has set.

. . .

The requisite story ballets by Ben Stevenson and Welch "provide the full spectrum of drama, from tongue-in-cheek horror (Dracula) to tragedy (Madame Butterfly) to comedy (Coppélia)," Welch says. He says Dracula is one of the company's most-requested productions.

While these works may be box-office hits, purists may note that they are not, in the strict sense, artistically demanding classics. Welch says he built the season around the story ballets, although "there isn't a huge vocabulary from which to pick."

Five years from now, when the company tries to do The Sleeping Beauty again (only for ticket sales, of course) and they discover they can't get through it, maybe they'll realize that classical repertory and training aren't something you can keep in a cookie jar up on a shelf and only take down when needed.

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January 16, 2006

Dance Linkage

Via my friend Lynette from London, Trooping drag ballet in Iraq. As she succinctly put it, "No, really."

I'm also going to drop in here an article from the UK periodical Prospect that she emailed me months ago and I've been meaning to read more carefully to discuss but before it can no longer be read for free on the site, I'll link to it. The magazine looks erudite and wildly eclectic; this article is by Michael Coveney on the current marginalisation of theater criticism in England. He drops a few bombshells in there.

If you haven't been to Marc Haegeman's For Ballet Lovers Only, drop by. The most recent photo gallery, Light, Colour and Movement is just lovely. I knew Marc first via his photos (and his appreciation for Belgian beer coupled with a loathing of his native cuisine), but he also does interviews and reviews specializing in Russian ballet. A good reason for me to pump him for all he knows before I go.

My favorite story involving Marc and myself is only tangentially about either of us. Marc, his friend Viviane and I were all walking towards the train station in Bruges on a beautiful night about two years ago. A couple came past us on a tree-lined path, speaking in what sounded like a Hispanic tongue to me. I turned to Marc and asked him what language they were speaking. He stopped to listen for a while, then said it was certainly none he knew - he is a native Flemish speaker and is fluent in several other languages. Viviane burst out laughing, and then said what they were saying to Marc in Flemish. "They're speaking Flemish, but it's the local dialect and you can't understand them!" Marc lives in the next large city only about half an hour's drive away. This story wouldn't surpise anyone from England, where accents can change in a few miles, but it takes a lot more distance for that to happen in the U.S.

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January 9, 2006

What gets cut, Chapter 2

From yesterday’s DVT review, there were two sentences cut from the end of the penultimate paragraph:

It was delightful, but it’s actually wrong for the ballet. Still, if we could only all be wrong like Ashley Bouder. . .

They were cut after consultation with the editor, but she did not cut them. I did.

The first review I ever did of NYCB for Danceview Times was assigned to me literally on the plane. I was on a flight from Brussels taxiing to the gate at JFK when Alexandra asked me to cover a performance a few days later. I agreed to it and didn’t think much of it until I took my seat in the theater. I knew the program (their “Viennese” evening) but hadn’t checked the casting. Who was leading the first ballet out?

Alexandra Ansanelli.

“Oh Christ. I don’t want to review her.” I’d just made a ballet on her the year before. How could I review her? Worse still, I thought she was miscast in the role.

Alexandra Ansanelli nailed everything in the sixth variation and her pas de deux too, especially her rapid footwork and fast, accurate turns. Her impressive strength in that delicate body is always surprising. She isn’t yet a natural choice for the role; Ansanelli is the ingénue of the company right now, and the central ballerina role in Divert is a figure of quiet authority. It’s not just that the variation is faster and harder and it’s not just that she’s at the center of every design. She presides over the dance, and Ansanelli tends to dance in her own magical world. She’s an enchanted princess in a queen bee role. The performances are investments for later; she’ll gain the authority needed with time.

It took me several shots to write that paragraph, and it’s not one of my best. I can see the contortions in it; if I didn’t know her I might have written “Ansanelli performed well in a role she isn’t suited for” and have been done with it. For the audience that’s the better sentence because it reflects their point of view. They don’t know Ansanelli. But at the time I couldn’t write it. Ironically enough, I think she did the role again just recently for Farrell’s company at the Kennedy Center honors telecast; I didn’t get to see it and find out if my predictions were correct.

I haven’t known Bouder as intimately as Ansanelli; I’ve seen her grow up from a distance. I first saw her dance at CPYB a decade ago. When I participated in Choreoplan there in 1999; I had first pick of dancers. I was planning an ensemble piece; the first thing I said was that I did not want Ashley; that she should go to someone who could give her a leading role.

Later that year she came to SAB. She danced with the school at some NYCB performances in Christopher Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballets as part of a group of five.

She did the lead in Stars and Stripes at the SAB Workshop Performance the following year. When I saw her dance at CPYB she was an amazing technician, but never seemed to smile. It could have just been my luck on what performances I saw, but the girl in the workshop performances at SAB beamed and took the audience into the palm of her hand. And something else, something about her makeup. . .

After the performance I saw Darla Hoover smiling like a mother hen. Hoover had been in NYCB and taught Bouder at CPYB. “Darla, who taught Ashley to do her makeup?” I asked her. She said that she did, but I already knew that. Onstage Ashley’s eyes (especially the brows) looked just like Darla’s.

In 2001 I was covering an Interpreters Archive filming and there was Ashley learning a variation Balanchine created in 1935. I think she was 17.

The last real conversation we had was after Ashley came back from the yearlong absence that had so many people concerned. I was at SAB rehearsing, I think with Peter. Ashley came down the hall and we hugged.

“Do you know how much we missed you?” I asked.
“Well, I’m back!” was the answer.

I’ve said this about watching Alexandra or Ashley, but watching them onstage is like watching my favorite niece. I know their flaws but they don’t matter to me. But that doesn’t help the reader. So my job is to try and balance personal knowledge with what was actually onstage. The fact that I have some connection to the dancers compromises my work somewhat, but it also enriches it. Every reviewer has a bias. This is a glimpse into mine.

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January 7, 2006

Tempus Fugit

Watching Fearful Symmetries tonight, I realized I had seen the original cast, if not the premiere of the ballet back in 1990. 15 years in dance is several generations. Joaquin de Luz came out with Ashley Bouder and I remembered Jeff Edwards with Margaret Tracey. Daniel Ulbricht was doing Benjamin Millepied's (UPDATE 1/9/06 see comments) part (probably his first featured role) as the leader of a trio of men. I remember talking to Jenny Ringer's mom (she was next door neighbors with my parents) and she recounted how excited Jenny was because Martins had chosen her to be in the corps of the ballet. I was still dancing professionally myself.

Time flies.

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January 4, 2006

Leigh's Dance Card: New Year Edition

The repertory season at NYCB starts anew; I'm covering it for Danceview Times on Thursday and Saturday nights. They are similar rep programs; each starts with Allegro Brillante, then Liturgy and Monumentum/Movements. On Thursday night they finish with Symphony in C, on Saturday with Fearful Symmetries. And Monumentum pro Gesualdo is one of my favorite ballets ever. I'm looking forward to going back.

So if you read the blog for the dance coverage and the knitting posts have been making you nuts, dance posting will be picking up again. For what it's worth, I've been trying to cycle among the usual topics(dance, knitting, travel and food) topics, which should please nobody.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 10:13 PM | TrackBack

December 29, 2005

Link dump

A cornucopia on several subjects of interest (at least to me!)

Via dirac in the links forum at Ballet Talk:

R. D. Adams writes a measured assessment of NYCB in the NY Press.

Ismene Brown’s take on the year in the dance includes a view of the Royal Ballet that is the opposite of mine; partly because my viewing is not as complete, but it also shows that two reviewers can be looking for completely different things. At this point, I’d rather see the Royal Ballet find themselves as a company than see any new work that didn’t assist in that goal, and I’d argue that almost no guest choreographer, especially any whose native tongue is another discipline than ballet, does that.

Robert Gottlieb’s take on Ballets Russes is, as only Gottlieb can be, provocative, but he’s right about the historical context being a lost opportunity. What’s also interesting to me is a connection with something Francis Mason said at the Balanchine symposium in 2003 at the University of Michigan. He moved to NYC in the late 1940s, saw Massine’s ballets and hated them, thought they were ridiculous. Contrasting to that was the aesthetic of Balanchine. And here is Gottlieb, implying a similar divide. At the symposium I told Mason (who is my editor at Ballet Review) jokingly that I would one day corner him and get him to defend his statements about Massine. It makes me want to see his work and find out why he went into such eclipse.

In researching for a forthcoming article in Knit.1 Magazine on travel and knitting I came across this brochure for an exhibition I deeply regret missing. It’s for knitting’s mad scientist, Debbie New, who seems like a mild mannered grandmother but thinks in five dimensions, all of them a different color.

The Random Stripe Generator is both useful and fun. Find out how stripes look in given proportions. A less high tech way to do the same thing is to wind the yarn around a strip of cardboard, but this is even easier.

I’ve already talked about James Wolcott’s crush on Veronika Part. He defends himself here against the hordes who’ve decided he is gay gay gay. Not that I ever suspected otherwise, but I’m relieved he’s straight. Just means there’s more room in the castle for us queens.

Speaking of gay gay gay, here is the movie poster you just never never never wanted to see.

Apology accepted.

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December 27, 2005

Looking Back on 2005

Rachel (not the one who’s getting married, the one who’s written a book and already is) posted on her year in dance. I’ve done “best-of” lists before, but it doesn’t seem apt this year.

Not because of low quality. Nor lack of individual performances: Naming a few high points, Ashley Bouder in Ballo della Regina, Michael Trusnovec and Lisa Viola in Promethean Fire, the entire cast of Big Bertha. I saw hope for new ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s work, particularly Reflections out at San Francisco ballet.

The reason a list seems not to make sense is that the performances that were most important to me, the ones I saw at the Royal Ballet and at Birmingham Royal during trips to England, weren’t individually stunning. The effect of British ballet on me has so far been cumulative. There wasn’t a performance I can point to that was the one that blew me away, but going night after night to see Symphonic Variations three times in a row or Scènes de Ballet four times changed me.

Nrtiyagram did blow me away, and I don’t think it was a one-off event. I was introduced to classical Indian dance this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays with me long into the future.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:48 PM | TrackBack

December 22, 2005

Dance Linkage

Today's Internet Timewaster is Pimp My Nutcracker, generously brought to our attention by Jeff Salzberg. No need to thank him, really . . .

Downtown Dancer was commenting on a dance awareness effort in Chicago through television. Via Jack Wright, Boston is working through participatory events with Dance Across the City - a day of free classes and showcases running the gamut of dance styles. It's on January 7, 2006. They're both great ideas, but I'm always partial to anything that encourages people to see dance live; I don't think recorded medium does dance any justice. Boston is also a city that does festival like this proud; I remember First Night from the years after college with great fondness.

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December 20, 2005

Making the dance blogosphere bloggier

Slowly but surely, the dance blogosphere is picking up steam. A few dance bloggers have been having a conversation via email regarding multimedia blogging; Ed McPherson suggesting video blogging and Doug Fox talking about podcasts. I think both ideas are exciting, but not ones I’m going to take up. What I’m doing here, particularly relating to dance, seems to be oriented towards dance writing and the written word. I hope Ed and Doug will follow up on their ideas.

What else can we do to stimulate the discussion? Individual blogs have a clearer focus as the discussion and topic can be under closer control, but group efforts are what will make the conversation grow. Artsjournal’s roundtable about New York brought new voices into the arena. Assuming my role as resident crank of the dance blogosphere, I thought the results were mixed; there was some interesting discussion and some bloviating. There’s no sin in that – blogging arose in the first place as a place for people to mouth off. But if there’s enough of it in what’s supposed to be a discussion, a roundtable becomes a circle jerk.

The point I’d like to make to dance bloggers out there is that without the web of links that interconnect and cross-reference, it isn’t really a blog; it’s a diary or a column. Use the medium. Comments and especially trackbacks can be a hassle because of spamming but without them people don’t know that you’ve referenced their blog (This means you, Mr. Wright!) and there’s no feedback. If you’re using Movable Type, upgrade to version 3.2; the spam control is significantly improved. I got rid of most trackback spam with a single plug-in, TBPingLinkLookup.

If you can, make an effort to read other dance blogs and continue their discussions. This won’t suit everyone; Rachel Howard isn’t blogging for the same reason as Rachel Feinerman. But that’s what will build the web that keeps bloggers like Ariel from feeling like they’re out in the wilderness.

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December 17, 2005

Devi Diva

Since Rajika Puri, who will probably eternally be The Elegant Lady in the Fur to me, is responsible for introducing me to the beauty of classical Indian dance, there was no way I was going to miss her concert at the Rubin Museum of Art.

The museum, on 17th and 7th is in the building that was Barney’s well before it went posh. If I recall correctly, Dad brought me there for my first navy blazer when I was about 11. Instead of six floors of off-price suits, it now houses art from the Himalayan region and a small auditorium downstairs. (Knitter report: There are hand knit and crocheted scarves from Nepalese women’s cooperatives in the gift shop, but most textiles are woven and embroidered.) The auditorium is interesting and informal with tables sprinkled among the chairs and candles lit for atmosphere, but looks as if it was designed more for beauty and atmosphere than for practical concerns. The audience is level rather than raked - it looked as if the rear of the auditorium was actually raked slightly in reverse.

Devi-Malika was a performance of “manifestations of the feminine divine in India”. It was efficient in resources: a director, a musician (Steve Gorn playing a bamboo flute and other percussion) and Puri herself who sang, spoke and danced. Projections and film were used judiciously to heighten the atmosphere or practically to give Puri a brief rest in a solo performance. Puri and her director, Yuval Sharon, collaborated well; their focus made efficiency seem extravagant.

Six aspects of the feminine divine were shown. As the lights dimmed we heard a low resonant rumble; it was Puri beginning the tale of Lalita (beautiful), a creation myth. Indian classical dance is magical as a solo form; the narrative intimacy and power enables a talented performer to conquer the stage. Clothed in silk and bells (but with relatively little makeup – the theater is small and her eyes don’t need it) Puri has a similar magnetism to the best Graham dancers. It’s totally different than the magic of a ballet dancer; weight versus weightlessness. Darci Kistler was omnipresent yet intangible on a stage, like sunlight or dew. She perfumed the space. Puri, in the way I imagine Martha Graham, is a vortex into which all energy onstage converges and through which it must pass.

Her manifestations are colored by this power. Parvati – “of the mountain” and Shiva’s consort is both power and feminine guile. Her power is her beauty; Shiva was entranced by Parvati the moment he saw her. Puri changes her posture as Parvati; she becomes lighter, gently swaying confidently and seductively. This becomes even more so in the story of Savitri ("born of the sun"), the princess who renounced her status to marry the man of her choice and was so beautiful and quick-witted that she could trick Death out of his intended quarry – her husband. The most delightful of all the vignettes, Puri used a mask that appeared unexpectedly to create a duet out of a solo.

Saraswati, a river diety, was represented in music and on film. Gorn played a raga named for her while we saw only Puri’s bejeweled hands on film, performing larger-than-life mudras that flowed like water. It was a lovely and intelligent interlude. She returned as Radha. A common girl as fair as Krishna was dark (With his indigo skin he was known as Shyam – evening); their love elevated her to godhood in partnership with him. The final incarnation, was Sati, “true” – the namesake of the Hindu custom of immolation. But Sati was more than human; she could throw herself into a fire in vengeance for her father’s slight to her husband, Shiva, yet return to Shiva as Parvati – in her own sweet time, a millennium later. And as Puri ended, “But that is another story”.

Puri is not an anthropologist and makes no bones that what she’s offering us is her take on traditional myths. She has the taste to accomplish this and knows how much she can bend the twig before it breaks. It isn’t a reinterpretation as much as a view from other angles, such as a dance only of jeweled hands on a projected screen. She knows how to make what she is doing feel traditional even when it obviously isn’t.

There are a few common threads I’ve noticed in the Indian dance I’ve seen to date, but none more striking than the attitude towards sensuality and sex. In some of the most compelling Western myths, when mortals and gods couple the consequences are dire, far outweighing the pleasure. Even without the intersection with the supernatural, sex and pleasure are often followed by misfortune or punishment hard on its heels. In these dances sex is not only pleasure, but inspiration, bestowing creativity and poetry on the fortunate participants. Even in its poetic euphemisms (“Ah Monsoon, you have drenched me”) the sensuality is celebratory. (Added 12/18/05: The closest equivalent that comes to mind from Western culture is the Song of Songs.) It’s surprisingly hard to calibrate one’s brain to an artistic vision of sex completely untainted by shame. This is idealized, just as the portrait of women in Indian dance is idealized. But it is a fascinating and thought-provoking ideal.

The troika of Puri, Sharon and Gorn provided us with a jewel of an evening, an intricate box with several compartments each with a different surprise. Puri was as delightful talking afterwards as performing; she is very self-aware as a performer. If there was any difficulty with the performance it was that she came up short of breath early on when singing before she found her rhythm and a way to release her diaphragm as singing requires while still engaging it as dancing requires. It was one of the first things she acknowledged about the performance.

Puri lives comfortably in more than one artistic world. She’s acted in Julie Taymor’s productions and performed in several fusions of Western and Indian dance including meshing it with Flamenco and anatomizing it in a post-modern fashion. Fusion probably came naturally to her; she holds one of the secrets to it. To meld both worlds you must understand and honor both equally and know what can mesh and what cannot. But magnetic performers such as Puri can reconcile what lesser talents wouldn’t be able to. In her many incarnations she can contain multitudes.

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December 15, 2005

Artsjournal forum

Artsjournal has held a forum on their site for the next few days: “The Center of the Dance World?” on the place of New York in the dance world inspired at first by Gia Kourlas’ article in the Times and also referencing a piece by Wendy Perron.

I’ve made my own comment there but my other thoughts on the matter are potentially digressive so I’m going to make them here rather than there. I’ve been trying to write on this for a few days now, and haven’t been satisfied with anything I’ve written yet, so it’s either post what I write on this attempt or it’s a sign to stay silent. I’ve never really liked roundtable discussions and I don’t feel in sympathy with large portions of the conversation. It’s from the point of view of modern dance and that’s not my viewpoint.

I don’t think what Gia noticed is preventable. The New York dance community is going through the life cycle of any arts community and passing out of its youth into its middle age. It is not a graceful process but it is a natural one. I agree with John Rockwell that “cheap rents” had much to do with the fecundity of the time and with Tobi Tobias that it wasn’t just that. Dance in the New York in the earlier part of the last century was a place one could pioneer. There was room and opportunity and as Wendy Perron mentioned, a sense of being unencumbered by the past. Part of the reason we can boast of so many geniuses is that the field was inventing itself. Balanchine, Graham, Tudor, Cunningham, Taylor. . .each had the room stake their claim.

There’s no way to reclaim this. The fantasy of having the sort of artistic environment possible only in a field that has never been plowed is part of the confusion and awkwardness we’re going through. The closest I see to this sort of energy in the New York scene is in the burlesque revival. But in general, we are no longer a city of pioneers – we’re the establishment. We need to learn to do this well.

There are several tenets accepted within the discussion I question. The first, and I say this as a choreographer as well as a dance watcher, is the idea that new work is the most important objective right now. New work is essential to a healthy dance community and without it we have no progress and no legacy. Heaven knows I’m dying to see good new work and jubilant if I do. There’s a lot of crap out there. We are not in a golden age of dance. We’re in a holding pattern. Surveying the landscape, our job seems to be to keep things together until the next geniuses appear. I’d rather preserve first-rate older works than make room for second-rate new ones. That includes my own work. There, I’ve said it.

Rebellion and renewal are important aspects of dance history and creativity. Generations have created their dance canon out of the ashes of the previous generation. But, iconoclasm is not the only means of progress. There is also an additive model for art; rather than each generation recreating itself, they can seek to add or build upon what has come before.

Maybe it’s time to look at alternatives to the cutting edge. If we’re the center, maybe we need to strengthen our center as well as our extremities. We have created institutions, and these are potential powerhouses. NYCB, ABT, Cunningham, Taylor and now Morris – what can we accomplish on an institutional model? This leads to another model we may need to question – that of the choreographer-driven institution. The fight over whither NYCB rages hard and long – what do you do when the genius dies?

I question the implicit notion that originality equals creativity. Originality as a reason for making art is overrated. Most things are only original to people who haven’t seen their antecedents. The external demand put on artists to be original is responsible for a lot of lousy art. What most people call originality is a natural by-product of an artist speaking honestly, clearly and urgently. Say the thing you must say and it will become original.

This is a contrary post, yet I do share several underlying concerns with the posters. Funding is also essential. However, as far as I’m concerned, peer review is another word for “clique”. We don’t police ourselves well, especially in funding. If I were king, I’d try to work on a tiered model, with the first level of funding being modeled on The Field’s Fieldays: non-curatorial. If you can demonstrate the commitment to show up reliably and deliver a work, you get some time onstage and a place to perform. If you do well at that, then a bit more money to help do something a bit more elaborate. And so on.

We need to get people interested in art, a monumental task in a nation temperamentally suspicious of it. We need to get people into the theaters. Tere O’Connor and I probably don’t see eye to eye on much, but we do agree that Movin’ Out is crap, the kind of crap you leave with a headache and leaves people thinking they've seen art when all they've seen is pop. I wouldn’t take kids to it either. I’d take them to that haven of satanic patriarchic hegemony and show them A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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December 13, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

We're going for contrasts this week.

Friday, December 16, Rajika Puri at the Rubin Museum of Art. Ms. Puri is the "very elegant Indian lady in the long fur coat" who told me as she left that I simply must see the Nrtiyagram dancers, an recommendation for which I cannot thank her enough. I'm excited to see her perform and deliberately going "off-duty". I don't want the pressure of having to review. Another friend also says the museum is quite beautiful.

Saturday, December 17 at midnight. A different, more decadent holiday treat. Murray Hill, "The hardest working middle-aged man in show business" is doing his "Murray Little Christmas" show that will delight all. Most importantly, the midnight show is the only one featuring The Wau Wau Sisters. I saw them for the first time at the Christmas show last year and I cannot adequately describe their brilliance. They do a heavy metal semi-religious quasi-lesbian striptease aerial act. In school uniforms. With stigmata. It's beyond special. If one can possibly gild that lily, Miss Dirty Martini will also be performing. Unsurprisingly, this one's also off-duty.

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December 5, 2005

Press Releases for Dance

I’ve written them and I get them. The most pitiless fact is that when I get a release, the first thing I do is look at who’s involved. If I don’t see a name I recognize, the release will probably get pitched. This is not because I’m a snob. It’s because I’ve been watching dance for more than two decades now. Just keeping up with the people I know fills my calendar. Let me know who is working on this project, and boldface the names.

If I see no names I recognize but the work is in my field of interest (ballet, particularly classical or neoclassical) I may very well go, especially if the company is from out of town, which would be a very good reason for me not to recognize the people involved.

Other things could get me to go but they’re random and particular to every writer. A dance about knitting would probably not do much for other writers in New York, but I’d be interested.

It’s extremely tempting early on in your career to want to explain your work thoroughly. I did my early press releases in the form of an interview, which took nerve but may have helped get me a review or two. It probably also didn’t hurt that I was using good dancers and doing independent ballet, something relatively uncommon. My releases got shorter and shorter as I went on and as people became familiar with what I did. Try and keep them as pithy as possible. Invest in photography that conveys the mood of your dances. A really good picture could evoke more about what you’re doing than several paragraphs and a gorgeous one can even give legitimacy. It’s expensive and it sounds shallow, but the first impression a reviewer gets is your advance materials. They don’t need to be embossed on vellum but a professional looking job with a good design gives you credibility.

Your release will be taken painfully literally. Don’t include throwaway copy because it sounds sexy. You could get crucified. I'm pretty sure that some flights of fancy on my early releases led to a bad review or two. If you call your company “boldly innovative” you damn well better do something never seen before on stage. I’ve seen Dennis O’Connor pull an Evel Knievel doll out of his ass on stage; are you going to douse yourself with gasoline and light it ablaze? The danger is reviewers come in all shapes and sizes. “Boldly innovative” works that aren’t may get my goat but another reviewer might loathe anything that smells even faintly of the academy. It’s a crapshoot. Try and describe what you’re doing accurately and briefly. Say enough so that people know what you're doing, but not enough so they can hang you with it. “An edgy quintet to modern music inspired by the poetry of St. John of the Cross.” Descriptive, to the point and fair enough – but it had better be edgy.

Don’t use your grantwriting materials to fashion a release. Grantmakers are trying to use their money to do charitable work for the general good; this makes them interested in the cultural and social goals of your work in a completely different way than a dance writer. Nothing will set off my bullshit detector faster than a release declaring that your work seeks to explore the otherness forced upon dancers by society’s distorted views of body imagery. A press release is not the place for that kind of gobbledygook. Don't use your booking materials either, for the same reason. A dance writer is not a potential presenter.

This is labor intensive, but having more than one release would be helpful. You will probably find that there are a few reviewers you will especially target – the ones whose area of interest overlaps yours. Those people should get special treatment and a release with as little advertising language as possible. They already know what it is you do; they just want to know what the current project is, who is involved and the vital details.

There is a second level of reviewer who may never come and see your work because it isn't in his or her field of interest but you want them to recognize your name and work. The press release might not be different than for the first group, but you might want to include some other material to familiarize them with who you are. A nice postcard or a prior favorable review (one brief one, not a press kit’s worth) might be a good idea.

The third group would be general listings. These releases don’t go to dance writers specifically, but to people in charge of the calendar and listings sections. The pre-press this can provide is as valuable as any review. Unlike reviewers, listings people need exciting copy and especially exciting photos. If you’re going trumpet your work as “slash and burn” or “reinventing dance!” this is where you do it.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 4, 2005

Bold advances in audience development!

Kudos to the Royal Ballet of Flanders for targeting the most fruitful new audience for ballet: people who don't like it!

Does the Royal Ballet of Flanders only perform classical ballets?
No! We perform contemporary works as well as the classics. We want to present a range of styles which appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

What I really like is that No! to start. Maybe you could sex that baby up with "God forbid!" or "Ugh!!!!" instead.

Let's try another version of this:

Do the Mets only play baseball?
Gentle potential sportsgoer, No! Ptah! Icky icky oobly oo! We do lots of other things like fire-baton twirling and motocross as well. To present a range of styles which appeal to as wide an audience as possible, we also play football and hockey as well. Let's face it, sports is sports. They're all the same. We know you don't like baseball anyway. We don't either. We never have. Really. We know we can't get you to actually like baseball. We're not even going to try. The truth is, we're kind of ashamed we do it in the first place. Our mothers forced us before we knew better. We wish we were taller, then we could play basketball. We just do baseball because of those stupid folks who like it and for the subsidy.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders. We just call it a ballet company™.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:56 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 23, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card: No Turkey Edition

Off to Toronto tonight, to see La Sylphide. Yes, again. I will see the ballet nine times this year in three productions; Sorella Englund's setting in Boston, Johan Kobborg's in London, and now Nikolaj Hübbe's in Toronto. Tomorrow, he is also dancing James. On Friday night, it's Aleksandr Antonijevic, on Saturday matinee Guillaume Côté.

NBoC is pairing it with Eliot Feld's Intermezzo, which amazingly enough, I haven't seen yet.

Amidst the ballet going, I get to see several friends, which is the real reason I see NBoC at least twice a year. No turkey, though. Canadian Thanksgiving was more than a month ago.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 8:52 AM | TrackBack

November 19, 2005

A Choreographer's Diary

Here's a blast from the past.

A Choreographer's Diary was written as a diary of the creation and production of Dance as Ever's 1999 concert.

The diary was arguably a proto-blog, written before blogs and blogging software became common. I wanted to give it a permanent home on my own website and it seemed logical to present it in blog form.

It's quite long, but I think an interesting record from start to finish of the production of a chamber dance concert.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:32 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 18, 2005

Baked LifeForms

Move over Merce. You may have pioneered the use of computer assisted choreography, but here comes Pillsbury.

Via The Poor Man, who will probably sue me.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 1:06 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 16, 2005

Roll Call

Doug Fox over at Great Dance is working to keep the discussion going about the dance blogosphere with an open thread inviting dance bloggers to introduce themselves. So check it out, and check in.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 10:53 PM | TrackBack

November 15, 2005

More on the dance blogosphere

Via Rachel at Downtown Dancer, Doug Fox at Great Dance has made an interesting white paper on using blogs to strengthen dance companies.

There’s lots of good stuff there, but I’m going to rely on my own experience as a professional writer, Artistic Director and all-around crank to pick at a few things.

A blog may be inexpensive but it is labor-intensive. The things Doug mentions - cultivation of a voice and consistency especially – are not to be taken lightly. Writing is a skill. It takes me a good hour to do a decent blog entry. Good blogging isn’t just a diary or an advertisement. It’s the careful cultivation of a public persona. Expect it to take time and don't necessarily expect to be good at it.

The internet is a phenomenal tool for increasing visibility and profile. I have used it for both. But as much as writing is an art, so is self-promotion. We had an unwritten rule at Ballet Talk that a member was allowed to promote their own work in proportion to the amount he or she contributed to the whole. If someone only showed up when they were announcing their own performance, we suggested they might wish to post elsewhere. My suggestion would be that if you enter into the blogosphere because you want to contribute to the discussion, you will do something of value. If you enter it to promote your dance concert people will, and should, smell it a mile off.

Amateur voices in the blogosphere are essential. The blogosphere thrives on having a large number of voices. I’d also like to self-interestedly say something for recognizing the value of the pros. I’ve been on both sides of this issue – at the mercy of reviewers and one myself. Pros contribute several things to the conversation that others don’t – the greatest is a depth of viewing. I’ve got a bit more than two decades of dance viewing under my belt (I deliberately did not begin writing on dance until I had been watching for more than a decade). John Percival can tell you what Scènes de Ballet looked like in 1948. It’s more than “I was there”. Dance writers place dances in context, tell you what to look for, and what’s changed.

It isn't as if the Internet precludes quality writing. One reason I love writing for Danceview Times is that it adds the value of new media (immediacy, access and SPACE!) while preserving a level of quality associated with print. But there's plenty of dross on the Internet because of the low barrier to startup. I started writing because I thought too many people were looking at the dancers and too few at the dance. I find it disheartening when I see "You too can be a critic" articles. Writing on dance isn’t about voicing your opinions – I mean, who really cares what I think of Christopher Wheeldon or Ashley Bouder? I love her and you loathe her and that’s that. Why do I love her and what can I show you about her? Can I show you a different way of looking at a blackbird? The dance writers I admire are champions of an aesthetic. I skip the ones who write a self-centered and self-aggrandizing litany of opinions.

Getting paid to review doesn’t magically make one a good reviewer. You can train your eye, but some people are blessed with that via instinct (Estelle and Michael at Ballet Talk come to mind quickly). Tom Phillips was a pro writer before he took to dance writing, he’s one of the best I’ve seen enter the field recently – the other being the only writer I can think of who is more of a walking conflict of interest than me, Lisa Rinehart. Rinehart is also one of the best new dancer-reviewers. Being a dancer also doesn’t necessarily make one a good reviewer; dancers tend to think of dance from that unique point of view – and any dancer can name you any number of lousy dances that are still delightful to dance.

I hope that Rachel, Doug and I aren't setting up an echo chamber of links and trackbacks. Rachel Howard wrote hopefully yesterday about the blossoming of the dance blogosphere. I think we need a few more people to join in before we can savor the bloom on the rose - so make a comment or post your own entry!

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:44 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 8, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

11/10/05 - Lar Lubovitch Company - premiere of Elemental Brubeck, also Mens' Stories. I'm on duty, but Tai Jimenez, a ravishingly elegant dancer and good friend is in the cast. As I went to get the link to Tai, I see my friend Miho Morinoue is also dancing, as well as a few other people I know as colleagues. The more to enjoy, but as I've said before, I am a walking conflict of interest.

11/12/05 - Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. They are new to me. Also on duty, in both cases for Danceview Times.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:11 PM | TrackBack

November 3, 2005


James Wolcott, whose crush on Veronika Part has been already been aired publicly (it's kinda cute and he's in good company) warns us that Part is dancing Terpsichore on Saturday night.

He then lets us in on a little balletomane lingo:

("Terpy," as we ballet buffs refer to the role)

Terpy. We ballet buffs (yea verily, even we choreographers and dancers) have not heard that one before. I'd try it, but I keep thinking it's short for Turpentine.

I haven't decided what I'm going to this week, if anything. After seven performances last week I'm pretty sated.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:32 PM | TrackBack

October 29, 2005

The fastest five days ever

It went by in a flash.

I leave tomorrow morning for Bristol to rest for a day with my brother and sister in law, then back home.

There were more substitutions today. Rojo did not dance; I saw Lamb a second time instead.

All told, I think Sylphide was a success. None of the casts was perfect, none were bad. All had different virtues. All the men looked better coached than they have before. Englund did two performances, each different. The final one was the most explicit playing of an attraction for James by Madge I have ever seen. I don't think it's the best reading, but at this point I think Englund has a right to it. Kobborg hasn't given them a Danish Sylphide either, he's given them the one that seems to suit the company, and one they look good in.

Off to bed.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:02 PM | TrackBack

October 28, 2005

A tale of one city blogged in the rain

I'm sitting on my corner at Iverna Gardens and oh my it is raining. It wasn't when I started. Blogging is a harsh mistress.

Paris and London seem to trade off in my affections. Since my brother's marriage I've gone to London often, at this point four times since October 2003. The city has become inspiring to me in a way Paris has also been. Alas, Paris Opera Ballet's seasons for the past two years haven't caused me to want to travel there, and in London not only have the seasons been exciting because of the Ashton Centennial, there is the added enticement of my brother and sister-in-law nearby in Bristol.

It’s an odd view of a city – hotel rooms, subways and theater interiors, but I think one learns a great deal about the city nonetheless – who goes to the theater, how and to what they go. Londoners have much more of an affection for high culture than New Yorkers; Covent Garden is always better sold than the State Theater. Then again, between the Metropolitan Opera and the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center has about 7,000 seats to fill on any given night compared to around 2500 at Covent Garden.

At each of my trips, the Royal Ballet keeps looking better. They company looked underrehearsed in 2003 in La Bayadère. The Ashton Centennial improved their classical dancing and La Sylphide looks attentively coached. Word seems to be the company dancers are also happy with La Sylphide for the same reason. I’ve only seen two casts of four (Lamb/Bonelli and Marquez/Samodurov – I see Rojo/Pennefather and Putrov/Cojocaru tomorrow – Kobborg is out and Putrov taking his place.) Both Bonelli and Samodurov have looked better coached dramatically than I have ever seen them; they both are clear on what the plot is and how to communicate it. Nobody looks remotely Danish (I’m not sure Lamb or Marquez could if they tried – it’s a totally different way than either of them trained), but they’re doing good work within their own styles.

Birmingham Royal is a more modest company in comparison, but just as necessary an institution; they are doing ballets the Royal isn’t doing and in at least one case (Scènes de Ballet) BRB did it better. They don’t have better dancers; they’ve got some decent ones, but much less at the top and the bench isn’t very deep. But a triple bill of works by MacMillan, de Valois and Cranko filled many gaps in my viewing in one sitting. It was a very pleasant surprise; I didn’t know the ballets were as well formed as they were.

Another La Sylphide doubleheader tomorrow; I will be at Covent Garden from 2 pm until 11 pm. Let’s see if I can get the iron in my hotel room to work so I can press my ties.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:50 PM | TrackBack

October 27, 2005

Don’t try this at home, kids.

8:15 am Wake up
1:15 pm – lunch with Jane and Roy
2:30 pm – Sadlers Wells Theatre. Birmingham Royal Ballet – Solitaire, Checkmate, Lady and the Fool
5:15 pm – matinee ends. Get on packed No. 38 bus to Holborn, walk to Covent Garden.
6:00 pm – sit in Vilar Floral Hall and transcribe notes. Note running times of ballets carefully. Solitaire is 27 minutes, La Fête Étrange is 35 minutes long.
7:30 pm – Miss Solitaire at Sadlers Wells.
7:30 pm – See La Fête Étrange at Covent Garden with alternate cast you won’t see otherwise.
7:57 pm. Solitaire ends at Sadlers Wells. 20 minute intermission begins.
8:07 pm – Attempt to leave Covent Garden during applause. Realize you are penned in by placid applauding couples and infirm ladies.
8:10 pm – Applause ends. Permanently cripple only two infirm ladies as you clamber over them, to be penned in on the stairs out of the stalls circle by waddling men.
8:12 pm – Break free of waddling men and chattering ladies on stairs, head out to Bow Street.
8:14 pm – Catch cab while heading towards Strand.
8:20 pm – Arrive at Sadlers Wells.
8:23 pm – Checkmate begins, blessedly slightly late.
10:25 pm – program at Sadlers Wells ends. Walk to Angel, take extremely circuitous route home because of infrequency of subway trains (Northern line south to Moorgate, Hammersmith Line to Edgeware Road finally after passing up three previous Hammersmith trains when you realize that the Circle Line train you should take just isn’t coming, District Line to High Street Kensington)
11:30 pm – arrive at High Street Kensington. Grab a salad to take back to hotel room.
midnight – head for my stray wireless curb at Iverna Gardens to quickly download email.
12:15 am – back to room. Eat late supper, finish note taking and other writing for the day.
1:45 am – bed.

It was quite exhausting, but a very illuminating day filled entirely with English character ballets that I would never see otherwise. No one is making one-act narrative ballets any more. We seem to only think now in terms of full-evening story ballets or one act abstract works. La Fête Étrange has links to Tudor’s Lilac Garden, Solitaire to Robbins’ Interplay. I found Checkmate the most interesting; I had never seen Ninette de Valois’ choreography before, and it is very competent. It’s very much of its time (immediately prior to the Second World War) and uses a chess game as a metaphor for negotiation and combat. It isn’t like The Green Table but you can tell they were made in the same era.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 4:19 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 23, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - London Calling (again)

Five days. Seven Performances. Four Sylphides.

10/25 The Lesson/La Sylphide, Royal Ballet - (Lesson - Kobborg/Marquez/Yanowsky, Sylphide - Lamb/Bonelli)
As interesting as the other cast of The Lesson (Watson/Cojocaru/Chapman) looks, I won't be there on those dates and this is a ballet I'm not sure I want to see twice.
10/26 matinee Solitaire/Checkmate/Lady and the Fool, Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadlers Wells
10/26 evening - either the same program or La Fête Étrange/Pierrot Lunaire/Marguerite and Armand at the Royal Ballet
10/27 La Fête Étrange/Pierrot Lunaire/Marguerite and Armand
10/28 Les Rendezvous/La Sylphide (Les Rendezvous - Nuñez/Sasaki, Sylphide - Marquez/Samodurov)
10/29 matinee Les Rendezvous/La Sylphide (Les Rendezvous - Yoshida/Martin, Sylphide - Rojo/Pennefather)
10/29 evening Les Rendezvous/La Sylphide (Les Rendezvous - Nuñez/Sasaki, Sylphide - Cojocaru/Kobborg)

I should be cross-eyed by the end of this. I'm on duty for Ballet Review - so reports here will have to be cursory. More than one article should come from it including one on Kobborg's Sylphide and Hübbe's Sylphide, which will be performed one month later in Toronto.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:45 AM | TrackBack

October 19, 2005

My powers are awesome

Those of reverse summoning, that is.

Just as I report that Tobi Tobias and Brendan McCarthy are on hiatus, both post.

I can't say I mind; I'm happy to read the both of them.

The dance blogosphere shouldn't be an echo chamber - one of the reasons I've tried to keep this blog from getting too personal. As I've said before, this isn't my journal. My guideline for making a post is that it should contain something useful or amusing to the reader. Probably like other professional writers who blog, I think of a blog the same I would think of a newspaper or magazine column, but enriched with commentary and hyperlinks (and detracted by the absence of an editor).

The biggest suggestion I can make to other members of the dance blogosphere is read and discuss what other dance bloggers are saying, including using linking and trackbacks. At least a few of the pro writers will never do this. As said previously, they're writing articles, not blog entries. An article takes enough time and effort - commenting and linking is more labor intensive than it seems if you do it discerningly.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:10 PM | TrackBack

October 17, 2005

The Dance Blogosphere

In a tangential remark in the comments on the dance blogosphere and its comparative quiet, Rachel of downtowndancer mentions something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Compared to other special interest blogging, dance blogging is relatively rare and at times, barely blogging.

Right now, it’s operating on a skeleton crew. Tobi Tobias has taken time off from blogging until the end of October. Brendan McCarthy just went on hiatus. But there’s more to this than frequency. It’s a question of community. Several of the dance bloggers, including myself, Tobias, Rachel Howard and Alexandra Tomalonis (whose blog is also sadly inactive) are already professional writers and that creates a different dynamic. For instance, what Tobi is doing is a blog in name only. It’s her usual incisive and skilled writing, which is enough for me, but it’s a column of the sort she has written most of her career rather than a blog. There’s no comment section and no links, which are unique features of blogging and the engine to get a discussion and community going.

Some of this could be because of the strength of the dance discussion boards and news sites. Dance blogs will have to find the niche not filled by places like Ballet Talk, DanceView Times,, Critical Dance or Dance Insider. One thing blogs could be is a bridge between dance communities. Few of the sites above are collegial with one another, unfortunately often for justifiable reasons.

I’m with Rachel in hoping that the dance blogosphere starts getting the critical mass in conversation to get some real discussions going. If you’re out there and blogging on dance, please let me know - in the comments, so that everyone else knows, too. I’ll be happy to add you to my reading list. Maybe dance bloggers could get a web ring going. I’m glad we haven’t gotten into the hair pulling and shouting that goes on in the political blogosphere, but fer chrissake, look at the size of the community that follows my friend Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s blog on knitting. Are dance enthusiasts really that much smaller a number?

Speaking of the political blogosphere, one of the sharpest hair-pullers around, James Wolcott, once again blogs on dance with a favorable mention of Roger Copeland’s book on Merce Cunningham. Kudos to Wolcott for insisting that dance is something that every culturally literate person should be interested in.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:21 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Dance Bargain in NYC

The Fourth Ring Society.

Pay $20 now. Get up to two fourth ring tickets for any performance for $15 each for the entire winter and spring seasons. That's half price. Also includes other small benefits. Though you're relatively far from the stage, fourth ring sightlines are unobstructed. Large Balanchine ballets with intricate patterning such as Symphony in C have a differentbut illuminating look up there and if you're in the first few rows of the fourth ring it's not unacceptably far.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:43 PM | TrackBack

October 16, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

10/20 - American Ballet Theatre starts its fall repertory season (the gala is the night before) with Les Sylphides/Afternoon of a Faun/Paquita pas de deux/Kaleidoscope - a new work by Peter Quanz. I'm on duty for DanceView Times.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 9:26 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 5, 2005

Will you just DIE already?

I have this odd fascination presently with execrable songs.

I just downloaded Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. It's easily one of the most loathsome songs of the seventies. A man looks back on his life and says goodbye to his dearest friend, his father, his beloved wife, his pets, his neighbors, his dentist, the milkman, and several people he met once on the checkout line at the supermarket but didn't speak to . . .

All in an extended grating whine.

There are three verses. By the middle of the second you may find yourself screaming, "DIE! DIE ALREADY! DIE!!!!1!" And each time you listen it seems to take him longer to kick the bucket. Most horrifyingly, the song sold over six million copies worldwide. What were people thinking? Then again, I downloaded it, but were all those sales for kitsch value, or to torture unknowing friends? According to the link it was the largest selling single in Canadian history, again proving the correlation between long winter nights and suicidal tendencies.

Every performing art form seems to have the overextended death scene. Opera has its consumptive arias. How long does Violetta or Mimi take to die, and wouldn't it be hard to sing if you had tuberculosis? The champ in ballet is probably Mercutio, who gets goblet after whore after goblet while he's staggering about the stage for about three weeks. Tybalt's death scene is relatively faster, except for the endless drum tattoo where I find myself idly counting the drum rolls until he bites the dust. I swear in some productions they add extra ones.

It's not often seen here, but Ivan the Terrible (also with a score by Prokofiev) has a poisoning scene for Ivan's wife, Anastasia, that lasts several days and includes plenty of high kicks before she finally drags herself to the throne and gives up the ghost. You have to love Stravinsky - while Maria Tallchief was trying to die for all she was worth to his beautifully restrained score for Orpheus and Eurydice, he asked Balanchine, "How long is Maria going to take to die? She needs to be gone by count five."

My attitude is the one I recall from Phil Gardner's shirt. In the eighties, the Joffrey Ballet stage hands would make irreverent T-shirts for their tours. The dancers had them also and Phil would often wear his to class. It was from the tour of the Cranko Romeo and Juliet and said, "Why doesn't she just stab herself now? Then we could all go to the movies."

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:10 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 30, 2005

Ballet as vocabulary rather than tradition

Via Ballet Talk, Alonzo King talks to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Somehow, people think that ballet sprung up in Europe, but that's a complete fallacy," he says. "Their definition of what ballet is and what it is not are two different things. Ballet is not a style. It's a science of movement.

A very interesting, very large point and one that goes to the crux of where ballet came from and where it is going. It opens an entire philosophical can of worms about otherness as well. King, who is African American, is insisting on his place and right to the form [added 10/1/05 in the greater sense - he's been a success in the field for years - it isn't as if he's trying to break into ballet] , and his right to completely discard traditions that he feels exclude him and substitute his own. As they say, history is the story told by the folks in charge and people are always trying to write rival histories. I think an argument can be made to defend King's position [added 10/1/05 - about ballet being science rather than style. Ballet did start in Europe and its roots are in European folk dances - one can argue that European folk dance may have come from somewhere else, but at some point you are no longer talking about direct influences]; one can certainly see the results in King's work and in dance today.

Otherness is a powerful driving force in art but one I've rarely felt, which is at least part of the reason I'm not a radical and also why I'm not an advocate of King's position. I don't believe in the results. I have always found King's work structurally weak and too much of a hodge-podge; it's generally in sections and I think if you altered the order of the sections it would not affect the work. In my book, that's a defect. For all I know, he might argue that structure is unnecesssary or outdated just as he's already argued about style. But for me, ballet is not merely work danced on pointe, using turnout and ballet vocabulary. Style is central, essential and the most beautiful thing about ballet. If the work doesn't reference ballet's style and structures it stops being ballet and becomes something else.

Absolute purity is not necessary or necessarily desirable, but to use a favorite analogy, grafting a style to ballet is like flavoring a steak. If you put a teaspoon of soy sauce on a pound of steak, you have steak with an Asian flavor and it's more interesting for it. If you use equal amounts of steak and soy sauce, you have something inedible . Proportion is everything; you need to decide what's home base, what's flavoring, how much is enough and how much is too much.

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September 20, 2005

Karole Armitage - when the avant-garde mellows

via Ballet Talk, a very interesting profile of Karole Armitage in the Houston Chronicle. Interesting to see what happens when an enfante terrible is no longer enfante or terrible.

I didn't agree with all of Armitage's opinions, but that was more personal preference than considering her in error. I am in complete agreement with this last paragraph. It's certainly not the words of an iconoclast.

Unlike many younger choreographers, however, she doesn't think the classics need tweaking. "Ballet companies have a real obligation to do work of our time. And dancers should do things off pointe, because everything is about the body," she said. "But decorating classics in a new way is ridiculous. What is brilliant about Swan Lake is great choreography with a tremendous understanding of the human psyche. Newer versions are never as deep. It's good for commercial reasons, but it's superficial. I don't think it's advancing the art form."

I agree fully with her first two statements. My own view of classical art is that it's additive. Each generation needs to throw what it has to offer into the pot and stir. So contemporary work is essential. The question becomes, what are we going to add to the pot? Work in soft slippers is valuable to the dancers as well, because there are things a point shoe can do that a soft slipper cannot, built also all sorts of intermediate positions of the foot that are possible in a soft slipper that are impossible in a pointe shoe. We need both.

My personal opinion on the classics may even be slightly more radical, though my guess is Armitage would have presented a more nuanced argument had there been space and time. She sounds thoughtful. I personally believe that the classics must change over time but that change is gradual, rather like continental drift. But when you look at a work after fifty years, bodies have changed, fashions have changed, cultural mores have changed. The work needs to stay in context and that will mean small changes. The stagers of the work need to view themselves as advocates for the work and ask themselves as they set it, "What does the work need to look and feel to the present audience as it did to the audience of its time?"

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September 17, 2005

Choreographers vs. Critics

via The Downtown Dancer, Joan Acocella reviews four downtown choreographers and one of them, Tere O'Connor, responds quite angrily.

I have empathy for O'Connor's anger. I've both written and been written about. As an artist, the one thing any artist wants, even more than the viewer liking the work is him or her getting it. Hate it or love it, but please know what I was trying to do and not tell me my work was about something that never crossed my mind the entire time I made it. There's one review I got that I know was supportive and positive - everyone told me so. I hated it; the author's take disturbed me enough that it took a few weeks to recover. To this day I can't bring myself to put it in my press kit.

I'm also a writer. And the toughest lesson to learn when you've done both is that the writer is not having a dialogue with the artist. His or her dialogue is with the reader and potential audience. The point is to tell the reader what s/he saw and thought of the work. S/he doesn't need to understand, or "get" your work. S/he only needs to be able to formulate an opinion based on his or her viewing. The only thing the writer owes the artist is basic professional and ethical standards. If you sent out a press release and invited them to come, view and write, you're fair game. I try to work at a higher standard than that, but that's my choice, not my obligation.

To be even more cold-hearted, if you can get a publication like the New Yorker, a general interest publication that devotes less and less space to dance - and even so only at Acocella's pleasure because she is committed to writing on it - to write about you, count yourself lucky.

For all these reasons I would not publicly comment on a review except in very limited circumstances where the author was factually grossly inaccurate or ethically compromised. A review is a subjective view from the audience's point of view - a point of view I can never fully share in my own work. O'Connor's objections boil down to "she doesn't understand the work" but my take on her article is that she takes all four choreographers seriously, and is not particularly negative and not vindictive. She doesn't seem to take pleasure in O'Connor's work, but I'd say she observed it closely, respectfully and understands it - just not the way O'Connor would like.

I haven't seen O'Connor's work in a long while, but in the piece I saw, when the dancers were miserable and unhappy he showed it by having them do ballet exercises. I don't see that O'Connor understands Acocella's aesthetic with more sensitivity than she understands his so it might have been best to call it a draw and let discretion be the better part of valor.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 3:30 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 13, 2005

To all the "non-dance" readers of this blog

Yes, that means you.

If you've come here via another interest (knitting, travel, cats, food, whatever) and you're in the New York area, this is my brief pitch to find out what all my fuss over dance is about, cheap.

The Fall for Dance Festival at City Center is a cornucopia of dance from September 27-October 2. Six nights and 30 companies. Ten bucks a performance. Ten bucks. Try it! Seriously, all that effort isn't there to give the already committed dance audience a performance at a discount. It's being done to lure you - and your kids - in the hopes that you will find live dance like crack and need to see more and more of it.

Here's my opinionated tips on some highlights:

9/27 - Bill Irwin's clowning won him a Macarthur "Genius" grant, Lyon Opera Ballet does William Forsythe's thoughtful Duo. For thems that like nipples, the women in that are in sheer black tops, and there is nipple-age. Joking aside, the work is not prurient at all. Ronald K. Brown's work usually stirs the audience to a frenzy, and is performed by Philadanco.

9/29 - American Ballet Theatre does Spectre de la Rose and on the same program Larry Keigwin can show you why he's one of modern dance's darlings.

9/30 - A humanoid, a woman in a Louise Brooks wig and acres of black parachute silk. See New York City Ballet perform one of George Balanchine's most inscrutable (and unballetic) works, Variations for a Door and a Sigh.

10/1 - If you have never seen Paul Taylor's Esplanade, this is the night to go. It is a masterpiece of a dance composed of the simplest elements - mostly runs and walks. If last season's fine performances are a guide, it should be in excellent shape.

Give it a shot. Take your kids.

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September 9, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - The season begins anew

9/15 - Glen Rumsey - ignored in my heaven

9/17 - New Chamber Ballet. Here's a report on a performance from earlier this year.

9/29 Aditi Mangaldas at Asia Society. This was recommended to me by Rajika Puri. She is the "elegant Indian lady in the fur coat" who recommended the Nrityagram dancers to me. That was one of the best performances I saw this year so I take her recommendations quite seriously. She wrote to me after reading my review in Danceview Times and identified herself. I was delighted that she found out how much I appreciated her suggestion. This will be my first time seeing Kathak dance.

9/30 Watching Ligeti Move- All of Christopher Wheeldon's ballets to Ligeti (Polyphonia, Morphoses, Continuum) performed at the same time at the Miller Theatre, Columbia University. The attraction here is getting to see San Francisco dancers (including Yuri Possokhov) that I ordinarily need to fly cross-country to see. It will be interesting to see how the ballets hold up next to each other; they are very similar in many ways.

Upcoming - On the Road

weekend of Oct 7-9 Pennsylvania Ballet in Wheeldon's Swan Lake.

October 24-29 London - RB in La Sylphide and a triple bill and BRB in a triple bill at Sadlers Wells (and visit my brother!)

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:47 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 5, 2005

Word of Mouth: East and West Coasts

East Coast: Glen Rumsey is the alter ego of the divinely effervescent Miss Shasta Cola. He was also an impeccable dancer with the Merce Cunningham company. He hasn't had time to do much choreography amidst his several lives but what I've seen shows me that he thinks like a choreographer. He's doing an evening length performance piece, ignored in my heaven, at Location One - 26 Greene Street on September 15-17 and 22-24. I'm going.

West Coast: In Seattle, Peter Boal is dancing Duo Concertant with Louise Nadeau in a one-time-only performance. I'll let him tell you more:

It's on 9/17 at 7:30 and only costs $60 for perf. and champagne, details at This is my only perf ever! with PNB.
So if you want to see him dance once more, get to Seattle. I would if I could.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:16 AM | TrackBack

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 11:49 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

August 10, 2005

Less Dance Blogging for a bit (and Pharoah's Daughter)

August is the quietest month for dance in New York, so I'll take the opportunity to catch up on other blogging as I can. I have two articles to write and since I get into bigger trouble if they don't get done, they take precedence.

I never reported on The Pharaoh's Daughter (thanks, Chuck, for the ticket). I finally saw Maria Alexandrova, whom I've missed through the luck of the draw in scheduling up until now. Her look surprised me, because I was basing my hypothesis on casting. I first heard New Yorkers talking about her when the company came to the State Theater in 2000 and she danced third movement, Symphony in C. At least during my viewing at NYCB, there's a pretty specific casting tradition for that role; it goes to the short jumpers in the company. But that's not how it's cast elsewhere; when I last saw it in Paris, it was danced by two of the tallest principals in the company.

When I heard of Alexandrova's success in Symphony in C, I jumped to the conclusion that she was a short athletic dancer. Nope. She's got a good jump, but she's very moderately proportioned and not really of a specific type at all. I'm not that crazy about the ballet itself. My problems are more with Lacotte than Petipa; I think a better revival than this one is possible.

For a more thorough report on a different cast (Alexandrova shows up here in the supporting role of Ramzé rather than the lead, Aspicia) I commend Mindy Aloff's Retrofitting the Mummy

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:12 PM | TrackBack

August 1, 2005

Alexandra Ansanelli

I don’t have more reliable information about her departure from NYCB than the gossip that’s floating around the plaza. We’ll all have to wait and see what happens with that, but it seemed like an apropos time to talk a little about Alexandra.

I’ve seen most, if not all, of Alexandra’s career and participated in a small corner of it. I wasn’t an immediate fan. As with Miranda Weese, I had initial doubts that were overcome. Different ones: I thought Weese was too facile and Alexandra’s body (especially her ankles) was weak and she was being pushed too fast. I was wrong in both cases.

I started changing my mind about Alexandra by 1998 but it was her performances in 2001 of Robbins’ Two and Three Part Inventions and especially Wheeldon’s Polyphonia that seemed to me to be a turning point. Wheeldon had taken her greatest gift – her projection – and instead of using it in a virtuoso role had given her a delicate lento waltz to dance after being abandoned on a darkened stage. A little girl lost. She made the ballet and the ballet made her.

On Friday, February 8, 2002 Alexandra did an Allegro Brillante that people talked about for the rest of the season. It was an astonishing performance; the kind of performance that you know is astounding even as it’s happening before your eyes. She doesn't work for everybody; some people found her projection calculated and artificial. From working with her, I know that it's quite real.

I asked Alexandra to work with me in 2003 through Peter Boal. Courting a dancer is a diplomatic process; my instincts are to use an intermediary. (The story of how I asked Peter to work with me is a saga in itself – though we knew each other casually, I plotted for three weeks to engineer the right “accidental” meeting.) It wasn’t difficult this time, both Peter and Chuck Askegard had been happy working with me; Peter mentioned my interest to Alexandra and she called.

The thing that stays with me from those rehearsals was how deceptively strong she was, and how much of it was sheer force of will. There’s a step in The Pause on the Way Down that began with an echappé, where she put her legs to the side in a wide position on pointe. From there, I asked Alexandra to do a double pirouette without bending her legs or adjusting, just pulling herself from that spread position into a turn. This is like asking an opera singer to hit a high E with a gag in her mouth. I didn’t ask for it out of malice, but I did out of curiosity. I wanted to see if she could do it.

The step seemed impossible in the first rehearsal. She tried a few times and was very frustrated with herself. I was about to add a small plié that would have made the step a great deal more reasonable, but she stopped me saying that she wanted to work on it. She came in the next day able to do it.

Alexandra is tireless, dedicated and ambitious. She’s also an Alexandra, don’t call her Alex. She loves elegance and femininity. She wasn’t always easy to work with. She was never rude or unpleasant – very much the opposite. I’ve never seen anyone try harder to be considerate. But she lives at a very high pitch; everything is important and no detail can be overlooked. It took a lot of energy to keep up with that; I left every rehearsal exhausted. But that’s part of my job description and her talent justified the extra work. Looking back on the solo I made her, I did not accomplish what I had set out to do, and I regret that. Alexandra’s schedule was tight; I bit off more than I could chew.

My favorite part of the entire process was the photo shoot. Alexandra is very pretty in person, meticulously so. But the camera absolutely loves her. Josef Astor took the photos and David Quinn, my costumer, brought materials for styling. He had two bolts of fabric, assorted feathers, hats and jewelry. The “dress” she wore for the promotional shots was made of a bolt of velvet and a safety pin. He draped it on her in four minutes; someone timed him.

This was her favorite picture from the shoot.


I’m sad that she’s leaving NYCB. Often when someone leaves it’s because their career has been overlooked. That’s not the case; I think both Martins and Wheeldon have done right by her. Martins saw her potential right off the bat; Wheeldon made the roles that defined her. I think NYCB is her best fit and hope that there might be a homecoming at some point in the future. In any case, I hope things work out for her well wherever she goes. The classics are going to be an interesting challenge for her. She’s not built with moderate classical proportions; she has a long quirky neoclassical line. Then again, this is also the woman who could do a double pirouette from an echappé because she decided she would. I’d be the first in line to buy tickets to her Giselle.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 2:40 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 26, 2005

Even LESS joy in Mudville

Alexandra Ansanelli is no longer listed on NYCB's roster.


Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:23 PM | TrackBack

July 19, 2005

What is it with me and seating?

Last night my press ticket was for the middle of row W. The woman on my left asked me if I was alone. When I said yes, she asked if I would mind switching seats with her husband, who was on the aisle in Row T. Of course, being a good sport, I said yes and it was a better seat.

When I got there and sat down, who should sit down in front of me? You guessed it.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 5:52 PM | TrackBack

Shopping with the Bolshoi

My local supermarket is on the walk home from Lincoln Center, and post-performance is usually the one time I have to shop. Evidently it also was for most of the corps de ballet and the orchestra; they were in the Associated en masse, probably trying to save their per diem (I wonder if they get enough). What do Bolshoi dancers eat? Anything prepared they can grab, it seems. Potato salad, olives, ham. Lots of Pepsi. And there was the skinny blond boy with a dozen doughnuts.

"Is this what you eat after you dance?" I asked him.

"Yes," he smiled sheepishly.

As someone who spent my entire dance career as The Boy With The Weight Problem, I am trying hard not to hate him.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:17 AM | TrackBack

July 18, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - Bolshoi Edition

7/18 (opening night) - Don Quixote
7/22 Spartacus

I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I am a Spartacus virgin. This will be my first.

Both "on duty" for Danceview Times.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:08 AM | TrackBack

July 10, 2005

Dance Advice: A guide to tipping your partner

A young ballerina writes in and asks:

Dear Mr. Witchel:

I am about going to be dancing my first Giselle in a week with a new partner. Is a gratuity expected at the end of the performance? If so, how much should I tip?

Yes, young ballerina. Tipping your partner is a polite way of thanking him for his services and always appreciated by a hardworking porteur.

How to know how much to tip? Length of dance and number of lifts are your best guide.

Here's our rule of thumb for tipping partners:

Tip 20% if the lifts have been exceptional. These include perfect pops in helicopters, or any one handed presses.

Tip 15% in standard situations, such as the grand pas in Nutcracker.

You may tip lower amounts for perfunctory partnering, excessive moping and/or groaning, clammy hands, narcissism, egotism or inattentiveness. You do not need to tip at all if your partner drops you.

Tip 50% "combat pay" if:

You should also offer to pay any chiropractor bills.

You can print out this list and carry it in your dance bag so it's handy when you need it. Use clean new bills for gratuities, but it is considered bad form to slip them into your partner's dance belt. An envelope will suffice.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 9:35 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 6, 2005

Does Laura know about this?

James Wolcott goes gaga over Veronika Part. Someone should tell his wife, critic Laura Jacobs of The New Criterion. Yes, there is a certain bizarre Matalin-Carville irony that one of the best liberal screedmasters has a wife on the staff of a neoconservative magazine. As far as I know, though, Jacobs' writing is not political in nature.

I can't excerpt the post because I can't read it. Not can't, shouldn't. I'm reviewing the same cast tomorrow; I can read other criticism once my piece is written and turned in.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 9:13 PM | TrackBack

July 5, 2005

Separated at Birth?

George Bush


And Mother Ginger?


Posted by Leigh Witchel at 10:42 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Round the Danceblogosphere

New Blog - Kristin Sloan, a dancer at NYCB is starting a photo blog. Check it out, it's an interesting glimpse backstage.

Brendan McCarthy's blog recounts a very heartening anecdote about Daria Pavlenko. Ballet has become dangerously inbred and self-referential, intellectual cross-training is one of the healthiest things we can do for ballet.

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June 30, 2005

Dirty, Dancing

I went to see Robert Melee’s The Talent Show last night at The Kitchen. I know most of the people involved; these are just notes from an uptown queen who’s at the edge of the circle of friends.

The title is accurate, it was a series of unconnected sketches from some of the more interesting people in the Burlesque and performance scene downtown. The house was sold out, and probably is tonight as well.

Certain acts were wonderful (The effervescent Shasta Cola - who worked with me in '98 and whom I adore - channeling her high school years as a Color Guard – now there is a lady who understands how to structure a four minute act) and certain were rough going. The show opened with a grainy film montage. It was painful and haunting to see Alan Eto on the screen, but I’m glad to remember him. The show continued with a woman seated on a folding chair onstage with a man in a white Tyvek jumpsuit. The woman was older, garishly made up in drag to the level of Kabuki and naked. Both were surrounded by house paints. First he painted her tits white and then splattered them with various blues and greens. Then he smeared it all over her with a sponge. Unfortunately, this Theater of Yuck sounds more outlandish and engrossing than it was to watch. It took forever and they took their own sweet time as if every moment were interesting. There was a lot of dead air. Finding out later that this was Melee and his mother made it a great deal weirder, but it didn’t make it any shorter.

Julie Atlas Muz
presented Mr. Pussy, the incredible multilingual singing vagina. Mr. Pussy did an entire song in Spanish. I leave it to your imagination. I mentioned to someone after the show that because of her shows I think I know Julie’s genitalia more intimately than those of any other woman on earth. He said he felt the same way. It was her husband.

At the end of the show David Quinn did a fashion show – we did something similar but darker together with Runway (scroll down) in 1998. His clothing has only gotten better and better. My favorites are the women’s jackets he’s making with a 60’s bolero-like silhouette and wonderful textured woven fabrics. My least favorite thing is the fact that he makes nothing for men.

Dirty Martini performed a dance solo. Dirty’s made a name for herself in the burlesque scene but she’s had long years of dance training; I met her in her graduating year at SUNY Purchase when she was still Linda. The years as Dirty have honed Linda’s stage presence; I admire the way Linda can hold an audience. The solo began with Linda in her Dirty persona: in a blond Marilyn wig and a bustier and black overskirt. Holding her skirt, she skimmed about the stage and then moved forward slowly in a shaft of light. The spell she cast exists where stagecraft is the intersection of technique and persona. She wouldn’t have been able to pull that off nearly as well a decade ago, before she was Dirty. Reaching into her dress she produced a red sequined heart from her bosom. Modern dance became burlesque as she reached for her zipper, but she was also pulling off her persona. Dirty’s wig and dress came off and there was Linda, who slashed into a slam-bang solo that recalled, as she mentioned herself, her work with Stanley Love. The two forms, burlesque and concert dance, didn’t collide; they combined.

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June 28, 2005


Gia Kourlas is right; I felt like I had to see A Midsummer Night's Dream on Friday night to greet the summer, and say goodbye to NYCB for six months. It's my first time seeing them since returning from the UK, and my last time to see them until the new season.

Sofiane Sylve and Antonio Carmena made their debuts as Titania and Oberon. Both did a good job and suit the role, though in both cases there's room for improvement through repetition. They both mime a bit oddly, at least within the context of NYCB. It's very emphatic and there's lots of airspace during the mime. The gestures are very clear, but there's no conversation between them. Carmena has excellent batterie and made all his turns, but they'd be nicer done in a higher retiré. Still, a good addition to both of their repertories. To keep Carmena moving along this road, it wouldn't hurt to let him try Prodigal Son.

Coming back after two weeks in the UK emphasizes just how many cues you get simply from repeated viewing. Things looked weird there because they went counter to expectations, but now things look weird to me here in the same way. It's not unexpected things, it's exactly the stereotype: placement, port de bras, body line, corps lines and energy. Some of the difference is pure geography; Covent Garden is cramped compared to the State Theater. Royal Ballet dancers dance under themselves and can seem lethargic – especially in Balanchine, but the NYCB line is rangy and careless in comparison.

My friend Chuck and I talked afterwards some of the differences between Ashton and Balanchine; between The Dream and Midsummer and in general. One that’s not an overt difference but another subconscious cue is how each man uses pointe work. In Midsummer, as he does often, Balanchine has lines of women cross the stage and weave about each other in traveling bourrées. I can’t think of an Ashton ballet where pointe work is used in that way; it’s generally more decorative and doesn’t travel (if you can think of exceptions, make a comment!)

We stood for an hour in front of the subway entrance on a cool summer night right after the solstice. We talked about our favorite dancers, and our less-than-favorites. We mourned Körbes’ departure, we cheered Somogyi’s return. We talked about NYCB like other men discuss baseball. They are our hometown team. We’ve each got our favorite players; he loves Nichols the way I love Kistler. We’re both nuts about Bouder.

NYCB was the company I watched while I was training. NYCB charged half of what ABT did for standing room and the ushers at the Met treated standees like dirt. So I went to NYCB several times weekly and ABT only occasionally, and fell in love with one company and not the other. I’ve watched NYCB for two decades now. I’ve watched some dancers’ whole careers now. I try to write fairly, but I have favorites. I know many of these dancers personally and watch a few of them on stage like I was watching my favorite niece. Our bond with NYCB goes beyond the artistic to the personal.

Summer begins, but the Season ends. Goodbye until winter, NYCB. I never realize how much I miss you until I see you again.

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June 20, 2005

There is no joy in Mudville

There is no official confirmation, but it looks like it's a done deal that Carla Körbes is leaving NYCB to join Pacific Northwest Ballet - the docents on the Fourth Ring are mentioning it. Her recent promotion may have been an attempt to keep her; I'm sad it did not work.

Sigh. Not only does Peter Boal retire, he takes Körbes with him.

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June 13, 2005

Three days - Four performances (Scènes de Ballet)

I saw Birmingham Royal in four performances of their Stravinsky program. It's an extreme way to get to know Scènes de Ballet, but it works. On Saturday matinee, (Nao Sakuma's performance, which was the best) I spent the time scribbling a synopsis of the ballet as it was performed, so I could get a sense of how Ashton conceived it. Stravinsky did his own programming as he composed, and Richard Buckle wrote an original synopsis when Ashton first planned the ballet. Ashton followed neither. What he made was a complete formal classical ballet - all the parts are there: entries and variations for the leads, pas de deux, group dances, coda. But like Symphonic Variations it's done without pauses so it feels like an organic unit and is harder to pick apart - hence the synopsis.

BRB is an interesting contrast to London's company. It's smaller, and thinner at the top because of that - Robert Parker danced at every performance I saw, for instance. But it's also more cohesive. They are well rehearsed - it shows in their performances of The Rite of Spring as well as Scènes de Ballet. The épaulement in Scènes was all there, but it felt under their skin, rather than as if they dutifully knew to tilt their heads on count 5. They also danced like there were no small parts. I recall the grumbling of the Joffrey dancers when they danced Rite.

I'm heading to Heathrow and home tonight so there'll be fuller reports of the travels a bit later.

I enclose my synopsis of Scènes de Ballet in an extended entry. Luckily there's better documentation - it was a synopsis like this written in the margins of Marie Rambert's musical score that formed the backbone of the Hodson-Archer reconstruction of The Rite of Spring.

Scènes de Ballet

Abbreviations for the stage -

U = Upstage (towards the back from the audience)
D = Downstage
SL = Stage Left (The left side of the stage if you were on it looking into the audience)
SR = Stage Right.

Cast -

Lead couple
4 demi-soloist men
12 women

Opening - Male soloist in center with men in clasping each other pairs on diagonal (DSR to USL?). He begins with entrechats, it becomes a dance for all of them.

Women enter to do a female quartet from USR on the diagonal.

All women enter in lines of four (nodding to the wings)

Four men reenter. Brief turning solo for one woman from the corps.

Group dance for men & women.

Forms a square facing to the diagonal USL with the men scattered irregularly through the lines. The men leave on that diagonal.

The women do a group dance in lines of four of nodding and bourrées that push USR

They form three lines of four across the stage. The men enter across the side SL in Sissones, then the ballerina enters for the first time. She dances a brief solo (lots of fast pointe work)

Processional. The section ends with her held aloft as the lead man reenters.

The women are in a line in the back and do piqué emboîtes (reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty) forward. The men leave except the lead man.

As the ballerina does partnered bourrées side to side, it is echoed by the female corps, who disperse to the side of the stage in two groups of six (one USR and one DSL).

The four men reenter on the free diagonal (USL-DSR) for a jumping quartet - grand jetés going forward, tour jetés entrelacés, rond de jambs en l'air and relevé arabesques traveling back.

This happens twice with a female jumping duet (one woman from each group) that echoes the men's steps in between.

Females dance in a circle (two circles of six) changements traveling into circle and out.

Ballerina reenters with all men for big dance to main trumpet solo reminiscent of Rose Adagio.

The men form a shallow V, lead man at center-center. The ballerina goes down line from SR to SL doing a different partnering move with each, then partnered en dehors pirouettes where one man begins and another comes in to finish.

Allegro section for ballerina and men that begins with partnered back cabrioles.

The corps forms a circle, the leads travel in opposite directions round it and again the ballerina partners with each of the four men (who are at 2, 4, 8 and 10 o'clock approximately) She is carried off by her partner and the corps does a dance in lines facing front, (lines front to back rather than side to side) two lines of three women, a line of four men, and another two lines of three women.

They do a dance starting with side to side arabesques and the SR women leave after the first combination leaving 6 women and four men continuing. Then the other six women leave

The four men dance as four corners of a square.

The male lead enters for the solo of double tours.

Turns into a male quintet, beginning with pas de basques.

The man does a second solo, with split leaps to both sides (this is the second "Burmese tiger pit" for the man after the tours.)

The ballerina reenters for a solo that begins with snakelike port de bras and leads to another pas de deux, during this, three women appear behind in USR arches of the viaduct.

After the pas de deux all the women reenter "creeping" hunched over and on their pointes.

The men reenter.

Group coda.

Music slows for an apotheosis. The side to side bourrées from before grow to side to side partnered grand jetés.

The ballerina and her partner remain at the back while the corps dances (partnered turns and shoulder sits with four women & the men) and then come forward for her final glorification; a arabesque penchée (after a turn?) and a final "Beauty" supported arabesque with open arms held out above shoulder level in expansive triumph.

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June 12, 2005

An open letter to Robert Parker, Principal Dancer, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Dear Mr. Parker:

I was sitting in the upstairs circle of the Hippodrome Theatre in Birmingham last night watching you perform Scènes de Ballet. I’ve been pleased with all your performances this weekend and decided to ask some nearby audience members for their reaction to you. I wanted to see if you were a “favorite son” with the local audience.

I asked the neat looking lady in front of me what she thought of you.

“I’ll tell you what I think.” She said as she turned around. “I think he’s God’s gift to women and I’ll not hear a word against him.”

Luckily, I wasn’t about to say one, although between you and me you were slightly off in your tours and the switch-leaps in Scènes could have been a bit bigger. But you’d done the lead in two other ballets that day along with fine performances every day of the run before and you deserve to be cut some slack.

So there you have it, Tiger.

I figured that on days when life is bleaker than others, it wouldn’t hurt to know that somewhere, someone out there in the audience thinks you’re God’s gift to women.



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June 10, 2005

"Ah, but you never saw Taglioni"

I have been blogging with limited time and sporadic access, in London mostly sitting on a favorite mossy green curb at the church on Courtfield Gardens, and in Brum I finally found Beattie's basement café which has a free hotspot. The things I will do for affordable net access. This is an addendum to the previous post that I could not do at the time; I had to pack up and catch the bus to Brum.

"Ah, but you never saw Taglioni." - another favorite expression of Alexandra's and the bane of every balletomane's existence. We see a performance that we love and along comes another, more experienced balletomane who says that if you never saw Taglioni, you haven't seen the role done correctly.

I've been on both sides of that conundrum even during the past week in London. I'm only forming a viewing history of the Royal Ballet and their greats are unknown to me. More confusingly, dancers beloved here (Kobborg, Cojocaru and others) I only have a qualified appreciation of. But with Symphony in C, poor carolm posts her enjoyment on Ballet Talk, thinking I will have enjoyed it as much as she. I feel like an ogre.

The hardest part of defending the importance of correct style in a ballet is to let go of the need to correct others out of their enjoyment of the performance. The woman next to me at the ballet was fascinated by my scribbling in the dark and asked me what I thought. During the applause I pointed to Sarah Lamb and said she was closest to doing it correctly (that sounds unfair - she really was by and large correct) and then pointed to Mara Galeazzi and said she was farthest and had a great deal to answer for. She laughed and said they looked absolutely the same to her.

I said what I hope is the correct thing to say when you have seen Taglioni and someone else hasn't, that I was so glad she enjoyed the performance and that I hoped she would some day be able to come to New York and see if she thought there was a difference. At least in this case I was able to offer an option. For some Taglioni-seers their main satisfaction is that she’s dead and they saw her and you can’t. For others, it is their greatest regret.

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June 9, 2005

Non-Balanchine and Anti-Balanchine?

The question of fidelity to the original style of dance, whether Balanchine, Ashton, Bournonville or others in one that can be discussed endlessly. It’s a side point of an interesting discussion at Ballet Talk right now and I’ve written about it myself for a while, both in an article on Agon in Ballet Review, Fall 1997, and on the web.

If the camps are divided into “originalists” and “non-originalists”, my natural sympathy usually lies with the non-originalists, if only because I think time eventually forces that on all works of art. If it lasts long enough, there is no one around to place the work into context any longer. We can only postulate how Shakespeare or Mozart was actually performed, and the matrix of the culture has changed under us enough that an “authentic” performance would not have the same effect on us as it would to the original audience. So at some point, all art becomes just a text for a future generation. Even “authentic” performances need to carefully compensate for current eyes. An example, if I were staging Le Spectre de la Rose, I would delete the bonnet from the girl’s costume. Yes, Karsavina wore one, but it doesn’t look fashionable to our audience; we think of caps as dowdy.

But how much can you depart from the original style before it’s no longer the original work, or even antithetical to it? Time changes your opinion on this; the more experience you have with a style, the more vociferously you tend to defend it. My friend Alexandra Tomalonis used as her joke example of this the well-meaning ensemble 100 years from now that decided to take Agon back to its baroque roots and re-score the Stravinsky for a consort of viols. She wondered if I might protest.

For the last two nights, I have had my Consort of Viols moment, watching the Royal Ballet do Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Symphony in C is a ballet I feel reasonably familiar with; I even learned parts of it (1st, 2nd & 3rd movement demisoloists, if I recall correctly) from Jody Fugate (Judith Fugate’s sister) during a summer workshop while I was a student.

In the Ballet Review article on Agon I said (paraphrasing myself) that there are many different ways for something to be right, but we can usually tell far more quickly when something is wrong. And oh boy, was this Symphony in C wrong. There are certain tenets of Balanchine ballets that, once violated, the ballet goes from being Non-Balanchine to Anti-Balanchine.

The Royal Ballet dances Symphony in C under themselves and firmly on their legs. That’s not non-Balanchine with a local accent, that’s anti-Balanchine. Even more egregious (because it’s easier for them not to do), they dance it as if it were Swan Lake. During the first movement reprise, Ivan Putrov and Mara Galeazzi kept adding narrative bits. On the first night Putrov greeted his demi-soloists and added a “let’s go” gesture as if they were about to enter a tavern. On the second night he and Galeazzi did a section where he crosses behind her taking her hands as a flirtation game where she removed her hand from his grasp. I only bled from the eye sockets a little.

My friend Lynette asked at lunch the following day if I thought the Royal should do the ballet at all. That was the closest I have ever come to saying no. But if the Royal didn’t do it, it would never be seen here, just as I would have not seen Symphonic Variations at all if it were not danced by ABT.

I wonder if certain styles transpose better than others, as German literature and poetry translates better into English than Russian. The French do Symphony in C with a Parisian accent (much more sculpted), but it's more non-Balanchine than anti-Balanchine. In the third movement here, Viacheslav Samodurov looked more at home than the English dancers; he’s also danced Balanchine at the Kirov (Putrov went to the Royal Ballet School as a student after winning the Prix de Lausanne in 1996). Sarah Lamb, an American originally from Boston Ballet, looked positively like Suzanne Farrell in this crowd.

I’ve seen companies that do both Ashton and Balanchine; Dutch National Ballet did both on the same program last year. Both were acceptable, neither was distinctive. Both felt stylistically flat. Perhaps that’s the tradeoff for a company that’s a “net importer” of repertory.

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June 7, 2005

Ashton: viewing and reviewing

Looking through my correspondence of the summer of 1997, when the Royal Ballet came to Lincoln Center I find this note I sent to friends:

Well, I've seen two evenings of the Royal Ballet during this visit, and two short Ashton works (La Valse and Daphnis & Chloe) one short MacMillan (La Fin du Jour) and one full length MacMillan (Prince of the Pagodas) as well as the Wheeldon pas.

I feel totally at sea.

I'm trying to look at these ballets the same way I might look at NYCB, and of course, that's not what they are about. I'm looking for dance design and expansive phrasing, and not getting it. All the dance phrases seem to collapse in on themselves or wrench themselves about.

Help! What am I missing? Could someone who likes Ashton or MacMillan PLEASE talk for a bit on

a) What makes either of the choreographers memorable
b) What are top drawer examples of their work
c) How the works are best danced

There's got to be more there than what I'm seeing.

Signed -

Confused at Lincoln Center

I also wrote a public piece on Ashton, ending by saying:

As I said, I hope I get to see more of the Royal - even at some point on a day to day basis. I think it's the only way to fully "get" the choreography.

When the Ashton Festival came to Lincoln Center in the summer of 2004, I finally had that opportunity. I went to every performance, buying the cheapest seat I could get and sneaking down to the orchestra after the first ballet. Alas, that was not a difficult task; the festival was a revelatory miracle but it did not sell well. But I got to see almost every ballet at least twice and there is no better way to get under the skin of a ballet than to see it repeatedly in a concentrated period. The first day was rough going. Monotones, Enigma Variations and Rhapsody done by three separate companies is not the most considered entry into Ashton. I had to throw my eyes out of focus at times to remind myself not to look only at the steps. But then Birmingham Royal Ballet presented a series of marvelous evenings with careful programming. They put Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan with Dante Sonata, and so the latter work did not seem like an aberration. The Two Pigeons was simply a treasure.

I went to London in November 2004 for three performances of Sylvia and two of Scènes de Ballet – a ballet I loved so much from the Ashton Festival that I am here yet again to see it. I regard repeated viewings like this as a joyous task, but a task nonetheless. You approach the process thoroughly. The three performances of the Symphonic Variations mixed bill got me a bit closer to answering my own questions from 1997. On the first viewing one watches the ballet as a larger whole. One can see the general shape, but not much detail. That comes on subsequent viewings, and that’s when you really start “getting” it; when you can see how Ashton structured the variations, or when a motif returns.

I get Ashton’s musicality better now. It’s more literal than I originally thought – some of Symphonic is as note-for-step as any of Balanchine – but it is also (to be reductive) more melodic where Balanchine tends to cleave more to the rhythms, or even create a counterpoint to the score. It helps to have learned a bit more about Cecchetti ballet training.

What makes Ashton memorable to me?

His stagecraft and dramaturgy. The “key scene” in A Month in the Country is brilliantly blocked; he’s got people going every which way turning a parlor upside down for a missing key – and it’s all somehow a dance.

His sense of design and phrasing – Symphonic Variations takes an allusive and elusive score (one Balanchine would probably never have touched) and hangs a ballet from it that is not just about the score. The vocabulary uses (his own demanding classicism that evolved from his training) and the gentle green space Sophie Fedorovitch creates for the ballet are as important as the music.

His chic: It’s hard not to love a choreographer who puts his corps de ballet in black and white, with pillbox hats and pearl chokers. Balanchine’s chic was Jazz Age chic of the 20s. Ashton’s was the high chic of the 40s. I can’t get enough of either of them.

His humanity: It’s a huge stretch to compare Ashton to Jane Austen, but the one connection I feel is the justness of the outcomes. The boy in The Two Pigeons learns what he needs to learn to return to his love and not stray again. Yet, neither good nor evil wins in Dante Sonata. What happens is what ought to happen.

I knew I would not give up on Ashton even back in 1997. I’m still often worried that I’m foolish or vain enough to like it because I finally “got” it than for anything that is actually there. But if you feel like a work of art eludes you, repeated viewings are the best way to take it on its terms.

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June 3, 2005

The Royal Ballet

Apologies, because I'm on assignment the notes will be cursory rather than detailed.

The 1987 Anthony Dowell production of Swan Lake is not considered one of the better British productions. It shows the state of Swan Lake in New York that it’s heads and shoulders better than both of ours. At least it’s an actual Swan Lake with only minimal Freudianism. Ivan Putrov, their Siegfried, ought to be better known. He has the best ballon I've seen in a while - airy jumps with beautiful soft silent landings. He's admirably refined for someone with that sort of pyrotechnical ability. You don't often see soft virtuosi, at least in America. He also uses his weight extremely well; he really dances into the floor. I'm a bit surprised he isn't better known outside of the UK, he is good enough. He's interesting because he is a light dancer with breadth and weight. I can imagine he would be a fine Spectre. I would like to see his James.

Last night’s mixed bill had two ballets by Ashton and one by Nijinska, and I’m delighted I’ll be seeing it twice more. I’d like to see Symphonic Variations sixteen more times from every area of the theater just to know it better. I didn’t know what to expect from Les Biches; the most interesting thing to me was how topical it was compared to the timelessness of Les Noces. I had last seen A Month in the Country in 1983. I had only been watching ballet about a year and had no clue what I was looking at, so it’s a delight to see it with more experienced eyes. Ashton’s dramaturgy is brilliant, there’s a scene where sets the entire cast to turning a room upside down looking for a key – you know exactly what’s happening, and it’s all ballet.

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May 28, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - UK Edition

This is quite a feast.

London is for Ballet Review, Brum for Dance Now.


June 1 - Swan Lake. Roberta Marquez and Ivan Putrov

June 2, 4 (matinee and evening) - Symphonic Variations, Les Biches, A Month in The Country. I am drooling at the thought of this. I've never seen Les Biches and haven't seen A Month in the Country since 1983. I welcome any chance to see Symphonic again.

June 7, 8 - The Dream, Three Songs - Two Voices, Symphony in C


June 9, 10 , 11 Stravinsky Celebration - Dumbarton Oaks, Duo Concertant, Scènes de Ballet, The Rite of Spring.

Blogging may be touch and go depending on where I get access, but if I've got access, I shall certainly check in!

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May 21, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - Pre-UK Edition

Today - NYCB Matinee. Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Polyphonia, Glass Pieces. On duty for Danceview Times.

5/22 - Dana Tai Soon Burgess at the Asia Society. Also for DVT.

5/26 - NYCB in Jewels. Off duty. An entirely new cast including Bouder goes into Emeralds, Ansanelli is in Rubies. Wouldn't miss it for the world.

5/28 - NYCB matinee, again for DVT. Baiser de La Fée, Tālā Gaisma, Brahms-Schoenberg Qt. (with Nichols in the 1st movement)

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May 15, 2005

You never know who will sit next to you - and maybe this is a good thing

The press office at the National Ballet of Canada tends to be very good about seating. Usually it is in a different area than House seating - which tends to be the front row of the second section. Seated there during the performances of An Italian Straw Hat were Kevin McKenzie at the matinee and Rex Harrington in the evening.

Saturday night Peter and I sat together, Desirée already had her subscription seat several rows closer. My row was mostly empty after my seat. Until just before curtain. Then, Karen Kain sat down and Guillaume Côté immediately behind. Ordinarily, this would be a pleasant thing, but I was "on duty" for Ballet Review with my telltale yellow pad and I had seen Côté's cast for the purpose of reviewing a few hours before. At moments like that you just want to blend into the audience.

Of course, this salad can only get more tossed. The lights go up for intermission, I look behind me and we're sitting directly in front of my friend (and host) John's ex. The lights start to go down and who should sidle into the seat vacated by Kain?

James Kudelka

It was one of those situations where you're glad that even if you know all of these people, they don't know you.

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May 12, 2005

Dancer and Superdancer

One of the more telling assessments of my work as a choreographer was probably made by Septime Webre in a phone conversation we must have had around a decade ago. I’m not sure of the conversation surrounding this quote from Septime to me, but it sticks in my memory.

“That’s because you’re inspired by high culture and I’m inspired by kitsch.”

Few blanket statements are absolutely true, and that one isn’t either, but at minimum the assessment about me is more true than not.

My attraction to art has always been about the ideal, not the real. I don’t want to see us as we are, but as we could be. I think the dichotomy is also very important to understanding someone’s taste and attractions.

There is a duet danced topless in Fiona Marcotty’s piece. After her rehearsal I said jokingly to her that I was glad that the dancers she chose to be topless were the ones we would most want to see topless. And she said legitimately that would be her usual reason not to choose those dancers.

At the dress rehearsal of Ursula and the 11000 Virgins last night, Vicky Schick and Derry Swan were particularly lovely and there is a striking duet of a saint and a dragon. Alas, you can’t tell the saints without a program – the only one I could ID for certain was Elizabeth Zimmer as Saint Wilgefortis, because she told me so in advance.

I’ve long been fascinated by saints and hagiography, and among the tales of the weird, but I’m more moved by the hope of transcendence and grace. Apologies, this link is in Spanish, the original English is the story of Cornelia Connelly from Kenneth Woodward’s Making Saints.

I’m not a believer, so I don’t believe in divine grace. Strangely enough, I do believe in grace, or at least the state of being inhabited by something greater than oneself for its purposes. I’ve seen it in ballet. Darci Kistler is the dancer that comes to mind. There’s no way to describe the effects she had in her greatest roles, except that she was channeling something else much greater than any of us, and she had no idea why or how.

I'm torn between understanding that a certain amount of neurosis is involved in saintly behavior, and creative behavior as well. Still, I think we destroy what’s admirable about it by reducing it to neurotic impulses. There’s more to grace than being undersexed.

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May 10, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - Stuff I would go to this weekend if I were in town

But I'm not. So go for me.

I saw Fiona Marcotty's work in rehearsal last Saturday. It's poignant, well-crafted and she has beautiful dancers. She's part of Soaking WET - a series at the West End Theater that David Parker produces with his usual intelligent touch.

Fiona's performances are Friday and Saturday May 13, 14 at 8:30 pm and Sunday May 15 at 5:00 pm. Call 212 337 9565 for reservations - this place has limited seating so reserve early.


Who could resist Elizabeth Zimmer as Saint Wilgefortis?

She (along with Wendy Perron and other people in the dance scene) will be playing a multitude of saints in Christopher Williams' Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. Being a lover of hagiography, it's almost too delicious to contemplate.

PS 122 at 8pm Thurs-Sat, 5 pm Sunday. 212 477.5288


What I'm actually going to see this weekend?

My pals John and Chris, who will finally get their afghan and the National Ballet of Canada in An Italian Straw Hat.

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May 5, 2005

Oh Frabjous Day!

Carla Körbes has been promoted to soloist at NYCB. Confirmation is a little squib in the middle of the the Times' review of the Spring Gala.

Körbes is not a steely technician, nor the sort of just-add-water dancer that can speed through the ranks at NYCB. Peter Martins has said in interviews that before promoting a dancer he wants to know he does not have to worry about them. Körbes is harder for him to promote given those criteria; she's an act of faith. She may always need a little extra care or special handling. What she has is one of the most unforgettable presences of the young dancers in the company.

I'm so glad this happened. I bet there are going to be a lot of happy faces in the Fourth Ring tonight.

Thanks to harpergroup at Ballet Talk for catching this.

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April 26, 2005

The Good News - The Bad News

The Good News -

The Royal Ballet announces a 2005-6 season that is as balanced and thoughtful as any that's come down the pike in a while. It doesn't matter that I don't like every ballet that Monica Mason has chosen; I can see that she's made her choices from her own taste rather than the absence thereof. It isn't just a matter of taste; with revivals of de Valois' The Rake's Progress, Andrée Howard's La Fête Étrange as well as MacMillan's My Brother, My Sisters she's working to reclaim the identity of the company. It looks like this season's thoughtful programming for the Ashton Centennial was not an accident. I hope she keeps it up, and I think she's justified her contract renewal to 2010.

The Bad News -

How does the National Ballet of Canada show their love for 22 year veteran principal Martine Lamy in her final performances with the company? By making her second cast, of course. That ain't no way to treat a lady.

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April 12, 2005

Contemporaneo x 6 - Teatro San Martin

I'm ashamed to admit that once again I slipped out at intermission. The level of the performance was much higher than on Saturday, but it was the sort of modern dance - and I hate to use this criticism because it's an awful and unfair one - it was the kind I've seen several times too many. It's not fair to carp about having seen a device one time too many, because even if I've seen it one time too many, the choreographer still may have needed to do it. But when you're trapped seeing yet another dance in unison to Arvö Pärt's "Fratres", you start to care less and less about the choreographer's process.

If I have done my duty as a dance viewer, and there is some sort of reward, I would like it to be special dispensation to never, ever, ever see another dance ever, ever, ever, EVER again to Fratres. It's a gorgeous piece of music and very evocative. And as far as I'm concerned, it's used by lazy choreographers who want the music to do the work for them, and don't want to take the effort to find lesser-known musical pieces and offer them to their audience.

After that, yet another jazz-modern dance, again, primarily in unison that seemed like the main purpose in its creation was to find an excuse to get the women's tits exposed. Both sexes were in white button down shirts reminiscent of school uniforms. At the middle of the piece a new man (possibly the choreographer?) came on to usher in new section. His shirt was unbuttoned, presumably because he was sexually liberated. So everyone else unbuttoned his or her shirts. The men looked like men with their shirts unbuttoned. The women looked embarrassed. Funny how they took their curtain calls with their shirts re-buttoned. At the apex of the piece, all the dancers came forward and stared balefully at the audience. Didn´t that go out with Anna Sokolow, or maybe Bob Fosse? The dance didn't build to that moment; it was just another theatrical device. Things would have looked less like one step after another if the choreographer of both pieces in the first half (Miguel Robles) had been a bit more musically sensitive, both to the Pärt or even the boom-chucka electronic music. The steps looked like they were created entirely from his natural body movement without any consideration of whether, even though that next step might have been logical in terms of a movement phrase, it also made sense for the architecture of the music.

At intermission, I realized I only had so much energy in me from fighting off this cold, and I needed to conserve for doing the stupidest thing possible - going to Palacio.

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April 7, 2005

Centro de Experimentacion del Teatro Colón

The Sala del CETC in the Teatro Colón is not accessible via the main entrance. From a side door, you descend a series of series of concrete stairs in a black, chipped stairwell into the bowels of the theater. The stairwell is lit by lurid theatrical lights with a low red-gold glow. This Dantean descent meets or matches the theatrical flair of anything else presented.

The center presented a residency program of four choreographers paired with four composers. The results are presented to the public for 5 pesos (about $1.50). Even had the results been completely dreadful the mere effort would have been worthwhile. The four dances created may not have been world class, but they were all worthwhile viewing, and a community that produces them is culturally rich.

The space itself is in the bowels of the theater, and is a dreadful space for pure dance. It's a subterranean space with a dance floor laid down around poles and huge square brick pillars that divide the space in half. Not great for pure dance, but the columns force entries and hide and reveal dancers in ways that make the space dance as much as the dancers within.

The four pieces were presented without intermission, but the stage would be restructured after each dance by moving the orchestra, the Compañía Oblicua, directed by the creator of the residency, Marcelo Delgado. They were integrated into each piece's movement as well as providing accompaniment. The first piece, Vértices (My Spanish dictionary translates this as Apexes - Walter Cammertoni, chor, Patricia Martinez, comp.) had the orchestra enter first in a choreographed pattern around the arches to sit underneath the central one. The dance itself had the dancers carrying the frames of suitcases and throwing papers. Like many of the pieces that followed, the use of the space was more striking than the movement itself.

. . .Que colma tu aire y vuela (I'm going to make a bad guess and say this may translate colloquially as Spread your Wings and Fly - Ramiro Javier Soñez, chor, Marcos Franciosi, comp.) made as much use of the musicians as the dancers. The musicians were placed at the side of the space and towards the end, the dancers moved aside their music stands to release them as they walked slowly across the stage, gradually becoming more important in the space than the dancers. Delineado (Gabily Anadón, chor, Luciano Giambastiani, comp) moved in the reverse, beginning with a full contingent of musicians and having them leave one by one after sections.

Arder (to burn - Mariana Bellotto, chor. Raúl Lafuret Pereyra, comp.) was the sex number that satisfied every dancers exhibitionistic tendencies. The women stomped about in high heels, and did backup singer moves in an alcove all the way at the back of the space. They came forward, but not to dance, only to stare. They also had their lesbian moments, but the choreographer was far more ginger about the men playing the same games. There was also lots of peekaboo exposures; one of the women removed enough of her pants and panties to give us a tasty buttcrack view. Since she was in better shape than the man at the Castelar, I took it in stride. At the end the shortest man in the company tottered and stammered about in red high heels, tapping furiously in almost a flamenco rhythm. The other dancers gathered and rolled down their pants and skirts to just expose the tops of their pubic hair. I guess it's not usually done, but after my day today, I'd just call them scaredy-cats and say go ahead and show it all.

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April 6, 2005

Choreographers on Parade II: More Mark Morris

I'm hoping this doesn't become a series.

Mr. Morris, again.

Five minutes before the opening of National Ballet of Canada's The Contract at BAM, on the steps of the entry.

With an open beer can.

Slugs down a swig, hands it to his friend. "Have some beer."

They go in, assumedly to get some culture.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 12:43 AM | TrackBack

April 3, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card: Pre-Buenos Aires Edition

4/2/05 Studio Maestro Spring Concert. Not on duty, thankfully. I've reviewed students, but it's something that needs to be done with great empathy.

Some nice things to report - a very lovely performance by the Fairy Godmother (Elise Ramsey) in Daniel Baudendistel's setting of the Cinderella suite. Strong articulate footwork (unfortunately, there wasn't enough of that) and a polished presence.

I finally got to see Arron Scott dance. Arron is a young dancer with ABT. I have always liked him as a person - he came to my concerts to see Peter Boal perform when Scott was a student at SAB. Arron, along with Yuu Kinoshita did the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. He has the chops for the role, especially if he got the coaching but with his sweet American looks I would love to see him in Rodeo or Fancy Free. He'd make a great first sailor.

Most delicious moment of the night: When Studio Maestro Artistic Director, impeccable teacher and all-around icon of Gallic fabulousness François Perron introduced me to his unsurprisingly elegant mother.

"You have a wonderful son."

And with that typically direct and drier-than-vermouth sense of ironic humor that French women have, she replied "That is because he has a wonderful mother."

If you ever want to understand a child, meet the parents.

4/3-4/05 The Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive tapings: Merrill Ashley coaching Ana Sophia Scheller and Joaquin de Luz in Ballo della Regina. On duty for Dance View as part of a series on the Interpreters Archive tapings.

4/5/05 National Ballet of Canada in The Contract at BAM. On duty for Danceview Times.

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March 27, 2005

There wasn’t much in the fridge tonight

A few leftovers, almost nothing fresh, no bread, onions but no carrots . . .

Here’s what I made: There’s almost no point to giving a recipe, it was what was in the fridge, the freezer and the pantry. But there is a point to this recipe.

Baked Gnocchi

Two 13-16 oz. packages potato gnocchi

2 tsp olive oil
½ tsp chopped garlic (mine was from the emergency chopped garlic jar)
2 T coarsely chopped purple onion (what was left)
3 oz smoked pork chop, diced (what was left)
1 13 oz can mushrooms and liquid
2 Tbs. frozen peas.
½ chopped tomato (from the freezer. I throw fresh vegetables that threaten to go bad in there for occasions like this)
2 oz spaghetti sauce (what was left)
4 oz. chicken broth (stored in cubes in the freezer)
2 oz heavy cream (half of what was left)
¾ tsp black truffle paste (thank you, Cynthia)
2 oz pepper jack cheese, diced (half of what was left)
1 slice bread, crumbled into crumbs (from the freezer. See the tomato, above)
½ oz grated Romano cheese (what I could shave off from the recalcitrant nub left at the back of the fridge.)
Salt, pepper, tabasco

Boil gnocchi according to package directions. Set aside. In same pot, heat oil on medium heat. Sauté garlic and onion until translucent. Add cubed pork, continue to sauté. Add mushrooms – reserving liquid. Add peas and tomato, then add liquids (pasta sauce, broth, mushroom liquid, cream) Bring to a boil, add truffle paste, incorporate, add jack cheese. Correct seasoning.

Spray a 9x13x2 inch deep oblong pan (I use a ceramic casserole) with cooking spray. Turn mixture into it. Mix crumbs with Romano cheese, sprinkle over all. Quickly spray with cooking spray (to help the crumbs brown).

Bake at 350 degrees until browned.

You’ll probably never want to make this recipe; it isn’t even a recipe. It’s a basic technique for making a baked dish that can be altered to suit the ingredients at hand. Different starch, different liquids, different meats or vegetables, whatever.

The point of this recipe is that this is how I function most creatively. There are people who have an idea and then need to control it from conception through all parts of the process to fruition. I rarely have ideas like that; I’m at my most creative when responding to parameters. I can take 13 girls who are weak on pointe and one boy who cannot dance and make, somehow, a dance.

There is a lot to be said for a grand, compelling vision. Certainly our contemporary vision of the artist has moved away from the craftsman and towards the auteur. And craft without vision is, well, baked gnocchi made from leftovers. It's a fine dish for dinner tonight, and there are leftovers, but would I serve it to company? Also, the person who can make a dance with thirteen girls who are weak on pointe is the one who tends to get stuck with them. Still, there is a lot to be said as well for the ability to open up the fridge and make something from what’s inside.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 11:21 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 25, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

is blessedly . . . empty. I've got articles on Boston and San Francisco still to write.

I haven't read his reviews to guard against accidentally plagiarizing (it is so easy), but bizarrely enough, John Rockwell at the NY Times ended up going out of town to the same performances in SF, Boston and Philadelphia. I arranged these several months ago, so hey, he's stalking me.

Next scheduled item -

April 5, National Ballet of Canada at BAM - The Contract, which I am seeing because it is probably my last chance to see Martine Lamy, whom I consider a superlative dance actress.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 6:24 PM | TrackBack

March 19, 2005

San Francisco Ballet

Preliminary observations after a 22 hour day: The company looked provincial in the best possible way; they looked like they served their city and community and there was nothing they needed to prove. Gonzalo Garcia's Wild Boy persona won't work for every role, but he's an interesting enough artist to accept it for a while longer. SFB does a great job with Grosse Fuge, a piece I find interestingly cool for all the hot chests and sexy moves. Also interesting that you can instantly tell the four men apart, but four women dancing in unison with their hair up. . .well, in this ballet Balanchine was wrong. They're anybody.

Possokhov shows real promise and ambition with "Reflections" and hallelujah, he's a ballet choreographer, not a kickbutt choreographer. There's a lot of energy and experiment in what he's doing and he doesn't edit out some of the bad ideas (and there are more than a few). I want to see more.

My roommate from when I danced at American Festival Ballet in Boise (I am not kidding. Really.) Christopher, invited me to dinner. The meal was marvelous and his home off Church and Market was stunning. I hate him.

On another more depressing subject, I've been to Pennsylvania, Boston and San Francisco in the past three weeks. Each one of them has a better ballet orchestra than NYCB. What the heck is up with that?

Amazingly, I got my Taylor piece written. It will be in Danceview Times on Monday.

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March 15, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card - Marathon Bicoastal Edition

3/16 Paul Taylor Dance Company Arden Court, Last Look, Piazzolla Caldera

3/17 Offenbach Overtures, Big Bertha, Esplanade

3/18 - Get up at 5 am EST to get on a flight to San Francisco. Please dear God, let me get some sleep on the plane.

8pm PST - Program 4: Square Dance, Grosse Fuge, Reflections (World Premiere)

3/19 Program 5: Meistens Mozart, Concerto Grosso, Study in Motion, The Four Temperaments

3/20 Program 4 for the second viewing.

Paul Taylor is for Danceview Times, San Francisco Ballet for Ballet Review (alas, no online presence).

If blogging is a little light, please understand.

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March 13, 2005

Sorella Englundmania

It's not Sorella Englund, but an incredible simulation. . .

There are many good aspects of Boston Ballet's new production of La Sylphide set by Englund, but the most uncanny is how Merrill Ashley, ever the perfect student, has seemed to take every detail of Englund's brilliant performance as Madge and imitated it in her own. It doesn't feel like rote work, but there still is something eerie about that literal an imitation.

I see one more cast tomorrow, and then back home.

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March 11, 2005

Department of "Sometimes even great choreographers make not-very-good dances. . ."

Alas, Klezmerbluegrass by Paul Taylor is a clunker. Save your money and see another evening.

On the much brighter side, Esplanade looks magnificent.

Full review in next week's Danceview Times.

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March 10, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

3/10/05 - Paul Taylor at City Center - Black Tuesday, Klezmerbluegrass, Esplanade. Reviewing for Danceview Times, which is providing good, heavy coverage of the season. And Miss Dirty Martini is my date! Va-Va-VOOM!

3/12-13/05 In Boston for La Sylphide, set by Sorella Englund, whose Madge was one of the best performances I've seen in the last decade. Alas, I won't see Englund; she performed last week, but Merrill Ashley will be taking that role, with Lorna Feijóo and Larissa Ponomarenko as the Sylph. (I will also unfortunately miss Misa Kuranaga, whom New Yorkers may remember from her 2003 workshop performances at the School of American Ballet). Reviewing for Dance Now.

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March 3, 2005

Round the danceblogosphere

Surveying what other dance bloggers are writing on:

Rachel Howard gives a report on a Giselle I wish I had seen. (Paul Parish's description in Danceview Times is particularly nice). But then, I'm a sucker for Giselle.

Alexandra Tomalonis spots (via BalletTalk) a finance columnist writing in Fortune Magazine who writes a lovely report on Wendy Whelan's performance at NYCB, and even writes as if ballet was something normal people attended.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at 7:40 PM | TrackBack

The performance was great but the dance isn’t . . .

Last night at Paul Taylor, Lisa Viola and Michael Trusnovec gave a gripping performance in Promethean Fire, a dance I’ve never warmed to. I think Taylor’s done better Bach pieces and I find the work, especially the schlock-Bach Stokowski transcription, veers past bombast hazardously to parody. Trusnovec and Viola are a great match, each has an intensity only the other can meet. Random thought: Is that what this era's dancers will be known for? Our most memorable dancers aren't the pure ones; they're the go-for-broke super-intense ones like Trusnovec or Wendy Whelan. Perhaps this is the art form mirroring the culture.

Viola hurled herself halfway across the stage to Trusnovec; the audience did not breathe during their entire pas de deux. With that powerful a performance, how can you do anything but take the dance seriously as an artistic statement of magnitude? Did they save the dance or just show us what Taylor meant all along?

I have less love for John Cranko’s Onegin but Martine Lamy and Nikolaj Hübbe gave the best performances I saw in 2003. Lamy, completely fighting against type, was shattering in the role.

So how do you separate a lesser ballet from a major performance? If a ballet allows a first-rate performance, what makes it second-rate?

I'll have a full review of PTDC's Wednesday night program in Monday's Danceview Times

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February 26, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

NYCB goes on hiatus until April; it's an opportunity to look at what's happening elsewhere.

Paul Taylor's self-produced season at City Center marks their 50th anniversary, and has been extended to three weeks from the usual two of recent years. If my memory is playing tricks on me, it used to be three weeks, and he used to be able to afford an orchestra. He deserves both.

3/2/05 I'm "on duty" for Danceview Times. Go yourself. Taylor has the ability to make both light and dark works, and tends to program a performance to include both.

Dances to look for - Aureole and Arden Court are among his most beautiful and pastoral, Offenbach Overtures for those who want to see Lisa Viola transfer Gilda Radner's "Colleen the Vegetable Child" to the stage. Last Look is one of the most blandly disturbing dances ever made; Piazzolla Caldera one of the sexiest tango works (with barely a tango step in it). Rear mezzanine seats are a bargain at $15.

3/5-6/05 In Philadelphia for La Fille mal Gardée, Ashton's comic masterpiece. If you're in the area, don't be put off by the French title. For the American visits of the Royal Ballet, I think Sol Hurok wanted to title it "The Farmer's Daughter." I'm "on duty" for Ballet Review.

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February 24, 2005

Choreographers on Parade

Seen at the Japan Society for the performance of Condors:

Mark Morris. Wearing a wrap. Arriving three minutes before curtain. Noisily. Then moving seats until he found one he liked.

Some people are physically incapable of not making an entrance.

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February 21, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

Upcoming this week -

2/22/05 - Double Feature at New York City Ballet - debuts of Sofiane Sylve, Janie Taylor and Kyle Froman

2/24/05 - Condors in Mars: Conquest of the Galaxy II at the Japan Society - part of the Cool Japan: Otaku Strikes! festival.

Both for Danceview Times

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Yes, I can actually be quoted in the NY Times without controversy.

Listen Closely, Lean Forward and Squint - An article on the wonderful NYCB docent Miriam Pellman.

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February 19, 2005

Out and About – New Chamber Ballet

I’ve known Miro Magloire for close to a decade by now. I have “unclean hands” for a review, so here are scattered notes from a friend, as it were.

What’s interesting about what the New Chamber Ballet does is the deliberate smallness of the enterprise. I considered Dance as Ever’s budget to be a shoestring – over 10 years we spent about $330,000 and made 28 ballets on that. Miro probably operates at about 5% of that and still manages a good quality of dance and dancer. What gets ruthlessly stripped out are all production values; you’re sitting in a studio (on the fifth floor of City Center. I took morning ballet classes in that room for much of my career. I believe there's a picture of Balanchine rehearsing Danses Concertantes with the Ballets Russes in that room in the Bernard Taper biography of him as well.)

Seeing ballet in a studio is a concentrated experience and Miro’s works are particularly so; his aesthetic and palette tend to be rigorous and restrained. I’ll admit a partisan liking for it because it’s ballet rather than a hybrid form, and he has no trouble finding things within the medium to explore. He did three works, a duet to music by Morton Feldman, a trio to Haydn and a series of Spanish waltzes with three women and a man. The duet is a dreamy work that moves on its own clock time; one woman begins a solo, another woman enters. They dance on the same stage yet barely interact. The first woman leaves the space to the second woman who continues in the same contemplative mood. In no way does the work physically remind one of Merce Cunningham (strike that – it does in one way; Miro used a broken-armed port de bras that reminded me of a ballet equivalent of something derived by LifeForms, the computer simulation model Cunningham has used) but the focus of the piece and its calm insistence on moving at its pace, not ours, are things I associate with watching Cunningham. His women, in this case Elizabeth Brown and Denise Small, are quite lovely. One is blonde haired, the other brunette and ID’ing them turned into a scene out of a Danny Kaye movie. Brown is blonde and Small is brown. Remember that when you are trying to figure out if the chalice with the palace contains the brew that is true.

Small and Brown (one is brown, but neither are small. They’re both tall.) were joined by Julia Welsh for the Haydn trio. Again, a well crafted work, miniature in scale but full length. There were some fine moments here including a repeating circle that took a familiar motif and made it unfamiliar. The strength of the works, their clean ascetic rigor and craft, is also their Achilles heel. The works have intimacy, but little theater. We are in a studio, but the dances can feel as remote at times as if they were separated from us by a wall.

Production values could bridge the gap. No lights and simple un-costumes provide the most neutral of settings and the choreography, especially the first piece, demand atmosphere. In the second piece, Welsh added drama of her own. With her wide lovely face and slit-eyed look like Eve Harrington without the malice, she always looked as if she were conspiring something unknown at any moment. You watched her wondering what it might be. And that is theater.

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Out and About - Royal Ballet School

The short version - good training and consistent style. The boys are long and spidery, but strong. Watching Ashton done by 17 year olds who can just about get through it because it's so exposing has its own poignancy.

Whispered in the dark, apropos of nothing actually onstage: "You can be unmusical to absolutely anything. You could be unmusical to 4'33" if you worked at it."

Skirball Center is a new theater at NYU, I'd guess about 900 seats, that will be useful to the University and not very useful to the community at large. Would that someone would build a few more 250 seat houses for dance in New York and a few less 900 seat houses that smaller companies can neither fill nor afford.

Full review at Danceview Times on Monday.

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February 15, 2005

Leigh's Dance Card

Upcoming this week -

2/18/05 - Royal Ballet School performing at NYU Skirball Center.

2/19/05 - New Chamber Ballet - Miro Magloire.

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