The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2

Dance on screen: It's not the same as sitting with an audience for a live performance in a theater, but when theaters are shut down, it's a balm

Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it.

One was for reference, or what the French call an aide memoire, something to jog my memory of a performance I’d seen in the flesh, three-dimensionally, on the stage or in the studio or on a specific site, before I wrote about it. An example of that is watching the six-minute video of Linda K. Johnson’s Polka Dot Square piece, a viewing that verified that one of the dancers performing last October on artist Bill Will’s socially distanced giant polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square had been wearing red. Yet it in no way reproduced the joy I had derived from seeing birds doing a flyover, or feeling the chill in the air, or being part of an equally elated audience at the actual event. 

My rotten handwriting has also driven me to look at performances I’ve already watched in the dark—I often can’t read it. God forbid I misidentify a dancer in a review, or invent choreography that wasn’t performed.  (I am guilty of doing both of those things, for which I am still apologizing.) When Oregon Ballet Theatre performed Bournonville’s Napoli, I used a DVD of a different production—which had been staged by the same people—to remind myself of specific choreography, and while that recorded performance was extremely good, seeing it on my television screen with only my cat as my audience companion flattened it considerably. 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

The second reason is connected to research, to see what dances and dancers looked like that I have had no opportunity to see live. A few that come to mind are Janet Reed as Swanhilda in Coppélia (I was only three);  Loie Fuller’s nature-inspired dances (performed well before I was born, though I have seen one reconstruction at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also has film clips in her archive there); and James Canfield and Mark Goldweber in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Petrouchka (which was not performed in Portland on tour). 

A month or so ago I watched a 1966 Royal Ballet performance of Nijinska’s Les Noces, a deeply feminist ballet made in 1922, and it knocked the slipper socks off my feet, in the same way that Stravinsky’s eponymous score has done for decades. It also taught me a good deal about this underappreciated choreographer’s considerable influence on such ballet geniuses as Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, and Britain’s Frederick Ashton. Moreover, I loved it: In this ballet geometry is power, as this excellent filming of a live performance in which you can hear the audience response makes clear. 

The third reason, and I still do this, was to cheer myself up on gloomy days by watching stellar performances by such dance luminaries as Baryshnikov, usually on YouTube. I can view his “Cups solo” in American Ballet Theatre’s Don Quixote several times a day and it always makes me laugh. With impeccable technique and musical timing, Misha is making fun of a ballet that is a war horse defined. 

Now, in this viral year-plus of living cautiously, dance on video or film is what I and other lovers of live performance have. And although it’s not the same thing as seeing a live show, it offers many rewards. In addition to Baryshnikov’s satirical Don Quixote, for instance, The Royal Danish Ballet’s Alban Lendorf and Ida Praetorius dancing a pas de deux from Bournonville’s Kermesse in Bruges also continues to give me joy, because of their wit, technique, and organic acting – and also because they remind me of seeing the complete ballet in Copenhagen, in 2005, when I was there for the last Bournonville Festival. Again, these clips are from live performances, and you can hear the audience response. That helps a lot.

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IT’S RARE, BUT A FILMED PERFORMANCE can provide a kind of catharsis. Not long ago I saw a clip of Mary Wigman, the expressionist dancer some historians have labeled, anachronistically, Germany’s Martha Graham, performing a two-minute segment of her Hexentanz, a solo she made in 1914 for her first recital. (link)  This became a signature work of hers, and she was wildly successful in it when she performed it in Portland in 1931. Even on film, and a slightly wobbly black and white film at that, Wigman’s stamping fury sublimates the rage I feel too frequently these days, but she doesn’t quite have the impact that Kansas City Ballet’s Kimberly Cowen did in a reconstruction I saw her perform in the theater about fifteen years ago. That truly terrified the ten-year-old boy sitting in front of me, and I, not easily frightened when watching most dance (a convincing performance of the lead role in Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart is an exception), found myself clutching the arms of my seat, the way I do when flying through turbulence. 

Moreover, unlike the kid in front of me, I knew what to expect. I had observed Cowen rehearsing the piece in the studio, when Todd Bolender – who had seen Wigman perform Hexentanz in New York in 1933 – quietly helped Cowen fine-tune it, suggesting greater thrust here, less force there; and even in practice clothes, without stage lighting, she’d succeeded in scaring me with the movement alone. I confess that I love watching rehearsals, the meticulousness of the choreographers and the repetiteurs, and I’ve been missing that almost as much as the resulting performances.

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LOTS OF SUCH COACHING SESSIONS are available online. Of particular interest to me are the Interpreters Archive videos, for which the Balanchine Foundation and dance historian Nancy Reynolds are responsible. You can watch the people who originated roles in Balanchine’s work coaching today’s dancers the way they remember the choreographer coaching them, without any expectation that they will perform them the same way. The idea is to create an historical record. These are very well-filmed. The camera focuses on whatever subtlety of gesture or step that’s being refined, while the role’s originator talks the dancer through the choreography. 

Of course, for me, it’s even more interesting (and fun) to watch these sessions live. Years ago in Seattle I observed Melissa Hayden coaching Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dancers in portions of Agon and loved hearing her say to the dancers about that ballet’s second pas de trois, “Mr. Balanchine made this just for me and I did it very well.” In retrospect, I’m wondering if she was really talking about her solo, the “Bransle Gay,” a Spanish-inflected dance calling for the panache and technique that were the hallmarks of a dancer Lincoln Kirstein referred to as New York City Ballet’s first star. Candace Bouchard, now retired from Oregon Ballet Theatre, danced this role with considerable flash and flair some years ago, coached by Bart Cook.

And on a “Wish List” program of solos and duets OBT performed live at the Left Bank Annex (now converted to what the company calls OBTV studio) and streamed last November, I was delighted to see Eva Burton making the same solo her own, and also performing the pas de deux from the same choreographer’s Divertimento No. 15.  I do have a caveat: A technical failure in the streaming marred her variation, which calls for fleet—very—precise footwork. The video froze repeatedly, which ill-served the dancer and made the variation downright painful to watch.  I did enjoy Peter Franc’s interview with Francia Russell, who coached both of them in a ballet she has staged many, many times—she was in the original cast. Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise, we’ll see this pair perform this ballet, and many others, live and in person and on the proscenium stage, where it and they belong, in the foreseeable future. 

Also on OBT’s “Wish List” were some appetite-whetting solos and duets from work by resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, including one hot off the studio floor set to Scott Joplin; and something from Val Caniparoli’s Pieces for Lou, made to Lou Harrison’s music: It would be good to see the complete work performed in the composer’s home town. Caniparoli himself has a long history with OBT and its predecessor, Ballet Oregon—Street Songs comes to mind, as well as his Lambarena, which Christopher Stowell programmed. The score is a fusion of Bach and African drumming, compelling ballet dancers to fling spinal placement to the wind.

Eva Burton in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s January stream of Nicolo Fonte’s “Beast for Thee.” Video image: Patrick Weishampel/OBT

Fonte’s Beast for Thee (streamed in January) – which the choreographer made for Burton, Franc, and the camera, wielded skillfully by videographer Patrick Weishampel – struck me as gorgeous. The internet is loaded with clips of dancers at home, taking barre and trying not to kick crawling babies with a pointe shoe, pouring a cup of coffee while extending a leg in arabesque, bending their legs in plié while they water the plants, trying to stay in shape against the day when they’ll be back at work in the studio and on the stage.  What Fonte did with Beast for Thee – which takes its title from the music, a song by Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney – was to turn those streaming selfies into art. 

New York City Center offered some solace when, last July, the beloved performing arts center of my youth opened an international window into the way the details of performing a role get transmitted from one great ballerina to another, by broadcasting via Zoom a Studio 5 program titled Great American Ballerinas. The Studio 5 programs were established in 2009 by City Center’s then-director, Damian Woetzel. His goal was to take small audiences behind the scenes, so to speak, for brief performances by leading artists, followed by moderated conversations about them. First you show, then you tell.

The ballerinas were American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland and New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns and Tiler Peck. The transmitters/teachers/coaches were Alessandra Ferri,  Merrill Ashley, Nina Ananiashvili,  Stephanie Saland, and choreographer Pam Tanowitz, who worked with Mearns. This particular program was curated and moderated by former New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, whose idea it was.

While live performances of these sessions (there were seven or eight spread out over several weeks) would have been far more satisfactory for everyone involved, the need to present them via Zoom meant far more people got to watch them than would have otherwise. Studio 5, the building’s fifth floor rehearsal studio, has room for only 125 people.

American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, one of the ballerinas in Studio 5’s “Great American Ballerinas” program, in ABT’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo: Gene Schiavone

I was charmed to watch Ferri working from La Scala Opera House in Milan with Copeland, who was in Studio 5 in New York, on the bedroom pas de deux in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. In the course of suggesting adjustments of port de bras or arabesque penchée, Ferri also transmitted to Copeland what the choreographer had told her about Juliet’s emotional state. While I’m not particularly fond of any evening-length version of this ballet, and MacMillan’s, in my view, is particularly gooey, I know from friends who saw Copeland make her Juliet debut several years ago that it was in this role she proved herself to be a real ballerina, with everything that implies.

And I was completely seduced by Tiler Peck: by her good cheer, her openness, her palpable delight in dancing anywhere, anyhow; in this case working in a studio in California, with Saland demonstrating from her living room in Seattle. They were working on the “green” solo from Jerome Robbins’ masterwork Dances at a Gathering. Seeing this coaching session informed my view of Peck in a filmed performance of Balanchine’s Theme in Variations (done in 2015). While it’s very different choreography, it demands the same highly musical, precise, speedy technique, and joy in the execution.

While I learned a thing or three watching Mearns being coached by Ashley and Ananiashvili, I was most interested in her work with Pam Tanowitz, the modern “crossover” choreographer, whose evening-length Four Quartets deservedly put her on the international map. What Mearns had to say in the “conversation” with Macaulay about the way performing in flexible slippers (instead of the usual point shoes) can strengthen a ballet dancer’s feet ran counter to everything I’ve been told about that in the past thirty years. And not just by dancers. Crossover choreographer Trey McIntyre, for example, has stated repeatedly that one reason he continues to make dances on point is the reluctance of classically trained dancers to give up footgear that is frequently described as “torture.” Note: his last piece for OBT, Robust American Love, about pioneer women, was decidedly not danced on point. Nevertheless, it is a ballet.

Pam Tanowitz’s “Four Quartets,” based on T.S. Eliot’s poem cycle, premiered in 2018 at Bard College. Photo: Marina Baranova

So, too, is Tanowitz’s Four Quartets, an evening-length work that premiered in July, 2018 at Bard College’s Fisher Auditorium, and that was beautifully filmed, the cameras picking up audience reaction when appropriate as well as the details of the dancing—the flowing limbs, the high jumps, the grounded softness and the patterned footwork. This is part of an e-mail I sent to the Oregon dancer/choreographer Mary Oslund about it; the work reminded me of hers: “Tanowitz is just 50 so a different generation, but she, too, studied with Viola Farber at Ohio State. Her movement vocabulary is quite different from yours, much more of it classically based, it’s more curved, less spiky, but [like you] she’s very gifted and thoughtful and intelligent.” I don’t know if Mary – who died last November at 72, of the neurological disease MSA – ever saw this e-mail, or Tanowitz’s work, but I would love to have spoken with her about it.

It’s not just the technique and movement style that the two dancemakers have in common. Set pieces designed by visual artists, text spoken by an actor, and contemporary music were all part of Oslund’s work as well.  In the case of Four Quartets, which was commissioned by Bard College’s artistic director Gideon Lester, T.S. Eliot’s poetry is read by actor Katherine Chalifant, in a manner close to the poet’s own when I heard him read from his work at Columbia in 1959—matter-of-factly, almost objectively. This provided considerable contrast to composer Kaija Saariaho’s score for violin, viola, cello, and harp, described in a review of the premiere by Macaulay thus: “Varied effects of vibrato, portamento and pizzicato bring different shades of intensity, atmosphere, eloquence: Even a single austere cello line down a few tones can become fraught with significance.”  Macaulay’s review made me want badly to see this work, particularly since he feels it is as significant a 21st century work as Merce Cunningham’s Biped, a piece I would willingly see again seven nights in a row. The gorgeous set for Four Quartets was designed by Clifton Taylor, who created a backdrop that became an environment with four paintings by artist Brice Marsden, each depicting one of the four geographical locations of Eliot’s poem. Loose, flowing tunics and trousers worn by the company of ten were as much a part of the movement as anything worn by Loie Fuller.

Beyond that, it is very interesting to me that Eliot’s wartime poetry, specifically East Coker, which is loaded with dance imagery, should have provided the inspiration for a much, much earlier crossover ballet, Bolender’s The Still Point, made in the early 1950s for the Ryder-Frankel Dance Theater Company and then transferred to New York City Ballet, where it premiered, the female dancers on point, in 1955. Bolender staged that work all over the world, primarily on ballet companies, but also on Alvin Ailey’s troupe. Sometimes, if he was in the mood, he had ballet dancers perform it in slippers.

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TO SUM IT UP: Work filmed or streamed that is performed with a live audience present cannot replicate the exchange of energy, delight, sorrow, laughter, and tears of being physically present in the theater – yet it does satisfy somewhat my craving for watching dancing. Short clips—Wigman, Baryshnikov, Lendorf, Tiler Peck – provide me with much pleasure. Sometimes, as in the Studio 5 event described above, talking about performance amuses as well as enlightens me, but not often. Others may, and do, feel differently. And for as long as theaters are dark, and dance companies large and small are required to keep dancers, technical staff, and administrators working, we, the dance audience, need to help out by purchasing tickets to these online performances. At least until, dressed in white spats, we follow Gus the Theater Cat into the Keller or the Schnitz, and listen to the orchestra tune up and watch the curtain rise. Or without the spats, return to the studios and Lincoln Performance Hall, where the contemporary dancers I’ve neglected in this piece show us who we are, and who they are, at this moment, in this place.

In the meantime, some recommendations:

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THE YEAR OF LIVING CAUTIOUSLY, PART 1: Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell.

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Martha Ullman West’s book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet will be published in May 2021 by University Press of Florida.       

About the author

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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