Theater archives

The Singing Body


Introducing her small pickup company at Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon Theater, Suzanne Farrell said of George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, “When you see it and hear it, there’s nothing wrong with the world.” As Balanchine’s muse for many years and one of his most marvelous dancers, Farrell could not only make everything seem right with the world, she could bring us close to heaven. One of the key words in her sentence is hear. I’m told that this most musical of dancers has her company spend time just listening to the music. It shows. Some of the performers are accomplished, some still developing, but in the excerpts from Divertimento, their bodies all sing as they pursue Mozart’s melodies through Balanchine’s sage complications.

However Farrell coaches ballets she danced, she helps dancers look wonderful. New York City Ballet’s Phillip Neal, a fine danseur noble, can look plastic-wrapped; in Maurice Béjart’s curious Romeo and Juliet duet to Berlioz opposite an unusually rapt and free Christina Fagundes, he comes to ardent life (this Romeo lugs Juliet over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and brandishes her legs like six-guns). Fagundes is particularly lovely as Terpsichore in Apollo. On the New Victory’s small stage the ballet looks intimate but not cramped, and she contributes to this with a distant gaze that conjures up empyrean spaces.

Ben Huys’s innate subtlety animates his fine, strong Apollo in the progress from struggling boy to god. At the Bardavon, partnering Fagundes in Meditation—the love poem from the 59-year-old Balanchine to the 18-year-old Farrell—he acted as if he couldn’t get his skin close enough to her. Fagundes’s sunniness, a slight liability for a visiting muse, doesn’t sit perfectly with Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon ofa Faun. Neither Fagundes nor Veronica Lynn (tall with a beautiful, generous line), who shares the role, has quite the blend of innocence and awareness that Robbins promoted. Farrell may be less astute at coaching the “real” moments Robbins prized—the adjusting of a shoulder strap, the considering gaze. Dancing Robbins is like film acting; the tiniest tilt of the head sends a message.

Kyra Strasberg stitches the little steps of her Divertimento solo to the stage with feathery speed, and gives a big, bold performance in Apollo. Natalia Magnicaballi is entrancing in Farrell’s role in Balanchine’s deep little 1975 ballet, Tzigane. This gypsy role is the first Balanchine made for Farrell when she returned to NYCB after four years with Béjart. To Ravel music that starts like a long cadenza, he probed her bewitching strangeness, her unpredictability, her grace in awkwardness. Although at times Magnicaballi—a dark, long-limbed beauty—is a bit too self-consciously winning, Farrell has miraculously been able to transmit to the gifted young dancer a sense of the mystery Balanchine loved in all women and in ballet itself.

Only a Luddite would consider me a techie, but I was entranced to find myself onstage in The Hague’s beautiful old Nieuwe Kerk for the “Not Just Any Body” conference, being introduced by a dashing talking head (Michael Crabb) in Toronto. When the cameras in Toronto’s National Ballet School took a long shot, we in The Hague could see our transmitted images (unnervingly delayed) on a screen above the heads of panelists in Canada. As the three-day, satellite-linked debates proceeded, we received bulletins like “We’ve just been joined by Zagreb and Lexington, Kentucky!” (All I had to worry about was not hitting my chest mike in a fervent gesture.)

The goal of the conference was “to advance health, well-being, and excellence in dance and dancers.” One unsurprising message: Dancers are a vital, creative resource in the art form, and every company, school, and choreographer not already taking steps to insure their health and sanity ought to start doing so immediately. Sorella Englund, a former ballerina of the Royal Danish Ballet once driven to debilitating anorexia, warned dancers against the tactic of glorifying suffering. (Does pride in bunion size dull pain perception for a dancer trying to accomplish the maximum in a short career span?)

In lectures and workshops, fascinating information emerged—some of it grim. Every illness or injury effects changes in the organism, lurking within it like a temporarily dormant virus in the system. Stress is necessary for survival, but too much stress affects the immune system and inhibits recovery from injury. Anxiety and depression are too prevalent among dancers. But there were also many stimulating and encouraging facts, and an eagerness to consider changes (what might dance learn from sports training?). Maybe all ballet dancers will come to understand that a day without deep pliés will not cause the legs to wither, and that prowess doesn’t guarantee artistry.

The Holland Dance Festival, with 17 events repeated over 16 days, opened concurrently with the conference and was one of its sponsors. Those starry-eyed about virtual reality could take in Canada’s PPS Danse in Poles, created and performed by Pierre-Paul Savoie and Jeff Hall. Victor Pilon’s projections and Marc Parent’s lighting made the two men drop like fallout from a meteor shower into a fire-and-brimstone landscape that looked as if it might eat them. They acquired, via Michelle Lemieux’s “virtual projections,” pale doubles who mirrored their combats and moments of tenderness; virtual hands touched real shoulders before vaporizing.

If this was Cain and Abel in outer space, Shusaku Takeuchi’s Garnet for Nederlands Dans Theater II presented Adam and Eve in a “garden” more like a futuristic prison without walls. Two wonderful young dancers, Lydia Bustinduy and Mario Zambrano, penned into a shallow pool, nuzzled each other with a kind of glamorous post-butoh awkwardness and brutality. Suddenly, red liquid began to run down the white panel behind them until they were slithering and splashing in “blood.” In both Garnet and Poles, initially gripping, the effects seemed to have the choreographers by the scruff of the neck, with the audience yearning for closure long before it came.

Israel-based Barak Marshall opted for actuality in EmmaGoldman’s Wedding: the thumping shoes of an army of rude girls. Six sturdy females marched fiercely to klezmer music, their steps ingenious, their patterns bold, their hands supple and curling. They and the men who joined them told no stories, but seemed to live the rhythms of narrative and history. Weaving through, her uncanny voice ululating and chattering family history, was the choreographer’s mother, Margalit Oved, a legend in Israeli dance—so present that the enchantment with virtual effects came temporarily unplugged.