Theater archives

The Beauty and Limits of the Dance World’s Ongoing Love of Virtuosity


Help! YouTube is awash in pirouettes! Is virtuosity the new porn?

Google your favorite ballet stars, and you’ll find assorted bravura passages that show off his leaps, his spins, her balances on the tip of her tiny, heavily shellacked toe, their amazing flexibility. Here’s Herman Cornejo of American Ballet Theatre in Le Corsaire. Count those pirouettes. Is it five? Watch ABT’s Angel Corella split his legs apart as he soars into the air and lands kneeling at his partner’s feet in the Don Quixote pas de deux. As Swan Lake‘s seductively evil Odile, Nina Ananiashvili inserts a double turn into the requisite 32 fouettés that she’s whipping off.

In 2008, even people who’ve never seen a live ballet performance were e-mailing their friends the link to the Chinese State Circus’s version of Swan Lake, Act II. At its climax, the prince hands the lovely, apparently fragile Swan Queen over to his stalwart friend, who hoists her to stand in arabesque en pointe on his head. He takes his supporting hands away, and she slowly, unwaveringly, rotates in that flawless position (is he wearing a mechanical hat?). 2,527,374 hits to date.

Subtleties don’t play well on YouTube, so the abundant dance clips have been promoting a kind of connoisseurship of virtuosity, as well as developing our appetite for it. Whether crude or refined, online or in a theater, it gives us a kinesthetic jolt. We can (or once could) jump up and down or hop from rock to rock to cross a stream; the sense of that tiny release from gravity resides in our bodies. How exalting it is, then, to see a great dancer seem to hang in the air—providing us with the closest we can come to the Platonic ideal of “The Leap.” We may get dizzy when we turn too quickly, but the spinning dancer stays on balance and ends serenely. We know what trying to stand on one leg feels like, and we respond to the ballerina who looks as if she could stay there a very long time. As infants, we could suck on our toes; many adults have trouble touching theirs; the contortionists in Cirque de Soleil evoked a kind of admiring horror (“If only I were half that limber!”).

Applause, cheers, and dropped jaws come into play whether or not an exhibition of super-technique is embedded in coherent performing and choreography. Like most viewers, I thrill to such feats—although I’m more moved when virtuosity is admixed with artistry and a degree of subtlety: the ballerina who can step into a balance in arabesque as if she were poised on the brink of a revelation, the danseur who minimizes the usual planted preparation for a pirouette and makes multiple turns look like an explosion of vitality.

If you watched the members of the modern-dance group Pilobolus during its just-ended Joyce season—especially in some of the classic older pieces in its repertory—you may have delighted simply in the dancers’ ability to tie themselves into improbable athletic knots—alone and together. At its best, however, that very improbability is fodder for irony, or hints at dark fantasies. Pilobolite Michael Tracy’s 2001 Symbiosis ends the slow, silky entangling of a man and a woman (think: Adam and Eve trying to merge again) with an enigmatic image. The man is seated, with his legs crossed, and his partner is crouching on his bent-over back, staring into darkness. Barely altering his position, he begins to turn smoothly in a circle; she never stirs. You’re aware of the immense control involved in the maneuver, but that doesn’t diminish its power as metaphor.

Today, many dancers in the Western world are hyper-flexible. They shoot one leg into the air, and it points to high noon or beyond—sometimes as if this were no more difficult than pouring milk onto cereal (awesome, if not always appropriate). Leaving the Doris Duke Studio Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in late July, after a performance by the recently formed duo of Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk, I heard behind me exclamations of “Wow!” and the sudden, short expelling of breath that says, “I can’t find words for this fantastic experience!” These two are champions, skilled in ballet and contemporary dance; they’re both gorgeous, tall (she’s five-foot-eleven, he’s six-foot-two), and formidably limber. The pieces on the program by various choreographers (some involving three equally skilled colleagues) were almost indistinguishable from one another, and whatever the purported mood, the result was a banquet of mile-long legs kicked to the max and bodies capable of minute, sinuous articulations, delivered with an aggressive stance, and a certain erotic edge. But what do you take away beyond “amazing” and “wow?”

Maybe that’s enough. Virtuosity, though, can transcend and transform the “wow” experience, especially when you watch highly acute dancers meld their skills with the vision of a choreographer (preferably a great one), without calling our attention to the degree of difficulty. I think of the brilliant members of Merce Cunningham’s company, or Trisha Brown’s. Or Mikhail Baryshnikov back in 1977, in a solo in Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove that both presented and subverted balletic chops in astonishing ways.

We think of virtuosity as mastery, but in some contemporary choreography, prowess has acquired an ironic new aspect. Instead of implying superhuman perfection and accomplishment, performers’ technical skills are used to convey imperfection, disconnectedness, and alienation. For instance, Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, whose works appear in many companies’ repertories, creates full-throttle demonstrations of kinky, twitchy, dodgy behavior, in which the dancers ripple their spines and slash the air with their limbs until they resemble sleek machines running amok. A physical version of multitasking that approaches dementia.

William Forsythe is the brainy fore-father of this; he has ventured way beyond George Balanchine in pushing ballet moves off-center and disorienting the classical line. After seeing his impressive 2003 theater piece Decreation at BAM last fall, I wrote that the “performers move as if they’re trying to decreate their own bodies; their bones seem to be melting, their sinews and tendons abandoning their usual pathways.” Taking the human body apart onstage in extreme ways, as Forsythe has done, can express some of our most disturbing fears. Yet, understandably, audiences also respond to high-wattage displays of distortion as simply another dancerly skill that resonates with our experiences of living. Never has our everyday awkwardness looked so chic, so exciting.