Every day, it seems, brings some fresh ugliness from Washington, leaving gloom, anxiety and outright shock in its wake. Happily for New Yorkers, we can find a brief respite from the New Abnormal in spaces throughout the city where beauty flourishes. Take Juilliard and American Ballet Theater, which offer intimate studio performances of dances, as well as a chance to watch a ballet-in-progress. For dance lovers -- and to judge by the city’s packed concerts, we’re legion – these studio evenings offer a delightful opportunity to play Degas and poke around among the tutus, while gleaning a few secrets of the trade from some of the world’s most magical choreographers.
This February Juilliard unveiled in a studio event an excerpt from the dance V (2001) by the wonderfully mischievous Mark Morris -- a kind of amuse-bouche before it’s performed for the public in Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater in March. The studio setting offers a unique view of Juilliard’s superb young dancers at work, up and close and personal; at moments they practically sweep you into the moves. For me, a former dancer, it was like being back onstage.
Afterwards, Lawrence Rhodes, beloved director of Juilliard’s 96-strong Dance Division, interviewed a former Morris Company dancer to deconstruct the excerpt we’d just watched. The exercise gives you a new pair of eyes. A second treat: most modern dance concerts make do with canned music; given the resources of Juilliard’s Music Division, we got a stirring live reading of Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Strings.
For me the evening’s takeaway was a fresh understanding of Mark Morris’s fetish for “real people” moving onstage in all their humanness, unlike the idealized figures of ballet. To keep it real is of course a challenge for dancers, who are often trained to project those plastic ballerina smiles. Second takeaway: with Morris music doesn’t so much accompany dancers – it’s more the other way around. The overall effect is so interwoven it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other leaves off.
Last week found me at a second dance evening in Studio 9 of American Ballet Theatre for a sneak peek at an excerpt from Whipped Cream, the new full-length ballet by Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky. Billed as a “dollop of delightful whimsy,” it’s about a young boy who overindulges in a Viennese pastry shop and falls into a delirium that spirits him away to an imaginary court peopled by fantastical figures -- all to an atypically light-hearted score by Richard Strauss.
The event offered guests (donors to ABT who support new works) a front row opportunity to watch Ratmansky, arguably today’s pre-eminent dance-maker, actually create the ballet, moment by moment, on ABT stars Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane. Also on hand in the background -- and somewhat marking the moves -- were Misty Copeland (charming) and Herman Cornejo (great thighs).
Ratmansky – cherubic face, plumpish, graceful, immensely likeable – deployed his dancers like a painter drawing or a writer struggling to bring forth an image, inviting them to give form to some ideal sequence of steps -- often hellishly difficult – perceptible to him alone. It was thrilling to be present at this process, and the small audience was riveted. A perfectionist, Alexei, as everyone calls him, repeatedly corrected the tiniest hand gesture by Sarah Lane that wasn’t quite right; asked Simkin to land faster on his knee (ouch) after a double turn. We take for granted the ease of all those lifts in ballet, but the rehearsal revealed how awkward and tricky some feel – eliciting laughs from both Alexei, the dancers, and the audience when the holds went awry. Alexei to Simkin: “She’ll only trust you if you’re there on time.”
We’re accustomed to the polish of ballet dancers on stage. So it’s always a hoot to see them in their assorted weird practice get-ups, Simkin in wooly full-body tights, suspenders around his hips, Cornejo in jogging shorts and leg warmers. And fascinating to watch the pared-down bodies of dancers – their own instruments -- who are also (said Martha Graham, at her most exalted) “athletes of God.”
After the rehearsal, Kevin McKenzie, ABT Artistic Director, stopped by from a rehearsal of his own for a Q & A. (It was 7 P.M. As at Juilliard, I got the impression that come evening, dancers just keep dancing.) McKenzie views Whipped Cream (due to premiere May 22nd at ABT’s Spring Gala, complete with a march around Lincoln Center) as a game changer and genre-buster. Pressed on this point, he explained that Ratmansky has interleaved a bunch of elements not normally found together in a ballet, including an MGM American flavor, a touch of Tim Burton and surrealism (especially in Mark Ryden’s elaborate sets and costumes), along with a good dollop of film noir.
So much has still to come together before opening night: the completed costumes, ever demanding rehearsals, maybe the blessings of Terpsichore. The huge yet delicate undertaking of creating a new full length ballet is not without its nervous moments. Regarding the score, McKenzie quoted Richard Strauss, who defended its ebullience during a troubled period: “These are dark times. Why can’t I write about joy?” The audience laughed in grim recognition.