New York's Intimate Dance Salons

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.

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