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Morris Neighbor

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  1. Since Mark Morris moved his company to my neighborhood and I've borrowed his name, I feel obliged to offer a bit of a defense. First of all, there is no evidence that he is hostile to classical ballet. He has, in fact, been commissioned to do works for several ballet companies, including ABT and NYCB. While he joked on film about reading the score, it's worth noting that he can read music while Peter Martins can't, tying Morris more closely to the Balanchine heritage than NYCB's present director. (Unlike Mr. B, however, Morris does not write his own piano reductions of a score for rehearsals. The parallel is far from perfect.) Having seen many of his works, I can assure you that Mortris blends classical and modern techniques (dancers do appear en pointe), creates with a wonderful musicality, and hires, almost exclusively, dancers with classical training. Second, he was asked to create a 7-minute piece d'occasion, not the new Sleeping Beauty. Rehearsal time was limited, performance conditions (from the filmmakers point of view) far from ideal. So Morris made a noble effort. I doubt that he or anyone involved in the program mourns the fact that Non Troppo is unlikely to get a second performance. In addition, I would like to echo the many tributes to the background sections of the mini-bios. The astonishing Alonso, for example, is worth a whole evening of PBS programming, and the way she created world-class dancers in the less-than-promising atmosphere of Castor's Cuba is worth longer study. Similarly, Malakhov's tale reminded me of Alexendra Danilova's memoir of her life before and after the Russian Revolution -- going from the pampered darlings of the Tsar to gifted kids struggling to find food, while rehearsing in unheated studios. An opportunity missed, alas, but like everyone else, I'm delighted that something about dance reached a national audience. Finally, I am distressed to learn that tolerance is viewed exclusively as a concern of "coasters." I had hoped that Matthew Shepherd did not die in vain.
  2. A few thoughts on "Born to Be Wild." As Alexandra noted, the piece was clearly conceived for a broad popular audience. The perfomance highlights -- other than the commissioned Morris piece, of which more later -- come entirely from 19th-century "applause machines." All four men (as many of us have seen) have the style and technique to bring down the house at will, so there's no news here. The film also spends a lot of time trying to undermine the myth that all male dancers are gay. Ethan Stiefel tells us how great it is "to work every day with women in excellent shape"; we also see him riding his Harley and get to meet his father, the ex-cop. ABT's Artistic Director, Kevin MacKenzie, has always exuded masculinity (even in tights), and the five o'clock shadow he sports in the filmed interview only enhances the image. Jacques d'Amboise offers several trenchant comments, though I suspect he was invited as much for his NUU YAHWK accent and famous children (Christopher runs the Pennsylvania Ballet, Charlotte stars in every Broadway musical's second cast, and three other kids have real jobs) as for his dance knowledge. Near the end of the film, we also get to see Jose Manuel Carreno's wife and daughters. Enough already! Mark Morris is openly gay, Angel Corella is ambiguous, and another ABT dancer, Marcelo Gomes, recently came out on the cover of The Advocate, a highly respected gay newsweekly. In short, both gay men and straight men have had and can have wildly succcessful careers in dance; it's a field in which sexual orientation is really, truly irrelevant. That said, I felt the mix of brief biography, performance snippets and rehearsals for the new piece made for good television. Individual sections were certainly brief, but also concise. We got a good sense of the different backgrounds and sensibilities of the four men, a taste of the dancing that has made their reputations, and previews of the climactic work, including some telling insights into how a new dance is created. Nevertheless, I found the Morris piece disappointing, at least as it appeared on television. Rather than staging the dance in a studio with wide-ranging cameras and extensive consultation with the director (as was the case with this film's rehearsal footage and the classic Choreography by Balanchine shows, still available from Nonesuch video) the Morris dance was staged in a theatre before a live audience, with obvious limitations on where and when the cameras could roam, and how many "takes" the director could request. The technical staff was first rate (led by Judy Kinberg, a veteran of Dance in America), but budgetary constraints seem to have kept her and her colleagues from doing their best. Nonetheless, this is a well-paced and engaging video essay in the art of male classical dance. It's a wonderfully entertaining hour that celebrates the art we all love. Show it to your friends (male and female) and try to convert them!
  3. Yes, this is the first airing, at least on American TV, and, as noted above, it runs a bit under an hour.
  4. Another useful reminder: most PBS stations will re-broadcast the show later in the week. In New York, it will be repeated at 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, February 9th. Again, I'd suggest checking with your local PBS station or its web site. Of course, this being PBS, the show will surely re-appear several months down the line, but when is hard to predict.
  5. Having recently purchased a DVD player, I see a great future for this technology in the dance world. There's the obvious "Fast Forward" choice -- an easy way to skip Jordan's longueurs -- and the possibility of multi-lingual soundtracks. Even more interesting is the chance to record the same movement from several perspectives at once. The viewer can choose a point of view, go back and forth, switch point of view at will, and analyze every move. In practice, this would mean that a battery of digital cameras would record the same performance; software would integrate the different views on a single disc. This is not pie-in-the-sky, by the way; the technology exists today. Clearly, this would be vastly superior to the "archival" tapes most ballet companies depend on, which are usually recorded by a single camera in the back of an autorium or in a rehearsal studio -- tapes that require the additional interpretation of a dancer with first-hand knowledge of a work to re-create key details. A well-planned DVD recording could be at least as useful to future Balanchine dancers as written scores are today's Mozart musicians. And digital discs outlast tapes by decades. I hate to see this discussion close on a negative note, since the future of dance film and dance video is very exciting indeed.
  6. While I did not see the Tombeau being discussed here, as a long-time fan of City Ballet I can appreciate the difficulty of encouraging young dancers with amazing technical skills -- young women and men who have won contracts with a world-class company because of those skills -- to look beyond technique to interpretation. To a certain extent, the change is inevitable. I remember a forum in which Alexandra Danilova took questions from the public. I alluded to the many roles in which Madame D. won acclaim for her style and interpretation, rather than physical technique, and asked if she felt the shift to technical skills was undermining the art of dance. She responded with an elaborate Slavic shrug. "The girls today," she said, "they can do things I would never imagine. But if we do not PROgress, we RETROgress." True enough, but somewhere along the line, NYCB really should get dancers to look beyond the steps. I recall another forum in which Kyra Nichols described her experience in learning the title role in Firebird. At an early studio rehearsal, she noticed Maria Tallchief standing in the door. She arranged to meet with Tallchief the following day for detailed coaching, and felt her dancing was immeasurably improved. To be sure, many superb Balanchine dancers are available to the young tyros at SAB and NYCB -- Kay Mazzo, Sean Lavery, Suki Schorer, Victor Casteli and Merrill Ashley in particular -- though the absence of Farrell is clearly felt. Hand-holding sounds demeaning, but Farrell, in her biography, pays enormous tribute to Diana Adams, as a mentor and role model. I can't help wondering how much support these gifted young dancers feel from their elders.
  7. As the first poster to suggest that "Eight Easy Pieces" and "Eight More" are "entertaining minor works," I would like to thank Michael for his provocative comments. As I certainly know, having seen them on many occasions over the past two decades -- they date to 1980 and 1985, respectively -- they are among the most enduring and engaging of Martins' works. This fact alone suggests that they are much more than trivial bagatelles. There's also the fact that Martins has always been drawn to 20th-century music, finding far more choreographic inspiration in Stravinsky, Ives, and Michael Torke than in Schubert or Beethoven. Clearly, this is a choreographer playing his strongest suit, and the results are a winning trick. Now that business about "good for showcasing younger dancers" -- that's not my doing. That's how Martins uses these ballets in his company's repertory. Maybe he underestimates his own creations; if he cast them with senior dancers, he might force all of us to reconsider. Maybe Martins is simply patterning himself on Balanchine, who regularly used the Adagio in Symphony in C -- anything but a trivial bagatelle! -- to introduce young ballerinas. (I was in the house when the 16-year-old Darci Kistler boureed downstage into stardom, following the toe taps of Tanaquil LeClercq, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Kay Mazzo, Gelsey Kirkland and others.) Or maybe it's just a convenience in trying to organize such a huge repertory: these pieces for "the kids"; others for the marquee names. NYCB usually performs 40-45 different works in the course of each 13-week season, so scheduling is a massive headache and simplification is always welcome.
  8. The 31st annual Dance on Film Festival wound up today at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre, under the joint aegis of the Dance Film Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I caught two of the six internationally flavored programs: the "American Moderns" program, which highlighted the works of Molissa Fenley, Sean Curran, and Elizabeth Streb, and the "Stravinsky/Balanchine," of which more in a moment. The Fenley and Curran films offered illuminating (if conventional) insights into the creation of dance. Streb, on the other hand, is very articulate and offers a wide-ranging rap on the nature of dance, the role of women, and on and on. We also get to meet the dancers willing to take on her very risky manoeuvers. For what it's worth, no one in her company has suffered a serious injury, perhaps due to the intense physical discipline she imposes on her dancers. The much balley-hooed Balanchine/Stravinsky film proved to be a major disappointment. It is, essentially, a detailed scholarly monograph, written by Stephanie Jordan, and published on video. Jordan offers a lot of interesting insights, but they are buried in a deep, deep bed of boring theory. When even the dancers she has engaged to demonstarte her points look sleepy, you know she has gone over the line. The primary focus is certainly important: the shifting and often amazing uses of rhythm by Blanchine and Stravinsky. But after the 7th or 8th demonstration of polyrhythm in Agon, especially the contrast between music and dance counts, I got the message and didn't need anothr 15 or 20 demos fo the same points....
  9. I saw Sylve last night in Symphony in Three Movements, and the biggest compliment I can pay is that I didn't notice her. She is a one-time protegee of Patricia Neary, one of the first dancer/teachers to take the school of Balanchine to Europe, and the student has clearly absorbed all the lessons. Even in this totally ensemble piece (aside from the central "Chinese" pas de deux, the ballet is organized into three principal couples, five solo souples, and 16 women), she danced as if she'd spent her life at SAB, and several years with the parent company as well. She could join the company tomorrow and no one would object!
  10. If all else fails, you can phone your local PBS station (Look for it in the phone book under its call letters, like "WNET" and "KQED.") or check out its own web site (just type the call letters in a Google or Yahoo search). In addition, a tape is likely to be available after the airing, but that will depend on the various copyright restrictions.
  11. Ah, Victoria, you are always one jetee ahead of the rest of us! I just got news of the program from the Morris company (whose splendid home is a few blocks down the street from my apartment) and rushed to post news here. I can add one useful detail: go to www.pbs.org to check the air time on your local station. In the largest markets, it will run Monday, February 3rd at 10:00 PM Eastern & Pacific and 9:00 PM Central time. But each station sets its own schedule. A pedant at heart, I have trouble with the assertion that the current ABT corps of great male dancers is "unprecedented in the history of American ballet" -- hey, the company's own history includes the likes of Nureyev and Massine and only one of the featured stars is American by birth and training -- but press releases are notorious for hyperbole. I would also like to point out that director Judy Kinburg won her Emmies for the legendary "Dance in America" and "Choreography by Balanchine" broadcasts; she is uniquely gifted in bringing dance to TV. I will be watching what promises to be one of the best dance programs on national TV in a decade.
  12. Thank you, Nanatchka, for the post, and thank you, Nancy Davla, for so exquisitely capturing the agony and the ecstasy of the balletomane. At the same time, my pedantic soul must point out that "the moonlight of Serenade" is a relatively modern addition to a ballet created in 1934 and originally performed in white "Greek" tunics. The moody lighting was first seen in 1948, the clouds of blue tulle in 1953 (I rely on Nancy Reynolds' Repertory in Review). In other words, Balanchine conceived this as an abstract piece -- Agon with a more accessible score -- but created, in both cases, a work of haunting and universal impact, no matter how many casts may dance it. So I will, inevitably, compare new casts with favorite casts, until I reach what a philosophy professor called the "Ding an Sich" -- the essence itself. But I don't take a German dictionary to the theatre!
  13. My thanks to Mel for his welcome clarification (I think I got the stripped-down version from Clive Barnes, but it's so easy to blame everything on him) and to Cargill, Leigh, and Alexandra for comments on the mother-in-law question. I only wish I could come up with another topic that brought so many fascinating responses! First of all, let me stress (as I mentioned before) that a great artist can break all the rules and still create a memorable work. Just compare the ballets of Balanchine's acolytes to those of the master. But to keep the conversation going ... What is the role of the score in a narrative ballet? Should a choreographer take an existing musical work (with or without an explicit program) and build on it, or is it better for the dance-maker to create a narrative framework and commission a composer to meet his or her narrative needs? In other words, should a choreographer risk "trivializing a great work of music" [e.g., any dance set to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto], or commissioning what music critics might call "a trivial work"?
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