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Baryshnikov and musicality


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In her online interview available on The New Yorker's website, Joan Acocella describes Farrell, Baryshnikov, and Mark Morris as the most musical dancers she has seen outside of tap. I reflected that in the many admiring accounts of Baryshnikov's dancing that I've read his musicality doesn't exactly go unmentioned, but it's not the way it is with Farrell, where virtually everyone comments, frequently at length, on the sensitivity of Farrell's musical impulses. I would like to ask those who saw a lot of Baryshnikov in his prime if they would agree or disagree with Acocella's estimate of his gifts in this area, and why?

Following up, who would you regard as the most musical dancers you have seen, and what made you notice that about them?

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I was struck by that comment, too. I don't remember Baryshnikov as being exceptionally musical -- not unmusical, certainly, but not one of those who sent me out of the theater singing the steps.

Quick answer, with the clock ticking, I'd say my top three were Nureyev, Farrell and Fonteyn.

I'll toss out some Danes, and leave the rest of the world for others :)

Arne Villumsen and Lis Jeppesen. Rose Gad. Of the current young dancers, Tina Hojlund.

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Kyra Nichols is one of the most musical dancers around, if I had to add a name to the list.

Dirac, my eyebrow raised when I read that about Baryshnikov. I never thought about him as non-musical, just the right amount of musicality required. But maybe it is different with many of the modern pieces he's done during his 2nd career. Maybe after seeing him do a Morris piece or something, I would move him into that catagory.

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Well, you beat me to it with Nichols, Dale. There's really no one I can think of who holds a candle to hear now, although I think back when Farrell and Allegra Kent would've. Gelsey Kirkland, when she was on top of her form.

For musical men, I'd put Anthony Dowell at the head of the list. Peter Boal, in the right settings. Malakhov, occasionally.

I feel the same as the others here. I thought Baryshnikov was just fine, musically, but not extraordinarly so.

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I'll second Sevillano and Wildor -- although I only saw them do a few ballets, they both were wonderful Ashton dancers.

I've only seen Ulanova on tape, coda, but I think she was very musical too. I remember once watching her Giselle (on video) and in the second act thinking that they had cut it wrong -- she seemed off the music. But then instead of listening to the music and trying to match her dancing to it, I watched her dancing and tried to find how she was hearing the music. She had a different sense of musicality from what I was used to (which at the time was either Balanchine's or Ashton's) and was dancing to the undercurrents of the music rather than the melody or the beat -- that's not very clear, but it's the best I can do early in the morning. And it was exquisite. I've never seen anything like her. (She's one of the few Giselles whose mad scene ever made me cry, too -- and that on a video!)

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I agree that musicality was not one of the primary characteristics I associate with Barishnikov. On my list of musical dancers:

Verdy - definitely; I have never seen a more perfect second act of Giselle in terms of musicality than hers

Merle Park - gave Fonteyn a run for her money as Juliet

Melissa Hayden - some of the most individual phasing anywhere

Among the men, I would go with Dowell, Vasiliev and Kronstam. My recollection of Christopher Gable is not as clear as it ought to be, but he did also come to mind.

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I agree on Merle Park (and Verdy, of course). I never cared for her as a dancer, but she was very musical.

I never saw Kronstam dance his classical parts live, but I saw him in class and rehearsal quite a bit, and he was musical in everything he did, including walking back to the sidelines after working with the dancers. Watching him Jeppesen and Gad, all in a line, at the barre, is one of my greatest ballet going experiences.

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Alexandra, you were moved by the tape made when Ulanova was 46. No existing tape is fair to her. Seeing her in the theatre was a bliss. My point about her musicality was close to what you described. It was not: one, two, three, listen to the music! She danced the music and was music herself. Amazingly, even in real life she had the same quality: she moved as if following some score. Up to the last years of her life.

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Coda, I'm sure you're right that no existing tape is fair to her -- it's a problem with nearly all dancers of the '30s, '40s, 50s -- even '60s. I've never seen a tape that captured Fonteyn, and only one or two that did justice to Nureyev. It's the cold dancers who look good on tape, I think.

But Ulanova, even in middle-age, still reaches out to us. I've shown her bedroom pas de deux (Romeo and Juliet) in several dance history and "dance appreciation" courses I've taught, to both ballet fans and modern dance students, and every single time it has been THE favorite tape they've seen. Every class has asked to see it again. The passion comes through, the discipline and the freedom of her movement, if that makes sense. I love showing it to modern dancers who think that ballet is "just classroom steps" -- and to ballet dancers who think that ballet is just classroom steps :)

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Alexandra, when you say "cold" do you mean that as a pejorative, or are you referring to the so-called Apollonian, vs. Dionysian, dancers? That's a terribly crude set of characterizations, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

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Fair question :) I guess as bit of both -- I generally prefer "warm" dancers, although I admire "cold" ones. This is a purely personal definition, but I can think of "warm" Apollonian dancers (Dowell, for one), so it's not completely an Apollonian/Dionysian thing.

Dancers who are more impressive to me on tape than they did in performance are people like Cynthia Gregory and Peter Martins. There are no technical imperfections; they film beautifully. Their effect in performance didn't depend on perfume. (Both are dancers I admired, but could never love.) But look at Farrell on video, and you see the overbite and the bouncing wrists. Look at Nureyev, and you see the blinking and the distorted face. (Not until the end, when that's all that was left, did I notice that in performance.) And the qualities that made both dances magical for me do not transfer to tape.

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Thaks for the answer. My reaction to dance on video seems to depend very much on my mood. The same footage will bore me one day and thrill me the next. But the one bit of Farrell footage that never ceases to dazzle is the Don Q excerpt.

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One piece of footage of Tallchief that I think is amazing is the excerpt shown in the documentary "Dancing for Mr. B." of her doing the Berceuse from Firebird. It's from television, the quality is not good, and the studio where she's dancing seems to be about the size of my broom closet, but she is magical, especially when you think that in the same ballet she tore up the stage with electrifying turns and jumps.

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Nureyev??? Not when I've seen him!!!

It is hard to gauge people's musicality based on films alone, unless they record the music and dancing as they occurred at the time. Some films may have had the music dubbed over the dancer (the Farrell DonQ among these), after the dancing was done. Those (and they are usually identifiable, with a little attention) cannot give an indication of a dancer's musicality, as the viewer and the dancer are not hearing the same thing. Other films, especially in the last 20 or so years, have been synched to fit the dancing to the music (harder to detect), also giving us a false impression.

I think musicality requires the dancer to surrender her/himself to the music. I found that in van Hamel. I see it by the bucketful in Corella. Woetzel has his moments. Helgi Tomasson. Heather Watts described herself as unmusical, but during a brief period before she decided it was okay to mark her performances, driven perhaps by this perceived shortcoming, did some very musical dancing. Melinda Roy, Dierdre Carberry, Johan Renvall -- all exquisitely musical. Of course Farrell, of course Verdy. Not ballet, but no one has ever surpassed the great Astaire.

Aaah! Do I contradict my criticism of films as a reliable medium? Perhaps. But here is also Croce's Astaire and Rogers book, the corners of which flip one way to show one dance, and the other to show another. It was obvious that one was a waltz -- the waltz, in fact, from "Swing Time"!

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Yes, emphatically Nureyev :) (And this isn't a quirky choice on my part; it was generally recognized as one of his gifts.)

kfw, I've had the same feeling about video as you: "My reaction to dance on video seems to depend very much on my mood. The same footage will bore me one day and thrill me the next." Worse, a dancer will strike me as "over the hill" one day and, watching the same dancer a year later, I might have a very different reaction. Worrisome :)

What did you all think about Makarova's musicality? I remember there seemed to be a national divide over this. I'd read how musical she was in British reviews, and then Americans, Croce for exampe (who admired Makarova and was always writing about her) would say how perfect she was, "except for her lack of musicality, her besetting sin." We've talked before about different definitions of musicality, and perhaps this is one of them.

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Ari, I think that's a very good point -- and another indication of different definitions of musicality. That wouldn't bother some people; they'd only care about the results. And strike others as completely unmusical, becuase the music, however it was danced, was distorted.

To go back to the other question posed on this thread -- what do you think about Baryshnikov as "the most musical dancer"?

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Thanks to all who responded re Baryshnikov, anyway. (The other posts were interesting, too, of course. :)) When I read that remark in the interview, my first reaction was, "Huh? Interesting....." and I'm glad to know that wasn't out of line!

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Baryshnikov is not what I would call a musical dancer per se, but I did see a few performances in which he was -- those nights -- pretty darned musical.

Makarova is a more complicated issue, because I do feel she was musical, but that her ear was a bit . . . eccentric? Individualistic? She really asked the audience to meet her on her terms musically.

A post on another topic cited Assylmuratova saying something to the effect that the Vaganova School airms to teach the dancers how to "let the body sing." That is the same phrase Makarova once used in a tv interview, and it was so vivid, that I was struck when I saw the younger product of the same schooling (sort of) repeat it. I suspect it may be oft repeated in those studios. And I think Makarova achieved it.

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