Thursday, July 02, 2009


At the Ballet

So, here's a confession. I have been indulging myself lately. A lot.

One of the reasons I wanted to live in New York, and always claim to love living here, is because of the incredible cultural opportunities going on every evening. When I was a student in college, I always got discounted theater tickets, and went to standing room at the opera--often by myself. As an adult, though, I found that I developed a slightly different relationship with "high culture" for reasons that are still difficult to explain. For a long time, before I sold my novel, I found myself balking at going to anything other than jazz gigs. I went to the occasional opera or show, but didn't go often.

Part of that probably had to do with being chronically broke, and if you are a writer, you know what I mean. I found it hard to justify spending too much money on expensive tickets. And in a strange way, I found it difficult to completely enjoy too much high art, when I felt I wasn't making much progress with my own attempts. Along the way, something changed, though and in the past six months I've been going to as much stuff as I can. I suppose losing my father affected me too--if he lived here--if he were alive at all--I thought, he'd be going to the opera all the time. And so I decided I had better take advantage of the opportunity I'd given myself while I could.

Lyrical, radiant, effortlessly buoyant and musical Marianna Tcherkassky

Once upon a time, I was an enormous ballet fan. My parents kindly took me up to San Francisco whenever American Ballet Theater came to town, and I fell in love with its dancers. My favorites were Marianna Tcherkassky (who is half-Japanese), Johan Renvall, Martine van Hamel and later, Susan Jaffe. I was at Tcherkassky's 40th anniversary (or maybe it was her birthday) and remember when all her male partners lined up to give her flowers. Renvall did a fancy and dramatic bow and I was pleased to see that they were friends since I loved them both so much-I think they used to dance the Bluebird pas de deux together.

Powerful, sexy and sublime Martine van Hamel

I continued to see them in college. My big splurge at the end of my Freshman year was a ticket in the Orchestra section to watch Renvall dance the Rite of Spring. Agnes de Mille was still alive, and premiering what we did not know would be her last piece--she died not long after. I remember being apalled that the theater was not full. How could anyone miss Renvall and the Rite of Spring? I realize now it was a dancer's program--not something geared to the masses. And yet, what an amazing experience. There was crotchety Jerome Robbins sitting a few rows ahead of me. Agnes De Mille was in her wheelchair, then was whisked away for a curtain call. I passed Marianna Tcherkassy on my way to the bathroom. New York had never felt so glamorous.

I'll never understand why Renvall wasn't more famous. He was better than Baryishnykov. I have yet to see anyone who can jump and turn like this man. I first saw him as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and thought (as I do when I read the play): "Juliet! Choose the short, exciting guy!"

Around 1986, the Bolshoi announced that it would tour Los Angeles. LA is a good 7 hours away from little Carmel, but my parents, always eager to indulge my cultural cravings, agreed to make the road trip just so I could see the Russian stars. We'd a friend when I was growing up--the famous musician's musican Jascha Veissi who had run away from Russia to New York where he'd known Bernstein--and who knew of my love of ballet, and who had always insisted that if I loved dance so much, I had to see the Russians one day. You never know what children will remember. Jascha probably died when I was around 12 years old, but I heard his voice in my head, and asked my parents to take me to LA.

Our friend Michael had convinced my father that we should buy the cheapest seats in the house. He always did this for the opera, and then snuck into the Orchestra section. I wasn't so sure. But my father could sometimes be easily persuaded, and he never met a good deal he didn't like. I had nightmares that our seats would be terrible. They were. That's the thing about dance. I don't mind sitting up high and far away for orchestral music and the opera. But with dance, you must be able to see.

Michael felt terrible. He took me down to the Orchestra section after the first intermission, and we sat in an empty seat. Ann Miller sat in front of us. So did Betsy Bloomingdale. Michael knew who all of them were. It was a complete old Hollywood fantasy land down there. But of course, I thought. The "society" people had come out to see the ballet. Eventually it became clear that we were not sitting in empty seats--this was made all the more clear when Carol Channing kicked Michael as he exited the row. I was mortified. Why, I wondered, could I not know people who did things the "normal" way? Why must everyone around me always be working an angle.

Photo of Mukhamedov and Bessmertnova taken from here.

The lights dimmed. We snuck into a doorway, still at the front of the orchestra section. KGB agents were everywhere, but no one stopped us, and I watched Ludmilla Semenyaka and Irek Mukhamedov up close, which was a treat. I was also--being the kind of person that I am--stressed the entire time. One day I thought it would be nice to pay for a seat, and avoid this kind of high stress situation. Other highlights from that weekend included seeing a young Nina Ananiashvilli, (who just retired from ABT last weekend), and Natalya Besmertnova. But it was Semenyaka and Mukhamedov who blew me away with Spartacus. I'd just never seen this kind of confident, unabashedly dramatic and bold dancing. If I remember, the press made a big deal about how "Bolshoi" means big and indeed, every movement was just so large. Mukhamedov was so fiercely male in a way I hadn't seen since watching Nureyev on television. I was floored. Jascha was correct.

A few years later, the Kirov came to San Francisco and we went to see them perform Giselle, and I learned that dance companies do have different styles. It was hard to explain exactly how ABT, the Kirov and the Bolshoi were different. I loved the dramatic and lyrical quality of the Kirov dancers, and I wish they would return to NYC soon. The sensitivity of their dancers was a gorgeous contrast to the Bolshoi, and yet I would not pick which company I liked more (though my parents liked the Kirov sets).

And this brings me to the present, and my recent ballet obsession. I've been going every week. I bought a subscription thinking that friends would like to go with me, but it turns out that most people aren't really interested. I'm cool with this. I scalped one ticket at the urging of a security guard, and dragged my husband to another performance. I'll figure out to do with the other extras. I've also managed to buy some singles and sit all over the Met opera house looking for my favorite spot (still searching). I'm learning who the new dancers are. I'm making friends through the internet who also love dance--and if you do like the ballet, you must hop over to visit my friend Tonya's wonderful blog. She's a great love for dance, but also a critical appreciation for it.

Some of my favorite dancers are long gone--Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca. But I've found some new dancers to admire. My highlights so far: Diana Vishneva in Giselle (not so much in Sylvia). David Hallberg in everything (and he's from South Dakota!) Angel Corella in everything. Michele Wiles in Swan Lake--what power and what wonderful acting. There was also a collective gasp when she exited the stage, transformed into a swan. Also, young Hee Seo in small parts--I'll see her Juliet next week. As for who I am sorry to have missed: Robert Bolle and Veronica Part, who has been the talk of the Steps Dance Studio women's changing room. I'll have to hold out for an off-season appearance or next summer.

Since I've rambled on and on so much, I'll just leave you with one more small clip to watch. I love what Ferri says about Bocca as her ideal partner--an artistic partner is really a special kind of relationship. It's a kind of love, but it expresses itself through a piece of art. I also love what she says about dance being the only way to "become" a piece of music, which is pretty much how I've always felt, and why even at this point in my life, I can't take a yoga or pilates class for "exercise." There is nothing, nothing, nothing to me like the feeling of dance. And for for me, the very best writing registers as a kind of music too (take your pick what kind of music you want it to be).

(Edited to add--been going to the Joyce as well, where I saw my beloved Philadanco. But I'll save that for another post).

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