Tuesday, June 17, 2014

NYCB and Me

The New York City Ballet is a special place. It’s not just a ballet company, it’s one of the most important cultural institutions in the city, perhaps in the world. If that sounds boring, you aren’t paying attention.

The first time I went doesn’t really count. A quintessential New York day in early summer, 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity. A woman I had met at a party a few weeks earlier had an extra ticket. She was taking dance classes at a studio on Broadway, a block or two uptown from the Beacon Theater. I was to meet her there. The room wasn’t air conditioned, temperature well over a hundred. I nearly passed out from the heat as I watched the streamlined bodies, limbs and torsos glistening with sweat, men and women moving through the air in ways I couldn’t imagine as possible. 
I had never seen anything like this, another form of existence, a shocking form of existence. Many of the people there 
were professional dancers. My friend Carla wasn’t.

The performance we went to was Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had recently discovered the Mendelssohn music and enjoyed it. I remember that early on, a girl in the corps fell. It was as if I had been slapped—I had always thought that dancers couldn’t fall, that it was physically impossible, as if they had glue on their toe shoes, or were protected by some invisible net, as at the circus. This made me pay attention more closely. Afterwards, Carla, knowledgeable about dance, was relatively dismissive of the performance. This was 1977, the height of the dance boom. Balanchine was still alive, 
and most performances were sold out.

Fast forward to 1989. Balanchine has been dead six years. The company is getting highly negative press, even in Vanity Fair. It’s not clear this enterprise will continue much longer. I decide I need to go back. And I am riveted.

The piece that captured me, that made me an NYCB and Balanchine devotee for life, was Episodes, one of Balanchine’s modern, leotard ballets. Webern’s music is astringent, seemingly without a beat. I felt that if someone could choreograph to this music, the least danceable music imaginable, and make it come alive, they were indeed a genius. Balanchine could still do this, six years after his death, thanks to his dancers. When I look at the program now, which I still have, I see that the cast included Maria Calegari, Diana White, Albert Evans, and Wendy Whelan. The thing is, Episodes is more striking, more modern, than nearly anything being created in 2014.

None of this proves anything, really. Except that truly great art, art that catches the eye and captures the soul, is eternal. This is something far beyond the comprehension of those whose business is the marketing of art. There is, after all, a difference between Rembrandt and Jeff Koons.