Dancers of New York City Ballet benefit
An Awaited Breath, Schmaltz for Two, Wound Up Wind Down, Polyphonia excerpt, Rotunda excerpt and I Fall, I Flow, I Melt
New York, Empire Hotel
18 October 2020
Shades of Fall
As the summer, with its outdoor pleasures, fades into fall, the reality that we are entering another season without live performance sinks in like a depressing fog. The last live dance I saw was back in August, at a beautiful property in upstate New York called Kaatsbaan. It felt like a momentary reprieve, a taste of bliss.
It’s hard to even imagine how worrying this time must be for the dancers, the dance masters, the orchestra players, the choreographers and theater staff. But particularly for the dancers, who spend most of their waking life refining, whittling away, practicing, learning new steps, shaping their bodies to become minutely responsive instruments. This, for a career that will be over by middle age.
Then there is the money stress everyone in the arts is experiencing. The financial arrangements of the major dance companies during the pandemic haven’t been made public, but we know that dancers, especially young ones, are modestly paid and we can assume they are making a fraction of their usual salaries, complemented by unemployment checks, which will eventually run out. New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater have both set up relief funds, seeking out donations in order to be able support their dancers and staff. Arts funding has become a kind of charity.
And those relief funds are apparently not enough. A group of City Ballet dancers recently founded “Dancers of New York City Ballet,” a fund intended to help fill that gap. “Several of us who are in the union had a meeting with management, and when they gave us their initial proposal for what was going to happen going forward, it dawned on us that it wouldn’t be enough for many of our dancers to stay in New York,” Teresa Reichlen, one of the organizers told me recently. There are young dancers without savings, dancers with families, and dancers who aren’t American citizens, and thus don’t have access to unemployment if they go home. All the dancers get an equal cut of the funds raised; those who are not in need have agreed to redistribute to the others.
On the brighter side it’s heartening to see the dancers advocate for themselves and organize rather than rely completely on the large institutions they work for. The group’s relations with the company are good. “We’re all doing what we can to support each other,” Reichlen says.
Dancers of New York City Ballet’s latest venture was a day of open-air performances held on the roof terrace of the Empire Hotel, across from Lincoln Center. The presenter was Melissa Gerstein, a donor whose daughter attends the School of American Ballet. The dancers are putting their relationships and skills to use.
The performances, which took place last weekend, followed safety protocols: no more than 30 people seated outdoors, all wearing masks, no partnering, staggered arrivals and departures. The dancers too wore masks. The fact that I didn’t notice this fact right away is a signal of how far we’ve come.
On the program, curated by the dancers Daniel Applebaum and Lauren King, were solos, duets, and one trio, half of them new (by Lauren Lovette, Janie Taylor, and Preston Chamblee), and half excerpted from existing ballets (by Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied, and Justin Peck). The dance floor was built for the occasion by two dancers. Music was taped. The view, of the skyscrapers around Lincoln Center and the rear of the Empire Hotel sign, was spectacular.
As at Kaatsbaan, there was a rush of emotion at seeing these extraordinary dancers doing the thing they do best. Their energy, precision, and drive, the way they change the space around them, is inspiring. As is their engagement with each other, the lively eyes no mask can hide. The feeling of relief that all this is happening before you in real-time, and not on a computer screen.
But it was equally clear how much was missing: the theatrical lights, the orchestra, the heightening effect of the stage, which turns humans into something remote and almost magical. People complain about traditional theaters, but there’s a reason they exist. It’s that fairy-dust of the theatre that elevates choreography and movement into something larger and more legible. Watching from a darkened theater, your eye becomes attuned to connections, patterns, structure, meaning.
Without the stage, the dancers, and the dance, become smaller. I felt this especially in the excerpt from Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, a solo (performed adroitly by Meaghan Dutton O’Hara) that normally takes place in the inky darkness, illuminated by a soft aura. The dancer hovers like a moth, revolving slowly, as if gently pushed by the notes of the piano (the music is by Ligeti). Dancing on the roof of the Empire, O’Hara looked vulnerable and very alone in her tights, purple leotard, and mask, revolving in the bright sun and cool fall air. It was touching, but it wasn’t really Polyphonia. The ambiance, the atmosphere, the magic aura were missing.
The three new ballets were all energetic and sprightly. Two of them were danced in socks. Lovette’s Wound up Wind Down was a duet for two women set to amusing, clangy music by Thankyoubranch. Lauren Collett and Emma Von Enck engaged in a funny, jerky conversation with their arms, until one of them collapsed on the ground as the other executed an adagio next to her. Janie Taylor’s Schmaltz for Two, set to music by Copeland, Kurtág, and Satie and dressed in bright red costumes, was like a game for Anthony Huxley and Kristen Segin, full of small jumps and nervous flicks that sent their legs flying through the air. Later, to one of the Gymnopédies, they lay down and dragged themselves across the floor. An excerpt of Millepied’s I Fall, I Flow, I Melt was set to the allemande from a Bach Partita for solo violin. Each dancer took one theme, attacking the jagged, busy choreography with gusto.
The show, about forty-minutes long, ended with a solo from Justin Peck’s Rotunda, a ballet that premiered just a couple of weeks before the world shut down. It could just a well be a hundred years ago. Andrew Scordato, elegant and expansive, turned and turned, buoyed by Nico Muhly’s ripples of sound, only to pause now and then and dip into an elegant Fred Astaire-like tilt.
Spirals of movement on an autumn afternoon. I hope the dancers raised a good amount of funds. I hope they return to their theater soon.