José Limón’s Othello-inspired dance, The Moor’s Pavane, is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in dance history. The work is the prime example of Limón’s intense, nuanced modern-dance voice, and I had never seen it. So when Diablo Ballet of Walnut Creek, California, offered it (in conjunction with sjDANCEco of San Jose), I marked my calendar. Preceding Pavane, with only a pause in between, was a piece by Vicente Nebrada from 1978, and the juxtaposition was striking.
Pavane premiered in 1949, nearly three decades before Nebrada’s Lento a Tempo e Appassionato. And yet of the two, Pavane resonated with authority and meaning. It didn’t seem contemporary; Limón’s style speaks of a time long past, though his technique is alive, as is the company. It’s a period piece, but it didn’t seem dated at all. Yet the considerably younger Lento did.
Why? Was it me? I’ll admit to bias: I love Shakespeare, and though a program disclaimer stated that Pavane isn’t a literal interpretation of Othello, there’s no question that it dramatizes the play’s key conflict. And I’d been eager to see it, although eagerness is no guarantee of satisfaction. Then there were the costumes, rich velvets in burgundy and pumpkin and leg-o’-mutton sleeves and billowing folds of pure white. Lento, unfortunately, put the dancers in “nude” unitards, an outdated idea that merely draws attention to itself.
Lento even had one advantage over Pavane: live music—Scriabin, gorgeously rendered by Roy Bogas, pouring from a grand piano placed upstage. And “upstage” is the operative word: the music far surpassed the stale choreography.
So why did the Limón command the stage and the Nebrada merely occupy it? To me, what makes a dance riveting and timeless has nothing to do with bodies moving in ways they can; what endures is a dance in which bodies move in ways they must. And they must because there is inherent meaning in what they are doing, in story and intent and thought and emotion and imagery.
What is art, and what makes it meaningful years, decades, centuries after its creation? There’s no single answer, but it’s something that every artist-in-training should be encouraged to think about. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Going to Bat for Ballet
It’s always nice to turn on 60 Minutes and see New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins chatting with Lesley Stahl. But wait—what are they saying?
“Classical dance is suffering and so is the temple of Balanchine, with attendance down considerably from his day. The audience is graying. Young people tend to see classical ballet as stuffy and inauthentic.”
Doom-and-gloomers have long been forecasting the death of ballet, and it’s very easy for those of us who love it to throw their warnings over our shoulders and stride ever ahead. But Martins’ comments brought my thoughts back to a graphic I spied last fall attached to a story about financial woes at Ballet West—a quality company by anyone’s standards. In an attendance bar-graph comparison of four local arts organizations, Ballet West earned an almost microscopic sliver—3,443. Pioneer Theatre’s sliver was slightly larger (8,229). The bars for the other two—Utah Shakespeare Festival (117,363) and Utah Symphony/Opera (156,320)—were skyscrapers by comparison.
Shakespeare and the opera? Beating ballet that badly? It’s embarrassing.
Martins admits to 60 Minutes and the world that ballet in America reached its enthusiastic peak with the era of the Russian defectors. Audiences were not only intrigued by these cheeky, glamorous gate-skippers, but with Cold War fever raging, going to the ballet was like kicking sand in our Soviet enemies’ eyes.
Unfortunately, those good old days are gone. Plenty of popular entertainments—think jousting, or operetta—fell so far out of favor that they were left behind in the dust of time. It could happen. But resuscitating ballet isn’t just a job for Martins, but for all of us who teach ballet.
Tell your kids how much you love it. Rave about it. Put up posters of good-looking guys and hot girls. Choreograph a combination of échappés and jetés to “Gangnan Style.” Make anyone who says “Ballet is boring” do 50 push-ups. Or better yet, flip open your laptop and make them watch Ethan Stiefel showing Kenny Wormald in Center Stage 2 how the Act 3 variation in La Bayadère is done.
Cherish ballet, and pass it on. There’s one very beautiful life at stake. —Karen White, Associate Editor