Saturday, May 19, 2012

A little love letter to the ballet.

For those of use who love ballet, it can be so hard to understand why the rest of the world doesn't see what we see, can't feel what we feel.   How do most people not experience the same overpowering physical exhilaration we feel when merely sitting and watching, yes watching, a ballet dancer living their dream on stage?  The freedom when technique meets ability meets passion in just one human being on the stage ripples out into the audience and fills every muscle, every cell in my body with energy and implausible possibility.  

Perhaps this what other people feel when watching athletes like Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Nastia Liukin or Dara Torres.  But while I root for these athletes and love to watch them strive, the feeling I get as a spectator is so different than watching ballet.  I feel nerves and hopes for these athletes, I feel the stress of pretending my will as a spectator can help them win, but still I don't feel their work with them.  But when I watch Marcelo Gomes in an abstract contemporary piece (or almost anything really), or Alessandra Ferri as Manon, or Julie Kent's sheer strength during the endless, countless overhead lifts in Lady of the Camellias, or Ethan Stiefel as Albrecht in Giselle, or Simone Messmer in this November's Volpi pas de deux, or Stella Abrera in Meadow or as Emilia in Othello, or Ulyana Lopatkina as Giselle, or Michael Trusnovec from Paul Taylor Dance, or so many more....I can't explain how but I think I get just a little bit of what they must be feeling while flying or turning, while forcing extreme tension into their limbs to make the tiniest moves important, while living so inside the music that it appears to be emanating out of their bodies rather than the orchestra pit, while letting everything go, to make the biggest leaps soar.

Now, inversely, I do admit that once you've seen ballet greatness, anything less can become difficult to watch.  Even my most elementary-skilled adult body aches watching and willing lesser dancers try to push past their limitations, or even great dancers fighting to play the wrong part.  My sedentary spectator muscles seem to scream at me to let them go and help lift the struggling dancers on the stage.

Now, add to all this the personal element of watching certain dancers, in a certain company, mature on stage over time and the emotional experience of attending the ballet can on a very rare occasion become almost overpowering.   

It has been almost two months now since I flew out to Chicago to see Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews of American Ballet Theatre debut in Giselle, and I've been completely unable to write about it.  It's almost as if I was afraid sharing what I felt at this special performance would somehow detract from my strong memory of the experience. I haven't wanted to blog - it was too intimate an experience.  I'm even unable to bring myself to attend this week's performances of Giselle at the Met, because I'm not ready for other dancers to cloud the lingering images still in my mind.  

The truth is, my emotional response to this debut performance was so surprisingly personal, that I'm still unable to give a lengthy, linear review of the performance. So, please forgive me that I can only give you some snapshots.  Yuriko Kajiya's diagonal hops en pointe in Act I were sharp and joyful and travelled, really travelled to fill the space on the stage.  Not always an easy thing for a ballerina of her tiny stature.  In her mad scene I saw real tears in her eyes, and the way she repeatedly slumped to the floor felt more than choreography.  Many ballerinas dance the end of Act I so beautifully it could break one's dramatic little heart, but Yuriko showed also an honesty I was not expecting.  By the time of her entrance in Act II, and the whirling grand pirouettes, there were tears in my eyes.  I was so proud of the corps of Wilis who were so much closer to perfect unison than I'd ever seen them before. I was so proud of Yuriko, in the languid arabesques penchees.  I was breathless at the overhead dead-press lifts by Jared Matthews, and the seeming eternity before he tenderly set Yuriko back lightly on the earth.  I even forgot for a minute or two that Albrecht is supposed to be exhausted from Myrtha's torment by the end, and let myself worry for Jared as he seemed to suffer and leave every ounce of Albrecht's energy on the stage in the diagonal brises.

I still remember last year's Vishneva/Gomes Giselle as one of the most thrilling performances I've ever experienced.  And before that, there was a Kent/Stiefel Giselle that left my skin humming for at least two days.  But somehow, this first, this little out-of-town debut Kajiya/Matthews Giselle was so much more special.  It was neither the most technically skilled nor the best acted performance I've seen to date - but what it did have, what New York audiences will mostly be robbed of this year, is that hopeful glimmer of promise - the shadowed tentacles of truly great Giselle's by this pair of dancers that will surely develop as they have opportunities to perform it again and again, and with other partners.  There was a longing, a need to dance that we rarely get to see during Met season at ABT.  A gaggle of sorority girls in the row behind me were rolling in tears halfway through Act II.   

Stella Abrera singed the stage with this fire the few seasons before she was so unjustly injured and lost her Giselle.  I expect Misty Copeland will smolder in this way as the Firebird in a few weeks time.  You can almost see smoke coming from Alex Hammoudi just standing there so ridiculously stuck still in those ensemble corps costumes.  I expect all of the dancers of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet to blaze with urgency tonight and next weekend at the Joyce Theater.  

If only we could show the rest of the world THESE performances, these bare examples of human capability mixed with skill and desire, maybe, just maybe, a few more open-minded souls would feel a glimmer of what we feel, we loving spectators of the ballet.

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