Miami City Ballet in George Balanchine's “Serenade.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Desert Island Dances

Finding meaning in dance in total isolation

Hua Hsu wrote in March for the New Yorker a quarantine-inspired piece about the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs.” The program, which began during World War II as “part of the BBC’s broader effort to make life during wartime slightly more bearable” as Hsu puts it, presents interviews with cultural icons from various fields who are each asked to prepare a list of eight tracks that they would bring with them were they to be stranded on a desert island. Hsu uses “Desert Island Discs” to further his own investigation of the role of music in our lives and particular cultural moment, and, more profoundly and pertinently, to think about the underlying question of the show: “How do you find meaning in total isolation?” In the radio recording studio, the question takes a hypothetical form: What would you grasp for, in a song, if you were forced into isolation? In the midst of our current pandemic, the question becomes more literal: What do you listen to, to find meaning for yourself, now that you have been “forced” into indefinite isolation?

This query leads me from thinking initially about music to thinking about dance—the art form to which I turn in times of crisis. If I hosted a “Desert Island Discs” spinoff it might be called “Desert Island Dances” and I’d ask my guests to prepare a list of eight danceworks that they would bring with them should they find themselves stranded—on a desert island, or in a tiny apartment. Posing the question to myself, I think first about the premise and criteria of the task before I get to the business of selecting answers.

Hsu writes, “It never occurred to me, until fairly recently, that [the “Desert Island Discs”] exercise was different from merely naming your favorite songs, or what you considered to be the best. Those metrics, like all hierarchies, derive their meaning socially. They don’t matter if you’re all by yourself.” At first, this resonated with me, when substituting “songs” for “ballets.” Stuck in isolation with my eight favorite ballets, maybe I wouldn’t get the meaning from them that I would need, since my list of favorites wouldn’t be able to be mediated through others. In other words, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to share or interrogate these dances with anyone else. Is “favorite” the best criterion for selection, and do my “favorite” ballets matter?

Making a quick mental list of three of my favorites—George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” and Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”—urges me, however, to reconsider my initial suspicion of “favorite” as a metric for a work’s meaning and value to me. I love these “favorites” earnestly and fully because of my personal experiences watching them. I can locate value in my affection for them, outside of socially mediated value.

Dances at a Gathering
Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns and Brittany Pollack in “Dances at a Gathering.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

The three selected ballets have things in common. In a concrete comparison, they are all set to masterful scores. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 accompanies Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” is set to 18 of Chopin’s mazurkas, waltzes, and études for piano. And, minimalist Philip Glass wrote the music for Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” These music works are beautiful on their own, and pieces I would readily choose to listen to for sustenance, divorced from the dance. In tandem with the dance though, they become more beautiful. This is a key element of “favorite” for me: dances that elevate the music.

The opening strings of Tchaikovsky’s score are firm and resolute, preparing the audience for the curtain to rise on a sea of 17 women, evenly spaced onstage, in sixth position (parallel feet pointing forward) with one arm raised in a diagonal shape punctuated by a flexed hand, as if shielding the face from a light source. The women soon spring their feet outward to first position, the most basic of building blocks in ballet but utterly captivating when performed in perfect unison, head-on, by the group. The music readies us for this simultaneously elementary and transcendent moment. For “Dances at a Gathering,” Chopin’s music is performed by a solo pianist placed just on the side of the proscenium, on the same plane of elevation as the dancers, but just outside of the action. The music’s intimacy is reflected in, and matches that of, the dance, which comprises vignettes of solos, duets, group sections for a community of friends. The inward-facing beauty of the music and the dance complement one another. Philip Glass’s rousing score for “In the Upper Room” moves along at a constant simmering clip, like there’s something bubbling beneath that’s almost ready to explode. The pulsating, triumphant final movement of the dance releases some of the pressure, while keeping something still under the surface, maintaining a level of tension.

Okay, so these ballets are my favorites in part because I love the symbiotic relationship between the music and the movement. But how do I capture and contain those relationships to bring with me to the island?

Dance is infamously difficult to document. It does not have a codified notation system, in the way that music does. There have been attempts over time, such as the widely known but not universally practiced Labanotation system. Most dances today are documented on film, which—while valuably capturing the steps, their sequence, and the particular dancers articulating these steps and sequences— lacks an emotional and spiritual resonance; a video recording can never rival a live performance. These elements that are lost in a recording are abstract but fundamental to my experience of watching dance.

If forced to relocate to an island, though, I would perhaps choose to “bring” my eight dances in the form of video recordings, featuring a cast of dancers that I had seen dance them. Watching on film a cast I had seen in “real life” might help me conjure something of that live performance, or at least the feeling of it. Or maybe, if we’re really dreaming here, I’d like a VR viewing experience, starting with walking from the 1 train stop at 66th Street to Lincoln Center, across the plaza with its pre-show frenzy of people zig-zagging to find their respective entrances and into the lobby for a quick scan of the crowd. Maybe an old colleague from the Joyce is here, or a dance podcast host I admire, or a critic of note. There’s an excitement in knowing who else will be watching the dances with me. And a sense of anticipation in knowing that this initial interaction, of watching the same dances together on the same evening, will preempt a series of future interactions: of chatting with my former colleague about our thoughts on the performance, of listening to the podcast host comment on the performance, of reading the critic’s response to the performance. Finally, the VR goggles would guide me to my seat amidst the pre-show chatter, the tuning of instruments, and the rustling of bodies adjusting to find a comfortable position in their chairs. The VR would capture the hush as the lights dim and the applause for the conductor as she takes her position in the pit. It would capture the second hush as the music begins, the overture, the soft lift of the big gold curtain, and, if we begin with “Serenade,” the gasp of the full audience as the curtain-raising reveals the sea of 17 women poised on what looks like a moonlit stage.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Fantasizing about the ballet experience as I type makes me ache for the real thing even more. I have been avoiding most of the plentiful dance streaming offerings during the pandemic because I’m afraid those viewing experiences will induce more sadness about what we’re missing. Would an old school archival video recording, one that really feels from another time, be better than a VR experience? An archival film would at least facilitate a more stark separation between then and there, and here and now —marking a tangible, helpful distance.

Any of these modes of transporting the dances would work technically, in theory. But emotionally? I don’t think so.

This brings me back to my favorite works and to another abstract quality they share: the embodied feeling of watching these dances in performance, with a live orchestra, in a dark theater, with a group of people. This feeling resists labeling, but I know that it is located simultaneously in my chest and in the pit of my stomach. It’s physicalized as a swelling in my chest of both recognition of, and deep gratitude for, the ballet, and anxious excitement and anticipation in my stomach about and for the live performance and all the elements that coincide there: the intricate composition of the dance steps, the dancers (especially the ones whose careers and “stats” I follow most closely) expertly and carefully executing the steps, the symbiotic relationship between the music and the movement realized, and the simple shared experience of watching live art. Can I bottle this up somehow to bring it with me?

The symbiotic relationship between the music and the movement realized, and the simple shared experience of watching live art. Can I bottle this up somehow to bring it with me?

“Serenade,” “Dances at a Gathering,” and “In the Upper Room” all elicit this feeling for me. They leave me with different forms of satisfaction and appreciation after experiencing them, but they strike the same chord of resonance. That chord, felt in the chest and the stomach, is plucked at different points in the dances: in “Serenade” it happens the second the first bar of music plays and it continues through the opening section; in “Dances at a Gathering” it’s sustained throughout; and in “In the Upper Room” it’s during the finale section, at the end of the marathon that is the dance. How do I locate or reproduce this feeling trapped on an island?

Brett Chynoweth, Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Calvin Hannaford of the Australian Ballet in “In The Upper Room” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Kate Longley

As I’ve been writing this piece, it’s slowly dawning on me that there might be a way to locate this abstract sensation that I’d like to turn into a salve to put in a jar to bring with me. This method takes me back to “Desert Island Discs” and to music. As I’ve been typing and thinking about what makes my favorite ballets my favorites, I’ve also been listening to the music for each of these dances.  Curiously enough, the scores alone seem to activate the feeling I seek. A few measures into the Tchaikovsky, I can see the dancers in my mind, and a familiar swelling builds in my chest and a sense of anticipation grows in my stomach. I’m not sure which is easier to replay in my mind—the choreography or the music—but I do know that music is central to locating the memory of the choreography and the dance as a whole. Music is both memory aide for, and integral partner to, the choreography, in conjuring the dance in my mind.

When Balanchine said, “See the music, hear the dance,” he had a point. Maybe all I need are Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, some of Chopin’s mazurkas, waltzes, and études for piano, and Glass’s In the Upper Room—for now anyway, until we’re released back into the streets and the theaters.

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