New York City Ballet Spring Gala
Gonzalo Garcia in Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” directed by Sofia Coppola. Photograph by Philippe Le Sourd

A Critical Failure

Sofia Coppola directs New York City Ballet's Spring Gala film

New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala featured excerpts by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and a new piece by Justin Peck—all filmed for the occasion by Sofia Coppola. Phillippe Le Sourd served as director of photography, Chad Sipkin edited, and Peck and Coppola were jointly credited for the concept—which placed snippets of dances all over the David H. Koch Theater as it reawakened from its long Covid slumber. The gala premiered on May 6th, but I sat down to watch it after I dropped my son off at preschool a few days later. This is the only upside to reviewing in the pandemic: unless the shows are broadcast live, they slot into my schedule. I was in work mode, with a notebook before me and a pen in my hand. I was curious about Coppola’s filmic approach, and I expected my review would revolve around an analysis of her camera work, cuts, framing, and editing. I am not a film critic, but how a dance is shot counts for a lot these days. Also, it is useless to judge dancing onscreen in the same way I would in person. Alas, this is what reviewing dance in the pandemic has become: essentially, film reviews by amateurs.

I sipped my coffee and settled in. The gala’s opening speeches had the feel of a pre-flight safety instruction video—not promising. But then Coppola took over and the world shifted to black and white. Shots of the Koch Theater—from the untidy row of baby mouse heads in the costume room to the blooms of bagged pointe shoes on hooks in the basement—made me nostalgic. But I was unprepared for the Proustian moment that followed. In silhouette, Gonzalo Garcia walked down the poorly lit, beat up hallway that leads to the Main Hall of the David H. Koch Theater. He entered the studio, dropped his bag, and commenced the ruminative Brown Boy solo from Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering.”

The ugliness of the room—with its flickering lights, hulking cargo elevator, exposed wires, bland cafeteria paint job, and scuffed Marley flooring—was in crisp focus. But Gonzo was in his own world, gazing past the mirrors into some imaginary realm. That studio was practically my living room for two decades, and to see it finally, vividly, reinhabited by Gonzo was overwhelming. I did not expect to be so moved before finishing my coffee on a weekday morning. Because of this emotional gut reaction, I’m shirking my critic duties here, even to the point of using the dancers’ first names where it feels more natural. Look elsewhere for an unbiased appraisal of this Gala performance. All I can offer are my deeply personal impressions of my former home’s revival. As well as some inexpert commentary on Ms. Coppola’s camera angles.  

Gonzo’s retirement was postponed due to Covid-19. He will get his final show on the stage this fall. But this film of him dancing in the Main Hall, as he awaits his farewell, is a gem. This passage from “Dances” depicts a wistful, melancholy walk down memory lane, set to a rueful Chopin tune (which was tenderly played for the filming by pianist Susan Walters). The choice of this dancer in this solo in this room was kismet. Gonzo probably danced this piece dozens of times on the stage over the course of his career, but he has easily done it hundreds of times in the studio. For me, it was even more poignant to see Gonzo dance this in the Main Hall than on the stage. As he reflected on his life and career in Robbins’s choreography, he was literally faced with his own reflection in the mirrors, in the very spot where he daily honed his craft. This is the place where he warmed himself up thousands of times with pliés and tendus, where he habitually sized himself up and tried to make improvements. What did he see now at the end of the journey?

After Gonzo finished, he leaned back on a barre and looked around the space. It was a beautiful, loaded moment. And it made me realize how much I have dearly missed that fly-on-the-wall ability to watch others rehearse in the years since my own retirement. In rehearsal, dancers delve somewhere ineffable inside themselves while carefully molding their bodies into forms idealized in their minds. The process is its own kind of art; and it is a different animal from the art which unfolds in public on the stage. This repetitive, often solitary, work is the nexus of love and craftsmanship, derived through pain and determination and sweaty ablution. I often preferred watching this process to watching the polished final product. And there were some dancers, and some dances, that were always better in practice than in performance. Of course, this film is a different entity yet: it falls in its own category somewhere between a rehearsal and a performance. But it certainly jolted my memory bank, and I’m grateful to Ms. Coppola for that.    

Naturally, nothing else on the program transported me quite as much as this opening solo. But there were nice bits throughout. A clip from Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” set backstage left, demonstrated the sheer joy of movement. Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen grew happier as their dance got springier. A duet from the opening half of Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer,” set on the grand promenade of the theater, was lovely. It starred the imminently retiring principals Maria Kowroski and Ask La Cour—a towering couple who appeared, alongside the Nadelman sculpture pairs at either end of the space, to be at a Viennese ball for the gods. And the dancers’ soft heels made me less nervous on the marble floors than the slippery pointe shoes had in When We Fell earlier in the season.

Anthony Huxley in “Solo,” by Justin Peck, part of NYCB’s 2021 Spring Gala film directed by Sofia Coppola. Photograph by Philippe Le Sourd

Surprisingly, the other highlight for me was another male solo—not something the NYCB is much-known for. This work, simply titled “Solo,” was a world premiere by Justin Peck, created for Anthony Huxley specifically for this event. It was filmed on the stage and set to a luscious string adagio by Samuel Barber. Though it was pensive and seeking like the “Dances” solo, it was completely different. For one thing, Anthony and Gonzo are about as opposite as you can be, despite the fact that they are both accomplished technicians, on the shorter side, who dance all the same roles. Gonzo has a sculptural, weighty presence. Though he is an exceptionally handsome, exceptionally gifted specimen, he has human flaws—and a humanlike warmth. Midway through his clip, sweat stains appear under his arms and his breath becomes panting—both of which add to the heartbreaking nature of his excerpt.

Conversely, Anthony sometimes doesn’t feel real to me. I have often wondered if he is made of air. I’ve never heard him land from a jump, and he jumps high. He is incredibly strong, but he takes up so little space. It is hard to catch him in a preparation or transition step, his seams never show. He practically floats, he’s a wisp. That doesn’t mean his dancing feels insubstantial, quite the contrary, but it does feel otherworldly. Even when he dances with other people, he is an island. His mind appears a little detached—he reads as a dreamer, a poet among the flowers. Justin’s fluid choreography here, and Coppola’s similarly fluid camerawork, have captured his essence to a tee. Coppola often swoops around the back of the stage and beholds Anthony as he faces the auditorium. To see him looking out at the glittering balconies, the jeweled central orb, and the empty expanse of the house feels right. I imagine this is what he sees even when the seats are sold out and the void is darkened for a show. Near the end of “Solo,” when Anthony turns furiously and then stops abruptly as the strings cut off, it is like an existential cliff dive. In this film, Peck and Coppola have drawn a stunning, apt portrait of Anthony’s unique gifts.

To this point, Coppola has worked magic. She has kissed the Koch back to life as in Act III of “Sleeping Beauty.” In these four clips she has approximated the feeling of being in the theater. With her attention to detail and texture, she has captured a bit of the intimacy that only dancers—those hawkeyed creatures of the physical realm—share. This was particularly meaningful to me, it made me remember how this closeness is both uncanny yet also a quotidian aspect of the job. It is normal to recognize another dancer by their gait or the shape of their calves in a dimly lit hall, to know what the weight of your colleagues’ hands or waist feels like in yours, to instantly identify someone by the bandages on their toes peeking out from under a toilet stall. Dancers are some of the most physically intertwined beings on the planet; this year of secluded hibernation has hit the industry unbelievably hard.  

Tiler Peck hugging Ashley Laracey, with Unity Phelan at right, after the finale of George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, part of NYCB’s 2021 Spring Gala film directed by Sofia Coppola. Photograph by Philippe Le Sourd

But even Coppola’s wizardry, and her brilliant shift to color à la The Wizard of Oz, could not quite capture the nuances of the last excerpt: the finale of Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15.” It began auspiciously, when the curtain went up on Mary Elizabeth Sell and Olivia Mackinnon, both beaming enthusiastically. But as it went on, this clip became the weakest in the set. Partly, this is because the dancing was a tad sloppy. As it was the only large-cast piece on the bill, it was likely harder to get everyone to be perfect in the same take. Also, “Divert” is hard, classical ballet! The poor dancers were a little rusty after their long furlough.

But ultimately, it was not the dancers’ fault, or indeed Coppola’s, that this piece didn’t work as well. Film flattens and specifies. It can pinpoint detail and angle one’s gaze in ways that live viewing cannot. The best moments of this “Divert” were the ones shot from the wings, as if the camera was another member of the cast awaiting an entrance. But when the camera tried to show the choreography from the front, as from an audience member’s perspective, it was less successful. Film cannot account for the somatic architecture of a dance, and how it feels to witness that when one’s own body shares the same space. Film cannot make you understand that the musical, shifting tableaux the corps makes around the principals in “Divert” form a cathedral. And the audience is in the pews.                  

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Louise Lecavalier
Louise Lecavalier