Unity Phelan and Preston Chamblee in Justin Peck’s “Easy.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Notes from Quarantine

Like everyone else in the world, I’ve been trying to stay healthy, yet also connected to my work and passions during this abysmal pandemic. It’s a conundrum: I’m a dance critic now, but there are no live dance shows to review. This problem is small beans, of course, in the grand scheme of things. People are dying. People are starving. Life as we knew it has been irrevocably altered. The truly brave and selfless work of all those deemed essential is both humbling and awe-inspiring; I cannot thank these people enough for their intrepid commitment to the human race. But though the arts must necessarily take a back seat to matters of life and death, it bears reporting on the losses felt by our community too.  

I feel terrible for the current crop of professional and aspiring dancers—I can’t imagine how stultifying it must feel to have one’s already brief career, and attendant income, suspended indefinitely. To see dancers trying to approximate classes in tiny kitchens and living rooms breaks my heart. It’s like watching caged lions prowl around at inhumane zoos. (Perhaps because of this analogy I can’t bring myself to watch the Covid sensation Tiger King.) Like some physics experiment gone terribly wrong, so much potential energy is being wasted in massive quantities all over the world, every second of the day. It’s infuriating, and tragic.

There are other fields harder hit, for sure. I so pity this year’s intended lineup of Olympic gymnasts, who may not still be eligible to compete when the Games resume next summer—if that even happens. But there are some similar scenarios in the dance world: I was sad to think that Stella Abrera, my favorite American Ballet Theatre dancer, will not get her retirement season this spring. Graduating classes at ballet schools all over the world have canceled their year-end recitals and will miss out on the job recruitment opportunities that go with them—though what jobs will remain after this is also up in the air. Even for the gainfully employed yet furloughed, momentum is lost, motivation is bleak, and that strong dancer sense-of-identity is challenged without the ability to actually dance.        

Though the demand for it is admittedly low, I can still sort of do my thing right now by reviewing the many online performances that so many generous troupes have made available for free during this outbreak. But to be honest, taped dance has major limitations, and my heart isn’t really in it either. Frequent readers know how much I prize the vitality—and consequent ephemerality—of the art form. Watching dance live is not in any way comparable to watching it recorded. Thus I think it would be unfair to judge choreography or its execution in recorded performances in the same way I would live ones. So all I can offer right now is what has or hasn’t connected with me lately, and why.

The online output of my former company, the New York City Ballet, has been impressive. They have crafted a digital season that showcases new and old works, as well as interviews, and even free mini-lessons for children. My three-year old has enjoyed some the offerings immensely. That being said, nothing has made it clearer to me how precious a live-viewing experience is than watching rep that is so familiar and dear to me. I have started many of the excerpts and abandoned them halfway through, the contrast has been too depressing. That is not to say that it is not a worthwhile endeavor to air them, and in some cases watching them has been a comfort. But it is simply not the same as attending a performance. In many industries, working from home will become the new norm. I hope against hope that dance is not reborn as a more remote-access experience in the future.       

New York City Ballet
Roman Mejia with dancers of New York City Ballet in “Western Symphony” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Interestingly, some of the online offerings are shows I previously reviewed for Fjord, and they did not come across quite as I remembered them. When I saw that Roman Mejia’s debut opposite the stellar Teresa Reichlen in the 4th Movement of “Western Symphony” was in the lineup at NYCB a few weeks ago I was thrilled. I had raved about it to my partner, and was eager for him to see it too. It was good, but Mejia got a little lost in the crowd on tape in a way he hadn’t in the theater.   

Similarly, I thought Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun” would be a perfect candidate for filming. It is so subtle, so intimate. Yet it too suffered. It’s hard to capture works that are meant to be seen in a giant auditorium in close-up. Tight crop shots of dancers trying to project across an orchestra pit and up to the nose-bleed seats are not flattering. And major moments were lost due to bad camera work. In “Faun,” the connective moment when Joseph Gordon startles awake and Sterling Hyltin realizes she is not alone in the studio was botched. The focus was all on her, she looked like she stopped dead in her tracks for no reason—a case of the vapors perhaps.

Sterling Hyltin and Joseph Gordon (debut) in “Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Ideally, dancers would need to adapt their performances in the same way that actors have to adjust their performances for film vs. live plays. Yet most of the pieces on offer are straight performance records. Camera angles are either positioned fixed wide or else unplanned, chasing one dancer around (as in “Faun”). These videos are meant to be tools for dancers to use in-house to learn and review choreography or check out their lines during rehearsal breaks. There are a few videos that include aerial and wing shots, and they read better though still not perfectly. On City Ballet’s website, the most moving bit of dance I’ve seen is the brief seasonal promo video of Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in an excerpt from Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth.” It is framed and intended for film, and it is more powerful because of it. Also, the piece and its rueful Dinah Washington track fits the mood for our current predicament pretty darn well.

Not all of the taped performance excerpts were disappointing, however. Wheeldon’s “Liturgy” starring Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle also showed well online, and I found it uplifting. Perhaps its stark lighting helped. Alexei Ratmansky’s terrific “Concerto DSCH” couldn’t deliver the emotional wallop it does live, but it still made an impression. Also, it was amazing to me that Tiler Peck’s debut in “Divertimento No. 15” was as musically daring as it was. She managed to play with the music, to bend time in the way that only she can, right out of the gate in “Divert.” Most dancers venture into experimentation with more experience, she is a definite outlier. I shouldn’t have been surprised; she can seemingly manipulate time during this quarantine too. From her parents’ home in California she has been a whirlwind of productivity, teaching free online classes daily and choreographing new works.      

Maria Kowroski and Jared Angle in “Liturgy” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Elsewhere, the Guggenheim’s excellent Works and Process program has been cleverly retrofitted for the moment. Participating artists were tapped to make five minute virtual commissions, with few imposed parameters. New ones are released every Sunday and Monday. Some are real flops, but some are gems. My son laughed hysterically at 80 year-old Gus Solomons Jr. doing eyeball and tongue dances in “FAC(E)TUDE.” It was an absurd delight. The best is tapper Caleb Teicher and musician Nora Brown’s collaboration “Thank You, Central Park.” Like his witty, timely creations for his own company, this three-minute video perfectly captures the banality of the PPE routine, as well as the majesty of trees and the palliative effect of outdoor space. It is deceptively simple: Teicher washes his hands, he taps on a ball field bench, he claps for a tree, he reads by a tree, he claps in the direction of the museum itself. But it is nuanced and spot-on: alternately comforting, playful, despairing, and grateful.

The Joyce has also been showcasing the work of recent tenants, with mixed results. My favorite thus far is Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca’s short pas de deux “Dutchman,” not so much for the dancing, but for the interview afterward. Again, this is not because the dancing is bad, it’s just not filmed well. And flamenco in particular is a hard genre to get across in recorded form, so much of its drama lies in its improvisatory nature and the spontaneous risks the dancers take in how hard or softly they hit their steps. Company founder and legend Soledad Barrio, who is in her fifties, is captivating even with some diminished movement quality because she dares to almost knock herself over at times, so forcefully will she hit a pose. I’ve never reviewed the troupe, or any flamenco for that matter, but I go see them whenever I can.

I admit I have a bit of a crush on Marina Elana, Barrio’s protégé. She costars in “Dutchman” with the hip-hop dancer Robert Wilson. Hip-hop and flamenco play surprisingly well together, though in general stylistic mashups aren’t my favorite thing. Anyway, what really stuck with me from this video was the last question of the interview between the dancers and Martin Santangelo, the choreographer. After some banal chat about how great the choreographic experience was, Santangelo asks his cast if they have anywhere they can practice their craft at the moment, and how they’re handling Covid-19. I found their raw answers so touching. Wilson stresses how crazy it is that everyone in the world is going through this together, in every field. And he says he’s trying to grow through this experience. And Elana talks about how lucky she is to have a flamenco floor to practice on in her home, though she admits she’s smashing the boards in anger a lot lately. I wish she would air that live! Her candid rage and disbelief at this whole awful situation was a balm.

Santangelo laments the practical: how he is unable to work with live musicians because of the lag time in online collaboration. But he’s also a meditative old soul, and he says he believes that the best thing to do in the face of death is move. I think there’s something to that: the inclination to be physical in response to real threats to our mortality is both healthy and natural. I suppose that is why this feeling of entrapment on top of the fear is such a gut punch. It makes me think that dance is necessary now, perhaps more than ever, it just may need to happen behind closed shades in your own home (however tiny) at the moment, in its rawest, most primal form, with technique and self-awareness cast aside. We will see what comes from this crisis, what physical manifestations dancers will later unveil as their secret to staying sane and artistically whole through this long slog.

Marina Elana of Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca. Photograph by Kevin Yatarola

Elana, Wilson, and Santangelo all agree that the future of dance is scary right now. Who can argue? Perhaps it makes sense then that the most fulfilling thing I’ve worked on through this quarantine concerned a dive backwards in time. I recently gave a lecture on George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” for the School of American Ballet’s wonderful Connoisseurship Series program, and it was a surprising source of solace. In digging through the history of “Barocco” I was reminded that Balanchine was faced with massive roadblocks over the course of his long and productive career. He even took three major hiatuses, much like the one we are all taking now.

His first timeout was in 1917 after the October Revolution turned St. Petersburg upside down. His schooling at the Mariinsky came to a grinding halt for over a year. During this time he claimed he ate grilled cat from the streets. He was 13 years old, and his malnutrition during this period caused him lifelong health problems. His second devastating timeout came in 1929, when he was 25 and just getting back on his feet after Serge Diaghilev’s death and the disbanding of the Ballets Russes. Balanchine was set to start work as a ballet master at the Paris Opera Ballet when pneumonia and tuberculosis sent him to a sanitorium in the Swiss Alps for many months. The job was not waiting for him when he finally recovered. His third setback came in 1956 when he was 52–wildly successful and at the height of his powers—when his fourth wife and muse Tanaquil LeClercq contracted polio on a European tour and was tragically paralyzed from the waist down. Grief-stricken, he left his company for over a year to care for her.

If the man who reinvented ballet for the modern era could survive all this, and thrive despite having to forge his career during Bolshevism, two World Wars, and the Great Depression, I have hope for the future of ballet, dance, and all art. Balanchine adapted and learned from each setback, he freelanced on Broadway, in Hollywood, and even the circus to make ends meet, biding his time until he could unfurl his talents. He told biographer Bernard Taper: “I’m like a potato. A potato is pretty tough. It can grow anywhere. But even a potato has a soil in which it grows best. My soil is ballet.” We’re all mucking about in some frightfully leached dirt right now. (This bitter earth indeed!) But I eagerly await the art that will come from this horrid time, the masterpieces that will emerge from this fallow ground.  

More Stories
Living Doll