Artistry's Delicate Balance

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in Act III of The Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo from DM Archives.

The dance field is overflowing with virtuosity. You turn on the TV: Someone not only thinks she can dance, she back-flips, slides across the stage on knee pads, gets hoisted on a partner's raised hand. At the great ballet companies—American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet—you see frenetic leaps, whirring pirouettes, logic-defying lifts. Especially the lifts. Choreographers from Forsythe to McGregor combine dancers in new ways via pretzelings, pullings, tossings, catchings. Even Balanchine's once lightning-quick turns and flurries of footwork look like they're no big deal when performed by NYCB's current nonchalant daredevils.

But where's the artistry amid all the technique? Has it disappeared? Been transformed?

What is dance artistry, anyway?

In ballet, it has been an essential if elusive element from the start. When you don't see it, you forget what it is. Beautiful bodies doing everything full-out—you get excited. But if that's all they're doing, excitement freezes. You become embarrassed by your reactions. And then you stop feeling and you can't remember what was so great about ballet anyway.

Then the real thing hits. At an NYCB performance of Coppélia recently, Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette performed the roles of Swanilda and Frantz. At Act I's end, they come onstage in pearl-pink for the famous Ear of Wheat ceremony: Girl rattles wheat to see if boy loves her. But Swanilda's wheat doesn't rattle, and she's seen Frantz blowing kisses at a stranger.

Then Peck and Veyette start to dance, to Delibes' plaintive, folk-syncopated violin tune.…Suddenly we are inside Swanilda's soul, feeling Frantz's betrayal. It is an effortlessly beautiful, hushed moment. “Circle walked, so quiet and serious," say my notes. Then “Amplitude—T.'s glissades," then “T. backbend in A.'s arms." It isn't just the steps, but the way Peck and Veyette get inside them and inside the story and music, too. Peck's glissades match the rise and fall of the violin melody. Her feet are the violin bow and the floor is the violin.

This is dance artistry: When a dancer becomes the music, and watching in the audience, your heart catches fire. It's the most precious feeling in the world, like being in love. Sometimes we call it musicality, but it's more than that. It's the wedding of musicality and technique to make meaning. The audience feels the dancer is “saying" something vital and truthful, and the experience doesn't even depend on story or music. Patricia McBride made audiences go mad with joy at the climax of the story-less Scotch Symphony, just by walking forward on the beat—a walk that contained the whole Mendelssohn symphony. Baryshnikov once moved me to tears dancing a Merce Cunningham solo in silence.

But is artistry in ballet threatened? Is it less valued today by audiences, critics and the dance world itself? Is there confusion among dancers themselves about what artistry is? Take the super ballerina Natalia Osipova, who's finally landed at The Royal Ballet after zig-zagging away from the Bolshoi. This writer has seen Osipova use her urgent kinetic sense and her prodigious jump to refashion classic roles so that they seem embodiments of the Now. Her Juliets at ABT have been electric—the old artistry merged with new virtuosity. Other times Osipova seems merely to put her breathtaking technique on display for the sake of showmanship (Flames of Paris), without opening herself to the private vulnerabilities that artistry asks dancers to show.

Any great performer is entitled to lows and highs. But could Osipova and other ballet superstars be viewed as living battlegrounds, where artistry is fighting with anti-artistry trends that have popped up not only in dance, but in the culture at large? Trends like the lure of instant celebrity and the cult of competitions (not just ballet competitions like Prix de Lausanne, the USA IBC at Jackson and Youth America Grand Prix, but TV competitions about every possible profession). Even worse is a contemporary attitude that goes with the focus on fame and victory: aggressive nonchalance. A “Don't mess with me, I'm badder (and cuter) than you" aura that one sees in everyone from models to folks in the street.

And yet, shouldn't such up-to-the-minute aggression be part of what a dancer gets to show the audience? Dance is the art, after all, that can register the zeitgeist quicker than the other arts, because of how trained bodies instinctively express it.

If ballet is to stay alive, contemporary spirit should be there on the ballet stage—even in the classical roles. They may be classical, in fact, because they accommodate a new electricity alongside the old artistry. Peck and Veyette's Ear of Wheat pas de deux displayed a white-hot, shipshape virtuosity, even as it swam in its mid–19th century violin tune.

Dance artistry, however, isn't just about the dancers. There's somebody behind the scenes, somebody who's already made the steps and the patterns: the choreographer. Artistry happens onstage at the moment of performance, when dancers encounter what choreographers both dead and alive have constructed. So we can't talk about artistry—or even virtuosity—without talking about what the choreographer wanted.

A hundred and twenty years ago, Petipa made dance patterns that allowed for a majestic yet also quicksilver artistry in his dancers. Think Sleeping Beauty (1890), the pas de deux, last act, as Aurora and Désiré make grandiose shapes with sudden jazzy inflections. Seventy years later Balanchine speeded up his steps to allow dancers to show a breakneck American-inflected artistry. Think Serenade (1934), and the urgency of Tchaikovsky's lush strings embodied in the rushing around of girls in romantic tutus. Fifty years after that William Forsythe caught an edgy new defiance and put it into his choreography. Think: In the middle, somewhat elevated (1987) with solos and duos set to those wonderful synthesized crashes. His kind of artistry was harder to discern—closer maybe to real-life showing off. But the meaning of those aggressive steps onstage was still up to the dancers.

Today, artistry depends even more on dancers and choreographers collaborating. Contemporary choreographers have captured a speedier, more frenetic virtuosity even than Forsythe's. Rarer to find, in that frenetic speed, is the space for artistry—the chance for dancers to nail the steps yet also merge with them, and with a bigger something that is egoless. Justin Peck's recent NYCB ballet Capricious Maneuvers seems to be about the life of the onstage dance ensemble, and the goofy happiness it can generate. The dancers are almost aggressively buoyant, cheerful, up to date and attractive. But where are those glimpses into something more true and private? Did the choreographer even want any of that?

For this writer, ABT's resident choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, shows the most interest in refocusing artistry within contemporary, off-kilter, informal rushes of motion. Even an old-fashioned-looking “trifle" like his From Foreign Lands for San Francisco Ballet shows us ultra-modern young people engaging in high-voltage athletics, yet dancing as well about softer matters like beauty and tenderness. The choreographer dives even deeper in his recent Shostakovich Trilogy. On a dark and moody stage, his dancers offer glimpses of anguish, loss, betrayal, yearning and bitter regret, all cycling through a breathtaking flow of full-out virtuosity.

Dance artistry. Even speeded up, fractured, gasping for breath, it's as vital to the health of the art as ever.

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