DM Recommends: Ideal Gifts for Dancers

November 15, 2010

The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together

By Twyla Tharp, with Jesse Kornbluth. Simon & Schuster, 2009. 147 pages. $26.


The Wright brothers flew. Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radioactivity. And Serge Diaghilev pooled choreographers, composers, and designers for his Ballets Russes. Teamwork accomplishes much.


Twyla Tharp, who has collaborated with composers (including Elvis Costello and David Byrne) and with ballet companies (among them American Ballet Theatre and Pacific Northwest Ballet) recounts personal stories of successful and stressful collaborations in this entertaining, easy read.

For Deuce Coupe (1973), Tharp sought contrast between her athleticism and traditional ballet technique. However, she encountered resistance from some of the Joffrey Ballet cast. Robert Joffrey intervened. Problem solved. “It pays to have a champion,” writes Tharp.


Her eclecticism and Baryshnikov’s classical technique were nearly lost in translation when they collaborated in 1975. Push may have indeed come to shove, as she admits to misunderstandings and disagreements. “In a good collaboration,” she writes, “differences between partners mean that one plus one will always equal more than two.”


Tharp and Jerome Robbins tested their friendship while co-choreographing Brahms/Handel (1984) for New York City Ballet. Their dissimilar creative methods stalled progress, until she suggested alternating variations instead of altering them. “I learned with Robbins that there is no ownership in a successful collaboration.”


Tharp shares commonsense advice: Learn from those with more experience, accept collaborators as they are, treat assistants with respect, and most importantly, “stifle your inner control freak.” —Karen Dacko

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929

Edited by Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh. London: V&A Publishing, 2010. 240 pages. Illustrated. $55.


Bushels of books about Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes have appeared since its founding in 1909. However, few of them surpass the uncompromising beauty and scholarship of Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes: 1909–1929. A companion to the current eye-popping exhibition of Ballets Russes designs at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (open till Jan. 9), this album of focused essays and splendid visual evidence is preoccupied with what audiences could see, hear, and feel.


One learns how the Ballets Russes repertoire was made; what Diaghilev’s precise roles were over the company’s 20-year life; what his artistic and commercial goals were; what the artistic sources were of the choreography, designs, music, and scenarios; how the dancers were schooled; how the sexuality of the collaborators was reflected onstage; and what the Ballets Russes’ cultural legacy is. Paradoxes abound: Diaghilev insisted that Nemchinova’s thighs be bared to the groin in Les Biches, even as he maintained that Les Sylphides, with its veiling Romantic tutus, was his favorite ballet. Yet the authors have considered such issues and addressed them with care. What a treat. —Mindy Aloff


Antony Tudor Centennial Book & DVD

Edited by Mark B. Bliss. Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, 2010. 137 pages. Illustrated. $49.99; $75 with DVD.

In March 2008, the Antony Tudor Trust honored the legendary choreographer’s centennial with panel discussions and workshops at the Juilliard School. The participants sought to rekindle memories of the enigmatic genius behind ballets like Lilac Garden, Pillar of Fire, and Dark Elegies. The Antony Tudor Centennial book achieves its goal primarily through the lively photographs of Tudor demonstrating the tenderness, sauciness, or intensity of a character and the historic black-and-white prints of dancers from ABT and other companies.


Testimonies from dancers demonstrate Tudor’s insight, wit, and sometimes cruel sarcasm. Hilda Morales recalls protesting her red wig in Romeo and Juliet, to which Tudor snapped, “If the wig was good enough for Alicia Markova and she did not complain, it should be good enough for you.” In class, Tudor called Pina Bausch “Adolph”—and he liked her! On the positive side, Eliot Feld said, “Tudor invented the arabesque—not the name, but the purpose.” The book (which is accompanied by an optional DVD), edited by Mark Bliss, could have benefited from correcting the typos of the reprinted remembrances of Tudor dancers and by placing clear captions throughout the book rather than at the end. But this book is a must for anyone who cares about the monumental, yet fragile, legacy of Antony Tudor. —Joseph Carman


The Art of Ballet

Four classic dance films, in special edition box set. 325 minutes. First Run Features. $59.95.


Four documentaries, each with plenty of gorgeous dancing, combine to make a lavish gift. The two most recent (2009) are Russian-made with English subtitles. Prima Ballerina, directed by Laurent Gentot, profiles the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova and the Kirov’s Ulyana Lopatkina. Both dancers are of the new post-Guillem breed—thin and impossibly long-limbed—but with more soul. Zakharova, who veritably floats in a second-act Giselle scene, says, “In performance I feel my body and soul intensely.” We see her in Swan Lake, Dying Swan (her arms are to die for), and Bayadère. As she dances Schéhérazade, just watching her leg turn in its socket from a high à la seconde into arabesque is a sensual experience.

Lopatkina says after a performance, “I feel like I have lived an earthquake.” We see her meltingly slow Odette from behind in a stage rehearsal. About her relationship to the mirror she says, “It’s a form of torture to constantly have to look at myself.”


Ballerina, directed by Bertrand Normand, gives a glimpse of five top dancers: the two from above plus Diana Vishneva, Alina Somova, and Evgenia Obraztsova. Vishneva, with her shapely body and dramatic eyes, is a knockout in Bayadère. The newbie, Somova, has amazing extensions but no personality yet. Obraztsova, exquisitely yielding as Juliet, emerges as the beguiling ballerina we want to see more of.

The oldest film of the group is The Dancer (1996), by Swedish-American choreographer Donya Feuer. The camera lovingly zooms in on the delicate young Katja Björner at the barre. (These shots alternate with a different kind of sweat: cobblers laboring at making pointe shoes.) We see Katja train, rehearse, and explain her life—at great length. The best part is when she admits she cried backstage because she didn’t dance well even though others praised her performance.


Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet (2003) is in some ways the most thought-provoking, showing what’s on the dancers’ minds other than their big role. What will they do when they have to stop dancing? What if they want to become a mother? One dancer says, “The stage is a drug.” This film, directed by Nils Tavernier, is far more sensitive and penetrating than Frederick Wiseman’s more publicized documentary about the same company, La Danse. It also has something the others don’t: a sprinkle of humor.


All four films are really about devotion. Devotion and passion. As Lopatkina says, “Each performance is like lighting a fire.” —Wendy Perron