Plugged In (expanded version)

June 28, 2011


The Royal Ballet: Three Ballets by Wayne McGregor: Chroma/Infra/Limen

Opus Arte,

. $40


If you could imagine sliding into home base—only the base is another dancer—you can begin to imagine the urgency, the smashing of bodies, and the transgressive nature of Wayne McGregor’s work. So successful was his astonishing Chroma for The Royal Ballet in 2006 that Monica Mason anointed him choreographer in residence.

In these ballets, the dancers devour his movement as though starved for challenge. All three pieces share McGregor’s octopus-yet-human gropings, with tentacles sometimes wrapping around another’s neck; costumes that bare those powerful Royal legs; and a stark, dreamlike, visual environment.

has a thrilling savagery that somehow fits into the ultra-clean look of the square-within-a-square set by John Pawson. The high-alert music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III energizes the extreme angles and snakelike head moves.

Like Chroma, Infra (2008) has some lurking people that give it an ominous feeling. Over the heads of the dancers, designer Julian Opie has placed animated figures that walk to and fro. Less drastic and more sensual than Chroma, it actually has an occasional caress—on the way to more danger. In the midst of a sort of rush hour, Lauren Cuthbertson starts sobbing and collapses. This meltdown is unique in the McGregor oeuvre; none of his other pieces has such melodrama.

(2009) is slower, and there’s some actual unison. An exquisite duet for Americans Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb ends with him carrying her off on high, his arms out in space, not even holding her. With long distances between the dancers when they are not entangled, Limen has an existential feel to it.

This DVD is shot and edited beautifully so that you get closeups as well as the full picture. You can get to know these gorgeous Royal creatures and pick favorites. A bonus: McGregor introduces each ballet by speaking directly into the camera. With repeated viewings you can glean the structures underneath the stunning mathematics of Wayne McGregor. —Wendy Perron





American audiences cheered as the Bolshoi Ballet’s Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev performed Don Quixote’s dazzling third-act pas de deux on March 6 in Moscow. Three weeks later, audiences sat transfixed—possibly bewildered—at the Paris Opéra Ballet’s strange Coppélia. Seeing international stars like the dream team of Osipova and Vasiliev, or the supremely elegant étoile Dorothée Gilbert, is a rare treat in the U.S., one that has been mostly confined to bootleg YouTube clips and the occasional DVD. But no longer.

Partnering with European production companies, Emerging Pictures has teamed up with hundreds of movie theaters in the U.S. to screen performances across the pond in real time. Following in the footsteps of Emerging’s popular “Opera in Cinema” series, which began in 2007, “Ballet in Cinema” has already demonstrated faster growth and demand than “Opera” did during its first season. A ballet performed by the Bolshoi, POB, The Royal Ballet, or La Scala, is screened live approximately once a month, and re-shown in theaters regularly.

The multi-camera feed is high quality, although solos and pas de deux fare better on camera than dances by the entire corps. Reading the program notes onscreen, with detailed plot descriptions, can be tedious. But it’s lovely to see the beautiful opera houses slowly filling with patrons and the dancers warming up backstage before the curtain goes up.

The trickiest thing to maneuver is the time difference. A 7:00 p.m. curtain time in Moscow translates to 11:00 a.m. on the East Coast. Theaters like the West End Cinema in Washington, DC, and the Frontier Cinema and Café in Brunswick, ME, have been pairing screenings with brunch specials to entice viewers to rise early. And the re-showings are an opportunity to watch the performances at a more convenient time.

On July 9, Paris Opéra Ballet will perform Les Enfants du Paradis, choreographed by POB étoile José Martinez (who takes over as head of Compañia Nacional de Danza in September). Highlights from the upcoming season include the Bolshoi in The Sleeping Beauty, broadcast from the newly renovated Bolshoi Theatre in November, and The Royal in La Fille Mal Gardée next May. For more information, see —Kina Poon

POB’s Isabelle Ciaravola and Mathieu Ganio in
Les Enfants du Paradis. Photo by Sébastien Mathé, Courtesy POB.



Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History

By Constance Valis Hill

Oxford University Press, 2010.

464 pages. Illustrated. $39.95.

In her encyclopedic book, Constance Valis Hill tracks tap for nearly 400 years, from its origins in Africa and Ireland to the current vogue for festivals and the latest crop of committed dancers. A professor at Hampshire College, she is both dance historian and participant/observer. While researching this material she has been a performer, choreographer, critic, teacher, and presenter. Her ties to the current generation are deep and sentimental, and her feminist spirit unmistakable. She highlights the tradition of the “tap challenge” at every stage of the evolution of the form.


Valis Hill covers tap’s first 250 years in Chapter 1, evoking the 17th-century interaction between Irish servants and black slaves from West Africa in the Caribbean, the 18th-century encounters of field laborers in the American South, and the flowering of tap on the streets of northern cities in the 19th century. Then she takes us on a decade-by-decade tour of the 20th century, visiting vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway, television, the festival circuit, and the downtown scene. This volume comes along just in time, as the 20th-century giants are dying off. She documents the efforts, primarily by women dancers in the past 40 years, to capture and honor their legacy. A thorough bibliography, a glossary, and many illustrations contribute to the book’s value.


Tap Dancing America
is not so much written as assembled. It’s littered with typos, dangling participles, and confusions of fact. On page 283 we learn that Savion Glover was born in 1973, while on page 339 she tells us he was 21 in 2005. But it is also, and primarily, a labor of love, a tribute to performers who, despite poverty, racism and exploitation, created enduring art. Tap, alongside the jazz music so often associated with it, represents America to the world. —Elizabeth Zimmer

Mary Day: Grande Dame of Dance in the Nation’s Capital

Compiled by Elvi Moore

The Laurel Fund. 2009.

204 pages. Illustrated. Paper: $19.95.


For more than half a century, Mary Day was a formidable presence in Washington, D.C. Co-founder with Lisa Gardiner of The Washington School of the Ballet in 1944, and later the world-class, chamber-sized Washington Ballet, Miss Day, as she was called, was, in the words of former students and dancers, a force to be reckoned with. Elvi Moore, Day’s long-time executive director and ultimately friend, assembled this brief biographical sketch, drawing from transcripts of Day’s recollections as a dance student in Washington, her founding of one of the nation’s finest ballet schools, plus reminiscences from more than 25 of her devoted students.

These include memories from Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre; Amanda McKerrow, the first American gold medalist at the Moscow International Ballet Competition (coached by Day); Virginia Johnson, former ballerina and artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and former Paul Taylor dancer Patrick Corbin. A passionate teacher, Day had a scintillating eye for technique, an exquisite ear for musicality, and an innate understanding for the artistry that girders ballet. Among the gems in this book: four pages of brilliant notes by Day “On Teaching Ballet”; a tribute to her beloved Bedlington dogs; and stories of her encounters with presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, whose then-teenaged daughter, Chelsea, seriously studied at WSB. Whether or not Day’s charges became ballet stars, Chelsea Clinton’s sentiments speak for many: “I will always be grateful to Ms. Day for the values she instilled in her students: hard work, discipline, a love of the arts.” —Lisa Traiger


The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus

By Peggy & Murray Schwartz

Yale University Press, 2011.

352 pages. Illustrated. Cloth: $35.


“My body is built for heavy stomping, powerful dignity,” Pearl Primus often said. Her impressive leaps focused stage presence prompted New York Times critic John Martin to write, “It would be unfair to classify her merely as an outstanding Negro dancer, for by any standard she is…outstanding…her dances are all fine and authentic in spirit, well composed and danced with great technical skill as well as dramatic power.”

Pearl Primus: dancer, choreographer, teacher, anthropologist, activist, and scholar, educated the public on the origins of African American dance. She made extensive visits to West Africa researching dance, but the African American intelligentsia scorned her for celebrating the “primitive” elements of Black culture. She introduced traditional dances to European audiences, toured the American South documenting the horrors of Jim Crow, and received acclaim in the newly founded state of Israel. She challenged injustice, leading to an FBI investigation; her passport was eventually revoked at the height of the McCarthy Era.

Peggy and Murray Schwartz have written an in-depth biography of Primus. The Dance Claimed Me includes interviews of friends and colleagues, reviews, letters, poems and documents written by Primus. The Schwartz’s 14-year relationship with Primus up to her death in 1994 adds personal insight to the biography. —Walter Rutledge


Balasaraswati, Her Art & Life

By Douglas M. Knight Jr.

Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

364 Pages. Illustrated. Cloth: $35.00.


This handsome book is to be cherished. It explores the life of Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918–1984), who revitalized the art of bharata natyam at a time when it threatened to disappear. She was a highly individual performer who put her own stamp on this ancient dance. She toured all over the world and taught at American Dance Festival as well at Wesleyan and CalArts.

Bala’s close-knit family had four brothers, two of whom accompanied her on flute and drum. The author, Douglas Knight, eventually married Bala’s daughter, Lakshmi Shanmukham, who carried on the family tradition. Their son, Aniruddha, has shared the family’s passion for dance since childhood.

One of the inspiring moments in the book recalls the encounter between Bala and Martha Graham in India in 1956 that led to the two becoming lifelong friends. —Doris Hering



iPhone apps


For the on-the-go dance lover, some dance companies and theaters have released free iPhone apps to make getting season info, casting, and tickets a snap. Optimized for viewing on the smartphone screen, these apps are an easy way to purchase tickets and, for patrons, provide logistical information like theater directions and even discounts to partner hotels and restaurants. A highlight of the National Ballet of Canada app, linked up to the NBC blog and twitter feed, is its video library. You can easily navigate the app to watch everything from dancer interviews to clips of performances, like Bridgett Zehr and Aleksandar Antonijevic in an excerpt of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. The Pacific Northwest Ballet app also posts photos linked to each of the season’s ballets in addition to videos. Apps for New York City Center and Paris Opéra Ballet are also available on iTunes. —K.P.