Song & Dance: Dancing at the Met

January 9, 2007

Teaching a stilt-walker how to pirouette on pointe and gracefully undulate his arms may not be part of Diana Levy’s job description as Dance Director of the Metropolitan Opera. But there she was, last fall, in a sub-basement studio at the Met readying him to take on the role of a wing-flapping, 12-foot flamingo in Julie Taymor’s whimsical staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.


During another rehearsal, Levy fine-tuned the delicate movements of Puccini’s Turandot, set in ancient China. The period style demands that the torso remain still while the eyes and the hands tell the story. In the first rehearsal of Tan Dun’s production of The First Emperor, which has its world premiere this season, Levy takes notes as choreographer Dou Dou Huang leads 50 dancers through a blend of martial arts and contemporary dance.


Levy works closely with guest choreographers, guiding them through the labyrinth that is the Met. During a stage rehearsal of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, which has a cumbersome set crowded with choristers, a grand staircase, and assorted pillars and statues, dancers are restricted to a pie-shaped area when performing the famous “Dance of the Hours.” Levy, her associate Joe Fritz, and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who created the 10-minute showstopper, huddle in the dark theater to resolve spacing issues and track sightlines. “We look at all the angles from different perspectives in the auditorium,” says Levy, “and see how the dancers fit into the set safely. Then we go to the stage director and confer with him.”


Born in Brooklyn, Levy left for Los Angeles when she was very young and began her dance training there with Tatiana Riabouchinksa (one of the Ballets Russes’ “baby ballerinas”) and her husband David Lichine. She started her professional career in Melbourne with a company that evolved into the Australian Ballet. Returning to the U.S., Levy danced with American Ballet Theatre for three years, then left the company to marry and have a daughter. A couple of years later she auditioned for Dame Alicia Markova, then director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, who hired her in 1963. Levy performed many solo roles during her 17 years with the Met and then segued into ballet mistress and, later, director.


Juggling the schedules of the 100-plus dancers on the Met’s roster is Levy’s biggest challenge. She uses a spreadsheet to coordinate dancers’ schedules with the opera’s. Levy also arranges auditions and assists in casting new productions.


Through the audition process over the past eight years, a wide range of choreographers has consistently cast certain dancers. Sixteen have emerged as the elite core group—the ultimate crossover dancers. “They are so versatile that they fit into almost any opera,” she says. “They are my ‘dependables.’ ” But even these dancers have to audition for each new production.


Sarah Weber Gallo
, a tall, stunning redhead with a modern dance background, has been one of the elite 16 for five years. With a broad repertoire of operas to her credit, she is unfazed by the mandatory audition policy. “Nobody likes to audition,” she says, “but I understand that every choreographer has different ideas, and we are a very varied group of dancers.” About the core group she says, “We audition separately and don’t wear numbers. That bit of courtesy separates us from the rest.”


Gallo loves the variety of going from a can-can girl to a countess to a free-flowing modern dancer in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. But she’s not too keen on what the dancers call “kid wrangling” in Gounod’s Falstaff, where they go onstage at 10:30 at night, walk with children, and shake fingers at the audience.


Dancing in operas can be risky business. “It’s falling and catching,” says Andrew Robinson, a British dancer formerly with Twyla Tharp and another of the elite 16. He and Gallo perform the “Bacchanal,” a bawdy duet in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. It’s full of tosses and flips in the air on a two-by-two-foot platform, which is perched on an altar, five feet above a steeply raked stage.


Robinson enjoys dramatic roles within theatrical dance movements such as the villain in Ravel’s Parade. What frustrates him is how short the spurts of dancing are. “We are out there 10 to 20 minutes at the most,” he says, “and that is it for us.”


Looking back over her decades at the Met, Levy says, “We’ve done everything.” Then she adds, with a wry smile, “Although in the old days we were either peasants or harlots.” Not today. The Met opera dance repertoire ranges from classical ballet to downtown modern, all of which are entrusted to Levy’s unerring eye.