On June 27, Darci Kistler, Balanchine’s last ballerina, bid farewell amid mounds of flowers and confetti cascading down on the multitude assembled onstage. For her final performance she chose Balanchine’s pristine Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra set to Stravinsky; and from Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania’s genteel comic duet with Bottom, the donkey-headed rustic with whom Kistler danced so lovingly; she finished as a movingly wistful Odette in the final act of Peter Martins’ Swan Lake. Balanchine had cast the teenage Kistler in his one-act Swan Lake, which launched her career back in 1980.
Born in Riverside, CA, Kistler began studying ballet seriously with Irina Kosmovska at age 12. The same year, she attended her first summer course at the School of American Ballet and joined NYCB at 15. About her first year in the company, Kistler says, “It was crazy. I remember dancing a Firebird monster and after intermission danced the Swan Queen.”
Becoming a principal at 18, she amassed ballerina roles at a record pace. She remembers a somber moment when Balanchine said to her, “Darci, I don’t have much time.” He died in 1983 before ever creating a ballet for her. Kistler’s zooming career then screeched to a halt when she suffered a severe ankle injury.
After a five year recovery process, Kistler, stronger and more mature, danced the most demanding Balanchine roles. Audiences could not get enough of her incandescent energy and glamour. She credits her teacher Stanley Williams for her comeback. Jerome Robbins, too, adored the leggy beauty, for whom he had created the sparkling Andantino duet in 1982, as well as the Gershwin Concerto.
During the late ’80s and ’90s, Peter Martins, whom she married in 1991, created more than 20 ballets for her. They included the lyrical Morgen, the propulsive Adams Violin Concerto, and the stylish Thou Swell. One of Kistler’s most moving interpretations was in Martins’ Valse Triste. But it’s Kistler’s shimmering Aurora in Martins’ 1991 Sleeping Beauty that may be most memorable.
In 1996 Kistler and Martins welcomed the birth of their daughter, Talicia.
Since 1994 Kistler has been teaching at SAB, and now also hopes to take up coaching. “I would absolutely love to help dancers find themselves,” she says. She still relies on the lessons learned from Balanchine, who, she says, continues to “whisper” in her ear: “Listen to the music…always be yourself…stay in the moment…and remember, dancing is in between the steps.” —Astrida Woods
Jonathan Wolken (1949–2010)
In June, Jonathan Wolken, a co-founder of Pilobolus Dance Theater, died of complications from a stem-cell transplant. His works were extreme, from his electrifying blood-pumping Megawatt to Pseudopodia, a solo that challenges the dancer to roll like tumbleweed, never letting his hands touch the floor.
Born in Pittsburgh, Abraham Jonathan Wolken was the son of a biophysicist. In his father’s lab, he studied a sun-loving fungus that could project its own spores up to 10 feet in the air. While a philosophy major at Dartmouth College, Wolken took a dance class with Alison Chase where, along with Moses Pendleton, he was inspired to start a dance group, which he named after the fungus, Pilobolus. After graduation in 1971, Wolken and Pendleton began performing, joined in 1973 by fellow students Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy as well as Chase and Martha Clarke. Their shape-shifting works were presented in NYC and received with as much puzzlement as acclaim. Today the wildly successful company, based in Washington Depot, CT, performs worldwide in concert, on tour, and in TV commercials.
Wolken remained an active director through all the artistic evolutions of the company, as well as its director of development until his death. He created or co-created 46 works for Pilobolus, and also choreographed for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a collaboration featured in the documentary Last Dance.
Dance captain Jun Kuribayashi says of working with Wolken, “Every piece he created he wanted to take you on a journey. Whether you hated it or loved it, he didn’t want the audience to leave forgetting what they saw onstage. He wanted to push the physicality and mentality of his dancers.” —Emily Macel
Marina Semyonova (1908–2010)
As one of the first Soviet ballerinas, Marina Timofeyevna Semyonova won acclaim for her purity of line, hovering elevation, expressive arms, and immaculate beats, jumps, and speedy turns. She was Agrippina Vaganova’s foremost pupil and Stalin’s favorite dancer. She would dance the lezghinka, a macho Georgian folk dance, up on her knuckled toes in soft boots to entertain him when invited to the Kremlin. She was adored by her audiences, and became the cherished teacher and coach of some of the Bolshoi Ballet’s top stars.
Born in St. Petersburg, she started dancing at 9 with an amateur group. A year later, she was admitted into the Vaganova School. Because of the civil war and deprivations that followed, she often rehearsed hungry and cold in her overcoat and felt boots in the unheated studios. Yet she proved herself a worthy student under Vaganova’s eagle eye, and at 13, made her stage debut in a school production. She graduated at 17 and was taken directly into the Maryinsky company (also known as the Kirov). She made her debut in 1926 as Odette/Odile, a role she performed for 27 years. In 1930 she joined the Bolshoi Ballet where, according to Asaf Messerer, “Semyonova sparkled and dazzled, asserting the value of classical dance.”
She began to teach in 1956: Among her illustrious pupils have been Maya Plisetskaya, Natalia Bessmertnova, Ludmila Semenyaka, and Nina Ananiashvili. In The Greatest Russian Dancers, Plisetskaya remembers, “As a teacher and coach, Semyonova is equally stunning. She glitters in both fields. She is aware of all the secrets in the art of ballet. She knows everything.” Semyonova continued teaching into her 90s. —Margaret Willis
Kazuo Ohno (1906–2010)
Kazuo Ohno was an original. Anyone who has seen this Japanese artist perform, often in elaborate female dresses or naked except for briefs, will never forget his dancing. In one of his numerous and oddly moving curtain calls, I saw Susan Sontag run to the edge of the stage, barely able to contain her excitement. Wearing white pancake, blue eye shadow, and red lipstick on his wrinkled face, Ohno moved many viewers to tears at every concert—me and Koma included.
Ohno studied with the pioneers of Japanese modern dance. In 1949 he had a late dance debut at the age of 43. His collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata and Akira Kasai (among others) gave birth to the dance style called butoh, or “dance of utter darkness.” His reputation, however, was limited to a small circle of avant-gardists until his sensational “second debut” in 1977. With the help of Hijikata as a director, Ohno performed Admiring La Argentina, in praise of the great pioneer of Spanish dance. He began his ascent as a modern dancer, beyond the specificity of butoh.
Ohno made his first international appearance at the 1980 Theater Festival in Nancy, France. In the next two decades, with his son Yoshito as a dancer and collaborator, Ohno toured to dance venues all over the world. Although he continued to perform in Japan until 2003, Ohno’s fifth New York concert, “Requiem for the 20th Century” at Japan Society in December 1999, was his last performance outside Japan. He surprised us by sending Koma for a ham sandwich and ice cream right before the show. When an audience member asked how he calmed himself down after his performance, he answered, through my translation, “I see no reason to calm down.”
When his health started to fail, he continued to dance in a wheelchair, vigorously moving his large, expressive hands, and crawling on his knees.
His final public appearance was in January 2007 at a gala celebrating his 100th birthday.
Ohno used to say, “I will continue to dance in my grave and over the sky.” —Eiko of Eiko & Koma
Pictured: Darci Kistler. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.