The three-month silence on this blog is a little embarrassing, but it’s not that I haven’t been writing; it’s that I have. These frigid, snowy weeks, I’ve been metaphorically chained to my laptop, shaping the material gathered last fall in the dance studios of England, Stuttgart and Warsaw for the book on which I have been collaborating with Bonnie Robson, tentatively titled “The Leap: From Dancer to Director in 21st-Century Ballet.” This project lifted me out of the audience, where I’ve spent large chunks of the last 23 years, and deposited me behind the scenes as we examined the pivotal role of artistic directors in the world of ballet. Bonnie supplies the interviews she did over the last few years with 30 of them, from major companies in the United States and Europe. I supply the prose and, as of last fall, some color.
While shadowing Reid Anderson of the Stuttgart Ballet for a few days, I spent a morning at company class. “You did company class?” Bonnie gasped when I mentioned it. “Of course not!” I hissed back. “I sat on a chair and watched.” This weekend, I took a little time off from the book to go one step further, donning T-shirt and leggings to take my first real ballet class in decades, at Dance Theater of Harlem.
Let me be clear: I am a member of the Warm Body School of Dance Writing, as in “We need someone to cover dance – how about you?” (which is what essentially happened to me, as an editor, in my latter years at The New York Times). I was never a ballet child; my rural upbringing and a body type inherited from my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother saw to that. I took my first ballet class at 24 – “probably too late for a major career,” I explain when asked about my dance background, although I quickly point that Zelda Fitzgerald tried when she was even older. That first venture into the studio came in the early 1980s at the Joy of Movement Centers that proliferated around Boston then. While I never danced across the floor with any grace, I mostly did fine when there was a barre to hold onto. I stopped when I moved to New York – too many real dancers here – but continued to value the dance workout as a form of exercise. I’ve occasionally done the New York City Ballet Workout at health clubs; if I don’t look in the mirror, I feel I’m really dancing. Last year I took City Ballet’s two-DVD set to China and dutifully did the workout once or twice a week. Though I did not attempt the Balanchine “Tarantella” at the end of the second disk, I always let it play through for Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s delightful music.
Two weeks ago, when Bonnie and I attended a Sunday Matinee at Dance Theater of Harlem – a mere six blocks from my apartment — I squealed when I saw an ad in the program for adult ballet classes. “Do you take old, fat people?” I asked our colleague Virginia Johnson, DTH’s artistic director, mindful of the figure I cut at a chic Pilates salon on Central Park South. “We take anyone,” she assured me. So, despite a chronic lower-back problem and the fact that I can remember Eisenhower being president, I decided to try it out on a $10 single ticket before committing to a 10-class card.
It was almost a private lesson, since only one other student showed up on a 20-degree day. The teacher, while charming and encouraging, was a substitute; I will have to go back to make an accurate assessment of the weekly class and my body’s ability to participate. “I may do class a little differently from what you’re used to,” she warned at the beginning, and in fact the class was not what I expected. Instead of a full battery of barre exercises, working our way up from simple plies and releves, she gave us short barre combinations right away. The session showed I have the same problems as always (shoulders popping up, chest pitching forward, flat back hopeless) and a few new ones (grand plies are history – too much knee strain from five months of Asian toilets). I still look too much like the dancing hippos in “Fantasia.” But I made it through class and plan to go back next week.
From DTH I raced to the subway, for I was due at Lincoln Center in 45 minutes. City Ballet was celebrating Balanchine’s 107th birthday with a full day of performances and special programs. Appropriately, I had signed on for “But First a School,” a rare public class for students from the School of American Ballet onstage at the New York State Theater (as I intend to keep calling it; I decline to recognize the right-wing billionaire whose donations bought him the right to put his name on it). Suddenly I was back in the world of black leotards over pinkish tights, with Peter Martins – my very own ballet master on those DVD’s! — running the show.
In the onstage class, he explained to the audience, SAB’s senior class would do “what we do every day, from children to the time we retire – it’s like brushing our teeth.” The routine is fairly mechanical: from warm-ups and stretches to series of plies, releves, tendus (who knew there were three kinds?), developpes and so on, all the way up to battements and jumps. An onstage pianist provided the music, mostly snippets of Gershwin (“The Man I Love”), Irving Berlin (“What’ll I Do”) and other popular songs of the early 20th century (“Tea for Two,” “Ain’t She Sweet?”) that must sound as ancient as Bach to the students. Martins recalled a piece of advice Balanchine gave him in his early teaching days: “Don’t choreograph.” Class is for practice only, the repetition of basic steps with an eye toward perfection. Choreography comes later.
As always at the ballet, I marveled at the 36 teenagers onstage: their strength, their control, their mastery of positions and movements I could never hope to emulate, not at their age, not even if I’d had a lifetime of training. Their tendus were so quick and sharp, their hands so graceful in the position Balanchine prescribed “so you see all five fingers,” as Martins explained. “Don’t hang on the barre!” he barked – oh, you mean the way I did an hour ago? The gap between these young dancers and my efforts was infinite, and humbling. (Even Martins made concessions to age. Dictating one combination, he said: “Don’t ask me to demonstrate. I’ll have a heart attack!”) Yet it felt good to sit there and watch, still feeling the stretch and warmth in my muscles. Ballet workouts may feed my fantasies, but this dual-class day also served a practical purpose, giving me a feel for what the people I’m writing about have gone through, and some muscle memories of my own.
On the bus home, I searched my iPod playlist for ballet music to sustain the mood, but the best I could do was “On Your Toes,” the 1984 Broadway cast recording. The show was originally choreographed, back in 1936, by George Balanchine. (“Slaughter on 10th Avenue” is a perennial favorite in the City Ballet repertory.) It was, after all, his birthday, a day well spent on dance in all its forms.