Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Muse of Blue Flame

Sometimes a dancer is more than a dancer - think Pavlova, think Nijinsky, or Astaire, or Baryshnikov, and then think Farrell. I was hardly more than a baby when I saw my first dancing - probably at the movies, but I'm not sure. I am absolutely sure, though, that once knowing that you could move your body to music, that knowledge transformed both the music and the body; the body was made to move, and the music you then heard from head to toe and from the inside out.

Of the five dancers I name above, only two did I see in live performance - Baryshnikov and Farrell. Both I saw with the NYCB, in their Chicago seasons in my late youth, when George Balanchine was still alive and that company was in its late prime. The company was full of tremendous dancers (and Baryshnikov was with them to add to his already prodigious vocabulary), but it was seeing Farrell that was life-changing. The ballet was Agon, Stravinsky from the '50's and written for (and with) Balanchine. It was not made on her, originally, but I had never seen anything like it. Her partner (as in the picture above) was Peter Martins, and for all the music's and the choreography's spikiness - listen to a recording, if you can fucking find one anymore - it is a reiteration of very old courtly dances. Arlene Croce once wrote something to the effect that ballet exalts manners and civilization, but it also contains the unspeakable; Agon is like that. What I saw Farrell do was combine them, in the same moment, in the great pas-de-deux - conquest and submission, and mercy, too.

I saw her in other things - dances that had been made on her, notably two performances of Vienna Waltzes in which she carries the final act (to Richard Strauss's suite from Der Rosenkavalier), for much of it almost alone on stage, from isolation, though fleeting partnerships, to a kind of self-immolation exit the like of which I have never seen. The exit ushers in the final luscious tableau of swirling partners, but it's a renunciation (not unlike the opera's Marschallin) that you remember - and the suggestion of much darker things. To do all that is being more than a dancer. I don't even know what the word for it is.

In Venice, California, I used to sit house for some friends - looked after their cats, get a respite - and I got to know their neighbors (e.g., look down from above on the hair-transplant plugs of the guy who lived beneath them). As it happened, the woman next door started talking about a dance program and she was from Cincinnati and had known Suzy as a kid - girlfriends. Knocked me off my feet, and I told about what I had seen (with more gush), and not too long after that she brought me back, from a trip East, an autograph and a photo of her and Suzanne. A treasure, and lost now, but, whoa, while I had it, it was gold - it still is, and it was a kindness of Suzanne Farrell (who is famously shy about that sort of thing) to acknowledge a fan.

I suppose that's what has set Farrell apart in the line of great dancers I listed - all-out commitment, all-out performance, combined with a personal reticence that doesn't take to the runway, that shuns stardom. Muses don't bestow their gifts lightly - which is why poets were always appealing to them, praying to them, to show up this time. She's got a part-time company out of DC, she's coaching and staging with companies all over the world, but that unity of personal performance and the works she inspired and made new - those are gone. Yeats nailed the eternal transience of the art with:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?


Lance Mannion said...

Lovely post, and very helpful to me, the dance ignoramous. Even though at one time in my youth I spent many nights in the company of dancers, I never learned anything insightful or profound about their art. I don't get to many concerts or ballets but when I do I don't even know where to look. This was not helpful the one time I had to review a performance of The Nutcracker.

Lance Mannion said...

Lovely post, and very helpful to me, a dance ignoramous. When I was young I spent many a night in the company of dancers, but I never learned anything insightful or profound about their art. I don't get to many concerts or ballets, but when I do I never know where to look. This was a problem the one time I was called upon to review a ballet. It was a production of The Nutcracker. I used up a lot of space yammering about Freud.

grishaxxx said...

I dunno, but I suspect that hanging around with dancers is like hanging around with the instruments of an orchestra when no one is playing them. Beautiful, but critically mute.
This hasn't anything to do with intelligence, I think. It does have to do with a dancer's physical and technical concerns - matters of personal survival for them, after all - and with their being at the service of choreographers who are, in turn, dependent on their dancers - living instruments - to make dances. Arlene Croce once said that Balanchine's boys and girls could sound like Moonies, and I don't think that's very surprising.

It's the most ephemeral of the performing arts. There's no really definitive system of dance notation. the visual record is paltry. Passing the torch is problematic; Peter Martins has gone through hell at NYCB, for example, but many of his old colleagues have fanned out across the country and made some splendid regional companies. As I noted, Farrell has only a part-time company right now, but she owns a big chunk of the Balanchine repertoire - she has formal rights to the works, and she can transmit, in her person, what no one else can, and she has done that around the world.
You know how Japan has people designated as "Living National Treasures", or something like that? Farrell is like that for us, and even more than most performers because of the nature of the art.
I highly recommend Paul Taylor's book Private Domain. He was a great dancer with Martha Graham, made his own superior company and dances, and he can write.