Two weeks ago today I gave birth to a baby boy, Rhett. I cannot believe how the time has flown by already, but I promise to post about the birth experience in the near future. (Like when I get some sleep, ha!) This has been the most intense, wonderful time!
Fall is my favorite time of the year. I am thrilled that the temperature is leveling off and the mums and squashes have begun to appear on the neighborhood stoops. It is always an invigorating time in New York, as it is the start of so many cultural seasons. Mercifully for me, it also marks the start of football season, which has been a necessary distraction as I eagerly await the birth of my baby who is now past due! Perhaps he or she will come on the autumnal equinox?
Though dance and football have not been sympatico so far this season (my beloved Antonio Brown was fined in the very first game for this end zone dance, which I may borrow as a labor position…), they have been foremost in my mind lately. For today is also the kickoff of the NYCB fall season, and I have been thinking of my colleagues. Tonight’s gala showcases four new ballets, two of which are by female choreographers—hallelujah! NYCB Principal Lauren Lovette and guest Annabelle Lopez Ochoa are the debuting duo. There is also a new offering from resident choreographer Justin Peck and one from the young corps member Peter Walker, who is an excellent partner and a genuinely nice guy. I wish them all the best of luck this evening.
But as the season begins I want to acknowledge a slew of retirements that happened at the end of the summer. Three lovely young women, Dana Jacobson, Lara Tong, and Stephanie Chrosniak, have moved on to other pursuits. I have no doubt they will find success in their next endeavors. Senior corps men Joshua Thew and David Prottas have also left the company. Josh, who is an amazing singer, is going to devote more time to this other skill as well as model. David is joining the touring company of An American in Paris. I danced my last show before maternity leave with David, he has been a wonderful partner over the years. They will all be missed.
Especially transformational for the company is the loss of two dancers who had been around for almost two decades: Craig Hall and Gwyneth Muller. I attended their final performances on back to back evenings in Saratoga Springs this summer, and it was such a moving experience. Craig wrapped up his performing tenure with the Concerto section of Balanchine’s Episodes. His handsome calmness and phenomenal partnering skills were on fine display. I liked that he went out in a quirky part too, for Craig is also a total goofball and the role’s swings between seriousness and playfulness suited him perfectly.
Gwyneth danced her last Serenade the following night. There is no more fitting retirement vehicle than Serenade, Balanchine’s masterpiece of life, death, and rebirth. Gwyneth, who has never given less than one hundred percent of her energy onstage, looked especially radiant in her final evening of swooshing blue tulle. Her last incarnation as the “mother” figure in the elegy section was intensely emotional.
These incredible artists have been my close friends since our early days at the School of American Ballet, and their professionalism and positivity have made them pillars of the NYCB community. Craig, with whom I have a lifelong bond from our intense early experience of dancing in Chris Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet, is staying with the company as a ballet master. Gwyneth, who has been a dear friend of mine through high school, undergrad, and ballet life, just kicked off her first semester at Yale in a prestigious arts administration program. I am sure that Craig and Gwyneth will be as prosperous in their new roles as they were in their dancing careers and I am so very proud of them.
Cat person that I am, I had never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats until this week. I have long been familiar with T.S. Eliot’s poems on which the show is based, and I knew some of the songs (“Memory,” bien sûr), but other than that I was a total newbie. My friend and NYCB colleague Georgina Pazcoguin stars as Victoria the white cat in the current Broadway revival, and it was wonderful to see her shine—glow, actually—in a new milieu.
Cats and ballet make for good bedfellows, even outside of the pas de chat or “step of the cat.” George Balanchine is famous for his obsession with his cat Mourka’s leaps. And NYCB ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy is always reminding us to place our feet nimbly like cats, to work exaggeratedly through demi-pointe when we roll through our feet. She also encourages us to study our cats at home when she coaches the crawling around in the Arabian solo in The Nutcracker—and she often does this while wearing the iconic Cats on Broadway t-shirt for good measure! Perhaps this is why Gina looked as comfortable in the junkyard set as she does in her tutus.
I found the show to be quite a hoot, which is not shocking given its jocular source material, but that aspect surprised me nonetheless. It is basically a jukebox musical of cat puns—there is not much in the way of plot or character development. In fact, the few through-lines the show has are its weakest links: Grizabella’s mysterious outsider status and fall from grace are relatively unexplained, making her reincarnation at the end feel hollow. I also wasn’t convinced by Leona Lewis’s portrayal of an old kitty. I know she is the headlining star in the show, but she looked like she was play-acting. Wouldn’t a respected Broadway elder have been a better fit? And the evil Macavity’s arrival is hyped often, yet the event itself underwhelms. He doesn’t even get a song. His catfight sequence seemed really weak after the foreshadowing number by the silky duo Madison Mitchell and Christine Cornish Smith as Demeter and Bombalurina.
What was such great fun about the show was the sheer silliness of it, from the cats entering through the dark audience with glowing eyes in the opening, to the grooming orgies, and the oddly poised group recitations of Eliot’s goofy verse. And the show is jam-packed with impressive dancing. Almost all of the cast sings and dances the whole time—and they are clearly an extraordinarily talented ensemble. Gina, whose albino unitard makes her stand out in even the darkest scenes, was in constant motion for over two hours. She danced beautifully and her committed performance alone is (in my admittedly biased opinion) worth the price of a ticket!
Since I am unfamiliar with the original choreography, I cannot comment too much on Andy Blankenbeuhler’s updates, but there were definitely some hip-hop accents that resembled his work in Hamilton. He also loves a slow, partnered lean-out arabesque. The dancing was really great throughout, and I couldn’t believe how well the performers were able to sing and enunciate while lifting each other, turning, and cartwheeling. Ricky Ubeda, as Mistoffelees, has the tour-de-force dance number of the production and he sailed through it. It contained a gauntlet of tricks: à la seconde pirouettes, coupés tombés jetés en tournant, etc. It reminded me of a Youth America Grand Prix solo, but with singing and a Siegfried and Roy light-up coat!
Since I’m having frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions and back pain now, it was hard to sit comfortably, and the show felt overlong to me. But I think even if I wasn’t extremely pregnant a little editing would have gone a long way. Also, how can you revive a cat musical in 2016 without a single nod to the internet? There was no cat-breading or cat-sushi-ing, no cat-Nicholas Cages or Hello Kitties, etc., to be found. When one cat took a ride on a broom I wished it was on a Roomba. This Cats revival is a little too serious for its own good, it is begging for some sort of meta-nod to modern cat memes.
Also, I’ve always had cats in my life, and cats are never that earnest. While Eliot’s poetry aptly describes many kinds of cats, (for example: my parents’ fat cat Giles was personified to a tee by Christopher Gurr as Bustopher Jones) I needed a little more cynicism to see the show as a proper feline tribute. The Cats cats perfectly embodied Eliot’s cat poems, yet for me to be convinced I needed to believe that they’d rather be contemplating his Four Quartets.
Last week I watched Stranger Things on Netflix, this week I saw Cats on Broadway with a group of friends I’ve known since I was a kid. The 80’s are having quite the renaissance. It is so surreal, on the cusp of motherhood, to be inundated with imagery from my own childhood!
“These Olympic games” have come to a close, and my pregnancy is nearing its end as well. I was thrilled to have the Olympics as a diversion in my final weeks of gestation, and with my belly swollen and my back strained I have never been so impressed with the physicality of the athletes. Actually, with my hockey team winning the Stanley Cup this year this pregnancy has been terrific for sports fandom! (Usually I perform all through playoff season and have to ask stagehands for score updates in the wings.) Pregnancy has been such a wondrous experience, I am daily amazed by the changes my body is undergoing. And though I have not been able to exercise at my former levels, nothing has felt better to me than to move during this time.
Since the miserable slog of my first trimester ended, I have been swimming laps regularly, perhaps with a little extra gusto lately thanks to Michael Phelps’s glorious example. It feels sublime to be weightless in the water right now; the contrast is so much more extreme than I’m used to. Normally, being carried and floated around in the air is a big part of my day. I didn’t realize how good I had it!
The mutability of my body has been fascinating. Things shift and realign multiple times a day. I just finished Maggie Nelson's excellent book The Argonauts, in which she questions: "[i]s there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one's "normal" state, and occasions a radical intimacy with--and alienation from--one's body?" It's true, I feel as connected to my body as I've ever been, yet also like I'm in uncharted waters.
During my eighth month I was getting increasingly winded as the baby grew and pressed up on my diaphragm and kicked at my rib cage. My cardio abilities seemed to disappear overnight, and I was humbled in the pool where I felt as if I couldn’t take a decent breath anymore. I had to slow down my pace and cut down on my laps. Then the baby dropped and engaged into my pelvis (a process that is called lightening, although it mostly feels heavier down lower!). Although my lower back became sorer, suddenly I could inhale easily again and I am back to my usual workout routine. It is so odd to think of my stamina as being dictated by the position of my internal organs.
I have been doing a modified ballet barre in the pool too, and it has been so amusing to watch my legs get lower and lower as my belly has gotten bigger and bigger. I cannot développé front anymore because there is a beach ball in the way. And arabesque feels the most bizarre. I feel no limitations in a muscular sense—in fact I feel quite loose everywhere in that respect. But my extension to the back feels hampered by the tautening of the skin of my stomach. It is truly strange. I can still get my leg up fairly well to the side, but the widening of my pelvis has definitely taken it down a notch!
I winced as I watched the Olympic diving competitions this time around, because for the first time in my life I’ve not been able to jump into a body of water. I now use the stairs or ladder to get in and out of the pool. I was so surprised, some months ago, when I could no longer hoist myself up out of the water from the deep end.
Although I feel far removed from my normal balletic state, I have to say that thanks to ballet I feel very well prepared to give birth. My partner and I just finished up all our labor and childbirth classes, and most of the positions and techniques we were taught were variations on dance poses. Much of it felt like very remedial ballet training--turned in grand pliés, etc. Even the work on the birthing ball was not too different from what I practice with the physical therapists for alignment and strengthening purposes, on the very same ball. Former NYCB dancer Dena Abergel once told me that childbirth felt like dancing every ballet in the rep in one night. Hopefully my years of training will carry me through my own upcoming Olympic feat: labor and delivery!
I caught the opening night of the L.A. Dance Project’s latest residency at the Joyce. I am always impressed with the troupe and their rep, and last night was no different. They are one of my favorite visiting companies—and this was true even before the announcement that my close friends Carla Körbes and Janie Taylor would join the group next year!
Harbor Me, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, opened the program. Jason Kittelberger and Nemo Oeghoede are listed as assistant choreographers for the piece, which intrigued me. It is something one rarely sees in a dance program, but I’ve always felt that it is a position that could be very important and useful—like a dramaturge. I’ll have to inquire as to the extent of the assistance for Harbor Me, but no author publishes without an editor’s careful eye. (Who is Raymond Carver without Gordon Lish?) Why are there no real “editor” positions in dance?
I’ve often been in rehearsals for new ballets and thought to myself, this section is almost great—if only this or that could be cut or reworked. I’m not at all saying I think I should be a ballet editor! Certainly, most dancers have strong opinions about the pieces they are in and discuss them at length in the dressing rooms. The poor choreographers—this is why paint is an easier (or at least a judgment-free) medium! But I bet that if many choreographers could find trusted consultants with whom they had a deep aesthetic connection it would make for better dances all around.
Choreographers, at least at City Ballet, tend to be paired arbitrarily with a ballet master who acts as a rehearsal assistant, whom they occasionally, casually, ask for input during the choreographic process. Ideally though, assistance should derive from a different person than the one assigned to write down the steps and counts, who may or may not be a kindred artistic spirit. I would think it involves a different skill set too. As usual, I digress, but maybe Cherkaoui is on to something.
Aaron Carr, Morgan Lugo, and Robbie Moore comprised the cast of Harbor Me, and they were excellent. The droopy, sighing score by Park Woojae Geomungo set the lackadaisical tone for the piece, and the men’s controlled ease belied how challenging their steps were. It was a work that quietly simmered, and the three men maintained a fluid intensity throughout. The work opened with a meditative, gyroscopic solo for Carr. He began by scooting across the floor on his rear in a shaft of light, his back arched and lifted off the ground. His whole solo was based upon this lower back extension, and he performed frequent difficult, revolving layouts in slow motion.
He was eventually joined by the other men, and the three draped themselves together with heads touching and floated their arms like seaweed. In this way the the ballet’s title resonated, as well as in the drab castaway apparel by Fabiana Piccioli. The lighting and set design (by Piccioli and Sander Loonen) was darkly side-lit. Stale, criss-crossing light filtering in from above set the scene for Moore’s solo, which looked like it took place in an airless cell. It was a beautiful effect and made the men resemble refugees too.
In the last section the men mimed as if they were holding invisible boxes. Between the score, which could pass for spa music, the intense air box-making, and the men’s casual, Chico’s-looking separates, the dancers could have been club kids trying to hold a mellow rave at Canyon Ranch. I mean that in the most complimentary way—it was my favorite ballet of the night! It was not a rousing piece, per se, but it had a lazy loveliness to it.
A well-paired diptych followed the first intermission: Martha Graham Duets and Helix by Justin Peck. The two works shared Janie Taylor as costume designer as well as three heterosexual couples in their casting. In fact, the casts were nearly identical, with Aaron Carr replacing Anthony Bryant in the second grouping. The Graham piece, to music by Cameron McCosh, consisted of three brief pas de deux. They were short, geometric, and simple. They reminded me of the opening themes of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. I particularly liked the frozen, low arabesque motif in the first pas. I also loved Janie’s black shorts (for the women) and unitards (for the men) with short peach tops draped over them. A subtle yellow accent line at the waist was a nice touch.
Janie clothed the Helix cast in soft gray unitards (men) and pants and a crop top (women) with blue socks that went up to the mid-calf line. It looked like streamlined loungewear. In all four ballets on the program the dancers’ costuming looked incredibly comfortable, everything appeared cozy and cottony and could pass for jammies. I was jealous. Helix, to a score by Esa-Pekka Salonen, was a solid offering from Peck. It began with the couples tightly paired, and then had the dancers break off into energetic canons. It sort of picked up where Martha Graham Duets left off, which made for good programming.
On the Other Side, by LADP’s founding director Benjamin Millepied, closed the program. A stunning, Crayola-bright backdrop by Mark Bradford played off of the large cast’s technicolor costumes—all pantsuits and two dresses—by Alessandro Sartori. Lucy Carter’s lighting morphed with every section of the work to match or contrast the dancers’ bold costumes. The music, which consisted of assorted Philip Glass excerpts—some from Einstein on the Beach—was almost too hypnotic at times. But a section in which Laura Bachman soloed in and out of a group of three women was a highlight of the night. Ben’s choreography tends to be aerobically exhausting, and I often find that it looks better and better as the dancers get increasingly winded—almost as if it takes fatigue to make a performer let down his or her guard and fully inhabit Ben's movement. This proved true of Ms. Bachman, and by the end of her marathon number she seemed incredibly stylish and free. I look forward to the company’s next visit.