Redefining Virtuosity

The dancers were gorgeous on Friday, when I had the delightful task of discussing excerpts from the program for American Repertory Ballet’s Saturday, March 17 concert at Raritan Valley Community College.More than 75, including a handful of Princeton Comment readers, came to Princeton Ballet School for its On Pointe series, “Watching and Talking About Dance.” I joined ARB’s director Douglas Martin and former dance critic colleague Michael Robertson. 
Michael proposed his heuristic: that all dance can be boiled down to a combo of structure (musical form, floor pattern, development of movement themes etc.) and virtuosity. He showed a videotape of a marching band (structure, no virtuosity) and a sequence from Flash Dance (virtuosity, no structure), and then we watched the opening minutes of new works by  Mary Barton and  Trinette Singleton.
The dancers were gorgeous. Did I say that already? I say it again. 
Back to the discussion. Ever the contrarian, I wanted to also consider “meaning” or at least “message.”
I should disclose my prejudices. I came from the sturm und drang (Martha Graham and Jose Limon ) school of modern dance. Back ‘in the day’ in the ‘50s, we pronounced classical ballet as mostly fluff. Among the ‘abstract’ modern choreographers, we deemed Merce Cunningham (who made dances using the method of chance) as simply beyond the pale, and Alwin Nikolais – well, if you tried to figure out what he meant, you did it at your own risk. My views on ballet were out of synch with critics who doted on Balanchine and loathed European expressionism.
Though I now love Balanchine, my favorite choreographers are Paul Taylor and Mark Morris because they give me something to chew on, something to try to figure out. Yet even Merce – as Michael pointed out – did not necessarily disdain meaning. His dances might look different each performance, but he said he hoped each viewer would find his or her own meaning for each  evening.
As for the “message” that I require, it does not have to be dramatic or narrative. It can be simply “Look at me! Aren’t I fabulous” (though that is my least favorite). The very same steps that communicate a “look at me” message can be performed less egotistically to say “I’m here in this space and I welcome you, the audience, to my world.”
Virtuosity is surely necessary. Barrel turns are thrilling and fouettes are fun to count. Petit allegro (small jumps and beats to a fast tempo) and double turns belong in a professional male dancer’s resume.
For instance, Barton’s piece begins with petit allegro for five men and it’s like – whew – they can do it — and now I don’t have to worry about being embarrassed for them. (Competent male dancers can be a scarce commodity and — over the past 30 years – this company has not always been able to field a complete team. I’m glad to report that this troop passes that test.) 
But real virtuosity, in my mind, can’t be measured by high leaps or multiple turns. For me, it’s in the carriage – shoulders that float on the air and arms that stretch out to forever. And ARB’s dancers have that enviable quality, especially in the new Singleton piece, and also in Arpino’s “Confetti,” with its nod to Bournonville.
Dancers with this ease can deliver a message. Their outstretched arms can say “I welcome you” or “Here I am for you” or any of a dozen emotions. They can invest a simple tendu with a meaning. (The message need not be specific. It can be abstract. In  Baryshnikov’s last appearance at McCarter, his tendu was the Essence of Tendu; I can still see it in my mind.)
Afterwards I talked with dancer Stephen Campanella (who has his own hometown-boy-makes-good story) about the meaning versus abstract dichotomy. He related what Sarah Stackhouse, the Limon dancer, said when he told her that — the first thing he asked himself when watching a performance was — did it move him. “She replied that if I were moved, first I would probably not have needed to ask myself the question, and second that being moved was all that was necessary.” 


I translate that to  “If you don’t feel anything, it’s not worth doing.” 
To get to Raritan Valley Community College(it’s not as far as you might think) take 206 North to the Somerville Circle and go four miles on Route 28. After your first visit, you are likely to return, because you’ll be surprised by the varied offerings with modest ticket prices. For instance, the ARB tickets are $25 and $35. In addition to Confetti(to a Rossini score), Singleton’s Capriccios(to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto # 2), and Barton’s new piece for male dancers,  Martin will present the balcony scene from his new Romeo and Juliet
Photo of Monica Giragosian in Confetti by Peter Cook. 
I added Campanella’s anecdote on 2-29-12. and changed Stackhouse’s name from Sally to Sarah. She was known as Sally in the ’50s.
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