Sunday, September 11, 2011


Last Wednesday I went down to Wall St.  It was raining.  It was quittin' time.  Office workers dodged each other beneath scaffolding that has become permanent in the area.  As I crossed the street near St. John's chapel, I looked to my right.  There it was:  the new building, glistening with modernity.  The bottom nineteen stories were lit up with pink lights.  The stories above twinkled with white lights and rose up, up, up, until they disappeared into mist so thick it was impossible to see how many stories lay above. 

People had tied hundreds of white ribbons to the fence in front of St. John's Chapel.  The Remembrance Wall, a sign said.  It bothered me.  These prim and proper white ribbons were too clean, too crisp, too planned.  Nothing like the impromptu walls of remembrance after 9/11.  Those held pictures, signs asking after loved ones, mementos, candles, wilted flowers, anything to communicate and share the loss with others.  Those walls had been communal, motivated by the need for mutual support.  Necessary. 

9/11/11 dawned crisp and clear, not unlike the 9/11 ten years ago.  By evening low lying clouds had descended on lower Manhattan.  At 6PM I went to dance class at DNA (Dance New Amsterdam), near City Hall and not far from Ground Zero (after 9/11 DNA relocated to lower Manhattan in support of the area's redevelopment.)  The ceremonies had ended.  There were only a few more pedestrians than normal for a Sunday.  An extra policeman stood at the corner of Broadway.

I did not need to go to class today, but I wanted to be in Lower Manhattan.  I wanted to see the day in a positive way:  a reminder of the importance of taking risks, of folding dance and art back into my life, of really living.  After class, I walked to the "A" on Chambers.  There on my left rose the new building.  From its top two parallel beams emerged and projected "11" into the mist.  I thought, now that is a suitable wall of remembrance: two beams in the shape of the twin towers rising into the heavens and continuing for infinity. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hurrication! And Art Prevails

Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene passed through NYC last weekend.  The TV news broadcast doom and gloom.  Downtown Manhattan will be under six to twelve feet of water! New York hasn't been threatened with a hurricane like this in 100 years!  The subways will be flooded!  Will the Statue of Liberty even survive?  Bloomberg Etc. pulled out all stops.  The subways ceased running at noon on Saturday.  The bridges were supposed to be closed in due order.  There were forced emergency evacuations.  Central Park and The Metropolitan Museum were closed.  It was the first weekend of the Met Opera Live in HD Festival at Lincoln Center, and that was canceled. Even my dance classes were canceled.  Which is sayin' somethin' 'cause Ballet Arts at City Center is like the postal service: they don't close for nuthin'.

Late Friday night I started to prepare. As I lugged a gallon of water up five flights of stairs, I decided to take a Hurrication.  In my neighborhood the only time it's quiet is when it rains (car windows are closed, minimizing bass-osity; and street socializing becomes non-existent.)  So I slept.  And slept.  And slept.  I slept so long that I missed Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.  When I woke late on Sunday morning, there was a light drizzle and a moderate breeze.  The power was on.  And the only evidence of una tormenta was a small leak in my closet, and scattered vegetable debris on the sidewalk.  Bloomberg, I said, you over-reacting numbskull.

But there were downed trees in Fort Tryon Park, and flooding in coastal areas was worse.  Some parts of the city were without power for days.  But for the rest of us, it was business as usual on Monday.  Everyone (those poopers!) showed up to work.  The blue sky thumbed its chin at Bloomberg, as if to say, it's still summer and you can't spoil my fun. 

After work, I went house hunting (more, much more, on this later-- it could fill an entire book).  The Poocherooni came along.  He has a more highly developed sixth sense than I, and at this point I need his help.  After beating the pavement, we drove slowly passed Lincoln Center.  I had checked earlier about the opera broadcast, but the website was mute.  But Monday evening to our joy, there it was:  art broadcast on the big screen.  Poochini lay exhausted on the passenger seat.  I opened the car window.  He sprang to his feet, poked his nose out the window, sniffed, and stared excitedly at the projection of Iphigenie en Tauride over Lincoln Center Plaza. 

I certainly chose the right name for you, I said, as I drove toward a parking spot.  The temperature was just right for sitting outside, the sky overhead was clear.  I bought a gelato and found a seat.  Poochini slurped up my leftover icecream and stared at the giant screen, true to his nature.  It was as if nothing terrible had ever happened.  It was the gift of art to us all.      

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Perfect Pair: Semionova and Gomes in Swan Lake

Some dance performances are so phenomenal that it requires time to fully appreciate them.  On Saturday July 2, I took my usual balcony seat at the ABT.  For weeks I had anticipated Semionova in this performance of Swan Lake. Earlier in the season I had seen her paired with David Hallberg in Don Quijote.  It had been a stellar performance, but the two were missing chemistry, which cannot be invented.  Chemistry is either present or not.  For this performance of Swan Lake, Semionova was scheduled to dance again with Hallberg, and so it was with a certain amount of relief that I opened my program to read that Marcelo Gomes would replace Hallberg in this performance.  Hallberg is an elegantly beautiful dancer, and might well be paired with the graceful Cojocaru.  But Semionova requires the passion and sheer physicality of Gomes.

The magnetism between the two was apparent the moment they stepped on stage together.  Semionova portrayed a heartachingly vulnerable Odette, draping herself in a fluid backbend over Gomes' strong arms.  She shone as Odile, performing the grueling 32 fouettes with flawless precision, showing off her prowess with double revolutions during the first five fouettes.  Gomes confidently matched her stamina, and allowed her to steal the show.  He epitomized the gentlemanly manner of the male ballet dancer, who becomes ennobled by supporting the ballerina and allowing her beauty to shine.  The emotion between the two carried the audience on a wave exhilaration until the final denouement, when Gomes leapt heart and soul after Semionova.  It was the grandest stage fall I have ever seen.  Gomes flung his chest out with all his might.  His legs kicked forcefully behind.  In the drama of that fall, he made the audience believe that there exists a love so profound that it can lead a man to the ends of the earth.

More followed.  The drab, unsatisfying ending in which Odette and Prince Siegfried stand separate but united, side by side in the dawn of the afterlife, was no more.  Instead, Semionova and Gomes embraced.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect performance by a perfect pair.

At the curtain call, Semionova and Gomes smiled with obvious joy about dancing together.  Semionova accepted with grace the customary bouquet of roses (at the end of a ballet performance, the principal ballerina always receives a rose bouquet, but the male lead receives none; the ballerina usually extracts one rose, kisses it, curtsies and hands the rose to her male lead).  Then Semionova broke rank and offered her bouquet to Gomes, who refused with barely concealed embarrassment.  Semionova tried several times to give Gomes the flowers, then outrightly placed the bouquet in his arms.  With school boy charm, Gomes bowed to her and placed the bouquet at her feet.  A few curtain calls later, Semionova and Gomes embraced warmly and kissed on the lips.   If you didn't know better, you'd have sworn they were lovers.  Which is exactly how you should walk away from a performance of Swan Lake:   believing that love can be strong enough to conquer the spells of an evil sorcerer.                       

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cuban Heat in NYC: Alicia Alonso and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba

For over a week, NYC has been gripped by an historic heat wave.  Taking the heat index into account, temperatures in Central Park soared near 110 F.  On my block, all the fire hydrants had been set off.  Gypsy cabs paraded past the torrents of water, taking advantage of the free car wash.  Kids and hooligans doused each other with it.  In my apartment, my taps went dry.  My drinking water was gushing down the street, and wasting in the gutters under the blazing sun.

Times like these make me wonder why I stay in NYC.  That's when I try to divert my attention from life's most recent challenges, when I try to recall New York's advantages.  This time, Alicia Alonso came to mind.  On June 6, I had attended an artist talk featuring her at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I arrived late and weedled my way into press seats just in time for her arrival on stage.  There she sat not twenty feet from me.  She wore an electic blue silk head scarf and a matching silk pants outfit.  She still bore the regal bearing of a prima ballerina assoluta.  As a young ballet student in southern California, a world away from the New York ballet scene, I had read Alicia Alonso's autobiography: how, injured and confined to bedrest for a year, Alicia Alonso had visualized the classical ballets in her head, determined to return to dancing.  Her story had always stayed with me and she had been one of my childhood heroes, something akin to a super hero who only exists in books and on TV. So I could scarcely believe that I was seeing her in person.

One of the doyennes of twentieth dance, Alicia Alonso is a legend in her own time.  At a time when ballet in Cuba was virtually unknown, she became hooked on dance.  She described the attraction as immediate.  From her first dance class in 1931, she wanted nothing more in life than to dance.  Her mother had to force her to take off her pointe shoes so that she would not sleep in them.  She insisted on walking around her Havana house on tiptoe, and her father wondered aloud, will our daughter ever walk normally again?  Apparently not.  She soon outgrew the Cuban ballet scene, and rocketed to stardom in New York where she studied with Alexandra Federova and Jerome Robbins.  She joined the American Ballet Theatre the year of its founding in 1940, and worked with all the greats:  Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, Tudor, Jerome Robbins. 

In 1948, she returned to Cuba to found the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, bringing the world of ballet to the island.  Today, ballet is huge in Cuba.  Alicia Alonso related, "We tour all over the world.  We have a fabulous school.  Today you ask anyone in Cuba, 'Do you know the Ballet Nacional de Cuba?' and you will get a big conversation about which ballets they like best."  Cuban trained ballet dancers fill top positions in the world's preeminent ballet companies, from San Francisco Ballet, to Miami Ballet, to American Ballet Theatre. Alicia Alonso's choreography has been performed by major companies worldwide, including Paris Opera, Vienna Opera, Teatro di San Carlo (Napoli), Prague Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has received several honorary doctorates and numerous international awards, including France's Legion of Honor.

Despite these wondrous achievements, the woman interviewed at BAM revealed many sides, all very human and likable.  She was at times humble, at times humorous and able to poke fun at herself (and others), at times appearing fragile and in ill health, at other times strong and full of ego, and at all times still impassioned by the dance.  When asked about what makes Ballet Nacional de Cuba's style distinctly Cuban, she explained, "It is in the hands.  There is a volume to the hands.  Also, it is in the way we hold the arms. [It is related to Cuban folkloric dance].  Folkloric is soft, not strong, very sexual.  The way we dance ballet has that spiciness between a man and a woman."  When asked if Lucia Chase asked her to change her name to a Russian-sounding one [as a sign of prestige, dancers used to Russify their names], Alicia Alonso replied, "She wanted me to change my name to Alonsov." The audience laughed at such a ludicrous thought.  Alicia Alonso stiffened and straightened in her seat.  She continued with great dignity, "Well don't laugh.  It sounds very Russian.  But it didn't go with me."  Then a long pause, and she concluded proudly, "Alonso. Alicia Alonso.  That is my name."  The audience broke into applause.  A few people stood in ovation.  When asked about Russian influence on Cuban dance, Alicia Alonso gave a long pause as if she could not understand the question, then replied, "Uh... we are Cuban.  Maybe in the lifts, and that is it.  Which is good."  More applause from the audience. Asked which role had been her favorite, Alicia Alonso replied, "My favorite role is dancing.  But I am very much associated with Giselle."

What keeps me in New York?  The possibility of dancing, the possibility of experiencing moments like these, the possibility of being inspired by legends like Alicia Alonso, whose words stay with me:  "I found the world through dancing,"  she said, "This is the most pure way of living, through dancing."


Sunday, July 17, 2011


For the past two months certain segments of the New York population have been gripped with balletomania, all the more intense given the all star lineup that appeared on New York stages this season.

Nursing a nearly broken ankle, I was sidelined from dance class.  So I decided to learn from the pros.

For me the fever started in May with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, rarely seen in the US.  Sulkary by Eduardo Rivero transported me to the Caribbean. Yoruba rhythmns combined with jaw dropping leg strength (deep plies held for impossibly long intervals).  Sultry Latin moves in Horizonte made me want to to buy a ticket to La Habana (I'm writing a letter to Obama-- lift the ban!)  Demo-n/crazy ended with the company holding upside down yoga poses.  Supported on their shoulders, their feet jutted up in haphazard angles.  The crowd remained silent, waiting for one of the dancers to waiver.  None did, so well trained and in control were they.

Then Cuba's classical ballet took over the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  There was an artist talk by founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Alonso (she deserves her own post, one will follow).  A legend who has worked with all the greats (Balanchine, Nijinsky, Massine, Tudor, Robbins, Agnes de Mille), Alonso is now in her nineties.  Though her health is failing, she still has a regal bearing.  I sat in the audience not twenty feet away (press seats!), and could barely believe I was in the presence of my childhood hero.  As a young dancer in the suburbs of LA, I had read her autobiography: how after injury she had spent a year bedbound, unable to dance, practicing all the greats classical ballets in her head (this was before TV). 

This was followed by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba:  excerpts of Don Quijote, Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppelia,  Gottshalk Symphony.  Why did they end with the last?  Because it had Latin rhytmns?  They would have been better served by ending with Don Quijote, the finest rendition of the lot.  I had the good luck of being invited back stage.  I stood near the wings feeling an exhilaration I had not experienced since childhood: the tense nerves and joyous excitement of imminent performance.

Then American Ballet Theatre season started, a whirlwind of world class performances. Ratmansky's Bright Stream, Julie Kent's 25th anniversary performance in Lady of the Camellias, exquisite Alina Cojocaru, guest artist from the Royal Ballet, in Giselle  and Sleeping Beauty (she also deserves her own post, one will follow); fiery, confident, incredibly strong Polina Semionova in Don Quijote (see post:  Polina Semionova we love you at the ABT), and delicate, though still phenomenally strong, in Swan Lake, a performance which was the highlight of the season for me (post to follow).  Jose Manuel Carreno had been absent most of the season, and he gave his farewell performance in Swan Lake on June 30.  Julie Kent and Gillian Murphy joined him in a banner performance, but David Hallberg stole the show with a cunning and devious von Rothbart.  And then there was a suprise appearance by the Bolshoi's Ivan Vasiliev in Coppelia, a performance which I unfortunately missed as it had not been announced earlier in the season.

The Royal Danish was also in town performing Bournonville variations, Giselle, The Lesson, and a scene from Napoli.  Known for nearly unbroken continuation of the refined classical ballet style as danced in the French court, the men of the Royal Danish stole the show with regal bearing, exquisite extensions, and jumps that were showy enough to command the audience's attention, but without ego.

As if my head were not already spinning, the season concluded with the Maryiinsky Ballet (formerly Kirov) of St. Petersburg.  The visit began with a performance of Ratmansky's Anna Karenina, almost universally panned by the critics and with good reason-- the music is too somber for dancing.  I missed Vishneva's performance, but caught Kondarouva's.  Her dancing managed to carry me through to the bitter end.  I left wondering whether time is needed for appreciation of this ballet, but I have my doubts. The Maryiinsky's final performance on Saturday made up for the ill-fated Anna.  It was a double bill of the Little Hump-Backed Horse at matinee, a light-hearted Russian fairy tale that I enjoyed along with the Russian children and round babuskas in the balcony.  And then in the evening:  Ulyana Lopatkina in Carmen Suite!  Fiery!  Sultry!  Sexy!  Ill-Fated!  Formerly banned in the Soviet Union!  I had only seen her in videos, but the power of her dancing extended far into the upper reaches of the house, which is where I sat.

This season will remain with me always.  It brought me joy at a time when I could not dance, and when my living situation had less than to be desired.  Now, back in my Washington Heights apartment, the balletomania still with me, the bass from my downstairs neighbor shaking the floor, my ankle on the mend, I can't wait to get back in the studio.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rare Birds of NYC

In early summer NYC parks come into full leaf.  They dot the city and glisten like emeralds dropped into a wastebasket of concrete and exhaust.  These parks hold rare flea market finds to patient observers. 

Last week, bleary eyed and weary from a recent move into a fifth floor walkup, I took my morning walk in the Heather Garden.  On a bench someone had scattered birdfeed.  Amidst the drab sparrows flitted a fluorescent green and yellow parakeet.  He pecked at the bird seed, oblivious to his beauty, all the more stunning against the brown camouflage of the sparrows.  I approached cautiously so as not to scare him away.  As I neared, the wild sparrows flew away with instinctive distrust.  But the tame parakeet, accustomed to human presence, remained pecking at the bird seed.  I neared to within a foot, yet he did not budge.  Poor creature, I thought, he must have been someone's pet.  And he is doomed.  Such a rare beauty will not last through the harsh winter.

Today as I exited Central Park on W72nd St., I stopped short.  Sitting on a window ledge of one of those magnificent doorman buildings (what do they look like inside?) blazed a powerful red parrot.  He had muscular talons that gripped the ledge securely.  Emerald, blue, and white feathers streaked across his wings.  His eyes had been made up with brilliant blue and white shadow that circled them like a target.  A passerby stood giddily near the great bird while his wife tried to take a photo.  The owner, a man mildly past middle age, said anxiously, don't get too close.  The passerby paid no attention.  The parrot ruffled his wings, and swiped at the passerby with his great hooked beak.  I told you, don't get too close.  He can do real damage, the owner intoned angrily.  The passerby looked sheepish.  His wife hurriedly snapped the photo, and the two rushed off.  I asked, how old is he?  The owner replied, forty-five.  I thought, if I'd been with anyone (bird, beast or human) for that long, I might also become angry when a stranger fails to heed requests for respectful treatment.

That got me thinking about Poochini.  Once, when we were first getting to know each other, we had walked to the Bethesda Fountain.  The pair of swans that used to come through Central Park in early spring were paddling on the pond.  All of the sudden there rose a tremendous squawking and hissing.  A woman's toy poodle had fallen into the water close to one of the swans.  The bird had risen clear out of the water, extending her powerful wings, beating them with fury, and pecking at the poor dog.  The woman frantically kneeled by the side of the pond.  After several unsuccessful attempts she was able to scoop out the dog.  I hugged Poochini closely.  That was when I learned to beware of angry swans.    

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We Love Polina Semionova at the ABT

On Saturday the Boshoi-trained Polina Semionova performed to a sold-out audience at the American Ballet Theatre.  Ms. Semionova was on loan from the Staatsballet Berlin, and was performing as Kitra in Don Quixote.  From the moment she stepped on stage all eyes were glued to her.  Poor David Hallberg and Veronika Part, magnificent dancers both, didn't stand a chance.  We (I speak on behalf of the audience) love Polina.  Why do we love her?  Because she balances unwaveringly en pointe for an unspeakable amount of time in an attitude derriere that she then extends to a lingering arabesque.  Because she spins like a top in so many pirouettes you lose count after eight, when she slides her foot down to a sous-sus as if the stage were ice and she a figure skater.  Because she does double fouettes without using her arms to help her around, but instead sets one hand jauntily on a hip while the other hand shoots straight up with a fan, demonstrating her prowess.  Because, when David Hallberg doesn't get that she really can do more pirouettes at the end of a grueling performance, and stops her after three revolutions, she takes an extra balance just to show she has more in her legs.  Because she's not afraid to show off.  Because she shows what the female body can do when in peak form.  Because she wears a girlish, wide smile that fills the theatre with the joy of dance.  Because she makes little girls spin in circles at intermission (this is a fact, I saw it with my own eyes).  Because she reminds us of the joyful little girl in all of us, the one  who would spin around until she fell down laughing and dizzy, the one for whom anything was possible.