December 29th, 2012

The same—but not the same

Dances At a Gathering” is a ballet choreographed in 1969 by Jerome Robbins for the New York City Ballet. I saw it about five times with the original never-to-be-equaled cast, and it’s one of my favorite ballets ever.

I haven’t seen it in over thirty years, or with a different group of performers. Maybe it’s just as well; perhaps some things are better left undisturbed in memory. I can’t imagine that today’s dancers could even begin to approach the artistry of that first ensemble, although the newer ones could no doubt exceed their technical prowess.

I wrote that the original cast was “never-to-be-equaled,” but it’s obvious that I have no way of knowing that. Even if I were to finally attend a modern-day performance of the piece, I wouldn’t be able to compare it to the original except in memory, because videos of that first cast are not readily available. YouTube, for example, has only a very short excerpt.

But I did manage to find two relatively recent videos of the man’s solo that I recall as opening the ballet. That dance was originally performed by my heartthrob Edward Villella, but there’s no online video of him in the role.

Villella was very different, both in body type and dance quality, from either of the modern-day dancers who perform the exact same choreography on those two YouTube videos. Villella was short and compact—muscular, masculine, coiled, and explosive. Here’s a still photo (in a different role) that might serve to give you a small idea of his particular gifts:

The two videos of the other dancers doing that introductory solo interest me because of the contrast between the dancers in them. I watched about ten seconds of this first man, Mathieu Ganio, and immediately thought “You haven’t a clue what you’re trying to convey here, do you?” Not that Ganio lacks technique—he certainly knows the steps, and is exceedingly fluid and lyrical. Actually, he’s way too lyrical; the life of these particular steps is simply not there, their intent and style and spirit, their emphasis and timing and color. He’s blanded-out and smooth, there’s not enough emphasis and shading, and he completely lacks the dance quality known as attack.

After a moment of walking, the dance starts with a mazurka-type step that should have a slightly ethnic flavor. But Ganio doesn’t seem to understand what the choreographer is trying to conjure up with that step (watch especially the folksy passage that starts around 1:06 and goes to about 1:40):

Now take a look at Simon Valastro. He’s no Villella, either—he lacks his fire and intensity. But he gets the point of the dance and the music, understands its shadings and emphases and especially its folk echoes. You can see it almost from the moment he walks on, and certainly within a few seconds after he begins to dance. And compare that passage I pointed out above that started around 1:06; with Valastro it beings around :59 and goes to about 1:35:

Maybe I’m being too hard on them. Maybe if I had a video of Villella to compare with them now, I’d see that the passage of time had given his performance more of a glow than it really had, and I’d decide that the current crop of dancers (especially Valastro) are his equal or even surpass him.

And although I doubt it, I wish I had the chance to find out.

Oh, and here’s that clip I mentioned, the one that shows the only bit of the original cast I could find on all of YouTube. It’s this pas de deux with Patricia McBride and Anthony Blum. Is it possible that any human being can be as light as McBride?

[NOTE: Here’s a Village Voice review of the original production. It was all that, and more.]

8 Responses to “The same—but not the same”

  1. David Guaspari Says:

    When I was a young, Edward Villella was the only dancer (aside from Nuryev) I had ever heard of — because Sports Illustrated ran an article about him as a great athlete.

  2. vanderleun Says:

    Wonderful. Especially the last clip. It is as if someone carefully packed a special gift box and when one opens it a perfect gift is discovered within with layer upon layer of meaning.

  3. Julia NYC Says:

    That ballet is such a glorious masterpiece. That original cast was magical. But it’s still a stunning work.

  4. M of Hollywood Says:

    no, no one can be as light as MsBride.

  5. Jim Farley Says:

    I’m not a big baseball fan, but when I bother to spend some time watching a game, I appreciate all of the elements that go into the play. I like to read George Will’s political commentary because I find his insights thought provoking. I delight however, in those times when Mr. Will spends his column space on baseball, whether an historical treatment or a current analysis. His complete love of the game shines through and engages me. For the time I spend reading his words, I too can more than appreciate, but actually love baseball as intensely as he does. It’s elevating.

    I’m not a big fan of dance, but when I take the time to watch and enjoy it, I appreciate the beauty of it and all the work that goes into creating that beauty. I like to read your blog for your political and social commentary because I find your insights to be thought provoking as well. As with Mr. Will’s baseball pieces, I love it when you take some time to write about dance. I like being able to see and know it through your eyes and experience for the all-too-short time it takes me to read through. It’s elevating.

    Thank you so much.

  6. RigelDog Says:

    I’ll add my thanks for your blog in general and your writing about dance in particular. I used to have no understanding at all of ballet, other than awe at the brutal strength and dedication involved. When you describe, compare, and contrast performances, it’s like seeing them in black and white versus technicolor.

  7. njartist49 Says:

    Thanks neo-neocon for the article and video. A Youtube search lead me to this video of Edward Villella giving a lecture on dance. this presentation provides a vital cross-fertilization of disciplines.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    And I appreciate the appreciation of my dance posts. It’s a LOT more fun to write about than politics these days.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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