October 10th, 2015

The very extraordinary Anthony Dowell

Anthony Dowell was a British dancer of rare qualities. I write “was” because, although he’s still alive, he’s in his seventies. But those who saw him in his heyday—and that includes me—remember.

Dowell wasn’t known for bravura technique, although his technique was certainly strong enough. He was never showy, unless it’s “showy” to demonstrate elegance and lyricism with every move. His line was simple, clean, and uncluttered, and his musicality was never rushed or hurried.

In this variation for Siegfried (otherwise known as “the Prince”) from Act I of “Swan Lake,” the choreography has never appealed to me. It’s painfully slow—and I mean painfully, because it requires tremendous concentration, control, and strength to create a legato line that’s so drawn out in time. The dancer can’t hide under flash; he is completely exposed, and nothing can be jerky or harsh. Dowell turns it into a tour de force of style and acting; his every movement expresses some understated emotion with the utmost refinement and introspection. Dowell dances as though for himself alone, lost in thought, and he manages to express the yearning and vague enuii the prince feels as he is on the brink of something, although he knows not what. We know he is about to meet his tragic destiny—as was Romeo before the ball, poised on the edge of a similar moment:

…my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels, and expire the term
Of a despisèd life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail. On, lusty gentlemen.

Next is a recent clip of Dowell coaching Royal Ballet dancers in the same ballet. This section they are rehearsing is at the very end of the ballet, where the Prince and the Swan Queen fight the magician’s power and choose to commit suicide together (I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know, if you know anything about Swan Lake at all). Dowell’s coaching isn’t about the steps, it’s about the emotion, the timing, the phrasing, the mime, the emphasis, the connection between the two characters. There’s not a moment that’s careless or thoughtless; every motion expresses something. Here Dowell works just as hard as the dancers, maybe harder, to create a great work of art, and I think you’ll agree that he succeeds. It’s one of the finest examples of coaching I’ve ever seen:

And here is Dowell in his prime, dancing this same section with the great Natalia Makarova. You can see the moves he talked about years later when coaching—how he hangs onto his lover, how he almost never lets her out of his sight, how they pull at each others’ hands. The boat at the end represents their ascension to heaven, by the way; it doesn’t mean they survived and took a ride on the swan boats at Boston’s Public Garden:

6 Responses to “The very extraordinary Anthony Dowell”

  1. F Says:

    Oh dear, neo: how to put this delicately?

    “although he’s still alive, he’s in his seventies”

    Ahem. yes indeed, there are a few people — more than a few, in fact — who are still alive into their seventies. Some of them even read your blog and comment on it!

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    F:

    Meaning—he’s not dead, but he’s not dancing the Prince any more.

    I still think he’s great.

  3. F Says:

    N:

    I understood. Just wanted to have fun with your wording. F

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    I think you’ve made more posts about ballet than I’ve written about martial arts and swords combined.

  5. Fausta Says:

    So expressive and at the same time impeccable. A real master!

  6. Susan Brisson Says:

    I love all types of behind the scenes info! I studied enough ballet to know how difficult it is and they make it look easy! Plus, where can I get one of those beautiful peacock capes!

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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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