For the New York Observer

Nathalia Arja and Miami City Ballet dancers in Symphonic Dances at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.
Nathalia Arja and Miami City Ballet dancers in Symphonic Dances at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. (Photo: © Sasha Iziliaev)
What a triumph! The Miami City Ballet flew back into town after an absence (other than an appearance on a mixed bill at Fall for Dance) of some seven years. At home in the pit was the New York City Ballet Orchestra, under the swift baton of Gary Sheldon, Miami City Ballet’s principal conductor. I’d say it’s about time, but the timing could not seem better. The troupe—under the new leadership of Lourdes Lopez, gracefully following the founding director Edward Villella, and like him a New York City Ballet principal under George Balanchine—is marvelous.
If you lived in Miami, you’d go see this company regularly, you’d follow them, the way you go to see New York City Ballet here. They have a similar repertory, a similar range, and a remarkably similar ability to project in a lovely grand theater like the David H. Koch, where they were presented by the Joyce Theater. These dancers are ardent, direct, and connected, like both Villella and Lopez, a ballerina whose warmth and calm dazzle made me feel—as ballerinas can do—that she was my ballerina, so that when she entered—on this very stage—I would think, “There’s Lourdes!”
The Miami dancers have lineage, they have a continuity, they have an aesthetic based on a particular dance technique and training. And they are, as everyone in the press keeps remarking, a “company.” What’s so special about that? Well, they put everybody before somebody, dancing across the barriers that can exist between the soloists and the principals, and between the soloists and the corps. They project a kind of group ethos, and among the women—and the women as ensemble are significant entities in two of the three Balanchine ballets they brought here,Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements—a lovely sorority, yet sorority allied with a contemporary sensibility. The women are strong, in a beautiful pliant way. Their arms are richly energized, with an upper body strength that, although they can do decorative things when decorative things are called for, makes them willing partners rather than needy ones. It’s not that they require their partners, but that they enjoy their partners. And the men, in turn, are swell in their band-of-brothers mode, and gallant in cavalier mode. I’m told they all like to stand in the wings watching each other dance, and cheering each other on, and I believe it. That said, there is no shortage of unique talent, and it comes from the top to the bottom. There is a present, and there is a future.
You always want to fall in love at the ballet; it’s one of those things that makes it such a personal experience, even apart from the vagaries of one’s own taste in choreography. And it’s what makes even rather overwrought or otherwise iffy choreography okay to watch. Because you get to watch your special dancers do it. This time around, my affection for the dancing Delgado sisters, Jeanette and Patricia, was reanimated, while I admired Tricia Albertson, Jennifer Lauren, Nathalia Arja and Emily Bromberg, and swooned over Simone Messmer, a ballerina of real grandeur and scope. While the principal men had a lot to offer, I fell for three men in the ranks: Shimon Ito, whose verve blew me away; Chase Swatosh, because handsome is as handsome does; and Ariel Rose, who proved moving and adept in Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields. A real Tharpian!
All the dancers are light on their feet, ready to move in any direction on the instant. They understand syncopation and how to make a downbeat a springboard. They make the most of small details and fancy footwork against large shapes and large spaces. They also know how to run—with intention. They don’t race around. They go someplace. And then they come back. They dance with the fervent motivation that movement itself can supply, and even when their repertory calls for angst, as in Liam Scarlett’s unduly tortured Viscera, they aren’t really—bless them—angsty in the slightest. They’re from Miami, for heaven’s sake. Good weather, the beach, the pool, huevos rancheros for breakfast.
Simone Messmer, Rainer Krenstetter and Miami City Ballet dancers in Serenade, by George Balanchine.
Simone Messmer, Rainer Krenstetter and Miami City Ballet dancers in Serenade, by George Balanchine. Photo: © Sasha Iziliaev)

La plus ça change, la plus ça change....


reposted on Viola Farber's birthday


Merce Cunningham at his studio at  498 3rd Avenue     photo: James Klosty

PARIS--My last conversation with Merce Cunningham was at his apartment. There he graciously held what was in effect a series of farewells, courteous to the end. That afternoon I read this  to him, from the Tao te Ching:

Only he who is willing to give his body for the sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world. Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the steward of the world.

 “This was you, Merce,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

For the past two years, on the Legacy Tour that began after his death,  his dancers have been the stewards of his world--the world of his dances, so various, so richly populated with all manner of beings, and all manner of things, as well.

Over time, Cunningham used his dancers as his every element: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Non-narrative as it may be, his choreography is a kind of story theater, teeming with images composed, in their entirety, by the people on stage at any given moment.
    "Ocean"                                                                                            ©Hugo Glendenning

Over the years, since he began his own company in 1953, there have been over 110 such dancers. They remain in the work in palimpsest, dancing underneath the dancers who have followed them in the roles that were first made for them, or that they inherited and then passed on to others.

There they are, and there they were, and here they are. There have been many Cunningham seasons in Paris. At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, the Théâtre de la Ville, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, at the Palais Garnier, at the Centre Pompidou, in the Cour de Palais Royal,  and then all “autour de Paris” as well.

La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose.

Because here in the coupole studio Robert Swinston is banging a drum and snapping his fingers, and the dancers are tilting and curving in their warm-up part of their class. Some have danced in the company for years, some worked with Cunningham only as members of the Repertory Understudy group. Of everyone in the room, only Robert Swinston danced on stage with him--although here in Paris too is Carolyn Brown, his onstage partner for twenty years. It was here in Paris that she danced with the company for the last time, and almost forty  years later, she is back, visiting old haunts, and revisiting the work she graced.

It is here that the company will dance its last evening of repertory, flying home right after to prepare for a final run of Events--an amalgamation of excerpts from a broad range of work of their own choosing and that of Robert Swinston--at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. They will be disposed on three stages, with runways in between, and the audience free to roam about them. Then it will be over, the clock will strike midnight, and like the glass slipper, only their unitards will be left behind.

These dancers will scatter, as the dancers always have, though never before all at once.  At times especially in his later years it seemed Cunningham regarded them with the same open interest with which he might regard a flock of pigeons. Some would fly away, others would land. Now they will take one last great sweep around the room, and disperse.
         "Beach Birds"   with Michael Cole at front                                     ©Michael O'Neill
These are the bodies Cunningham  used as a painter uses pigment, building up the fluid canvases that were his choreography. Pigment with a will and a life of its own, of course, but perhaps that is just as true for painters, as they step back to see what effect the paint has made with itself. Green has a life of its own, and blue, and violet....

He also used them as elements. For instance, in Cunningham’s  dance called “Loosestrife, “ the dancers were the very plants of the title,  rooted on stage, bending as grasses do. Tilt towards the sun,  bend in the breeze, gone with the wind. In a dance called "Five Stone Wind," one group of people  transmitted a way of moving to another group of people. But wait! Perhaps the dancers are also the stones, and perhaps they are also the wind. Sometimes, of course, they were animals--cats, wild beasts circling prey, and birds, birds, birds. In "Beach Birds," they are the setting, and the creatures within, human and avian alike.
                                 ©James Klosty

Merce was  himself protean--and so he regarded other bodies. He didn’t tell the dancers what they were. He told them what to do. He gave them the movement.

They were free to make things up, if they had the need. As later in the theater, so were we.

But--to use a phrase Robert Swinston, still teaching this class in front of me--uses all the time: Here’s the thing.

Merce knew what they were. When he choreographed his dances, he knew what he had in mind. The work carried his intention in its very architecture and pacing.

Now that we have access to his notes, we can check our selves--see if what we saw in the work is what he put in there. It turns out to have a remarkable transparency.

Take “Ocean”,  a dance which screened here on Sunday, with Charles Atlas in town to introduce this last of his Cunningham films. It begins with a man who enters the stage --which is a perfect circle--and makes an alphabet with his feet and body. A woman enters next, and does the same. Together, they have taught us the language of the piece, but also they have set the tone. They are arriving some place, and they seem to be discovering it, and they also seem to be alone. Who are they? He is Prospero, and she, perhaps, is Miranda.

Look in the notes. It says, “As if washed up on shore.”

Further into the dance--whose couples are dedicated, with the exception of one man (originally and still danced by Robert Swinston) who has a number of partners. One pair is so exceptionally ardent they could break your heart. Originally Frédéric Gafner  (now known as Foofwa d’Imobilité) and Kimberly Bartosik; in the film, Daniel Squire and Jennifer Goggans. At one point, she kneels on the floor, all the way across from him on the world that is the stage. He is turned away from her. She races towards him, her dress floating. He turns just in time, and catches her up in his arms as she wraps her legs around him. If there is something more romantic than this moment in any dance, I’ve never seen it.
Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Ocean" in 2007   (Robert Swinston partial view to left)  ©Hugo Glendinning

LOOK at the notes. “She clings to him for dear life,” it says.

This is what we do. We cling to things. But you can’t cling to dance.

You can hold it in your mind as best you can, you can summon it up from performances past even as it keeps painting itself, night after night in the theater. A continuous canvas, repainting itself.

And now it vanishes.

The work after this week will reside in a kind of perpetual present, or continuous past, in equilibrium, constant, whole, there to be visited in the mind.

                Jeannie Steele in "Biped"                                                             ©Tony Dougherty
And then in whatever performances other companies or projects will offer. Will it be the same? Of course not. Was it ever really? Perhaps not.

One night some time ago, Viola Farber, one of Cunningham’s originals, was in the opera house audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, watching an excerpt from Cunningham's galvanic “Winterbranch,” newly revived for an Event.

     Cunningham in "Winterbranch"      ©Max Waldman

“Was that what ‘Winterbranch’ was like?” I asked her.

“It wasn’t the “Winterbranch,” she replied. "But it was a version of 'Winterbranch,' and it was beautiful." It’s something to think about.

La plus ça change, la plus ça change.

I saw her together with Cunningham one last time after that. He was seated on a bench, cane in hand, in the upstairs lobby at City Center, a theater in New York, and she walked over leaning lightly on her cane. His face lit up, and he reached for her free hand, and kissed it. There they were. Hand in hand, the stewards of the world.
Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham rehearsing "Crises" (1963).  Photo: John Wulp.

 Special thanks to James Klosty and Hugo Glendinning
©Nancy Dalva 2011




  NEW YEAR'S EVE 2011 

New Year's Eve: Jason Lujon courtesy of The Park Avenue Armory
New Year's Day: Leon Dalva

Mirror, Mirror


Mr. B.  |  Merce 

photo: Dave Brullmann, 1978

photo: Penny Brogden, 1973



At the Théâtre de l'Odéon, 1970
Rehearsing "Rainforest" (wearing ankle weights from costume for "Signals")

dancers: Sandra Neels, Chase Robinson, Carolyn Brown
photo ©James Klosty 2011




MERCE CUNNINGHAM, APRIL 16, 1919 - JULY 26, 2009


The sky crackled with lightning that night, the air rattled with thunder, and Merce Cunningham joined with the elements so natural to him: the earth, the sky, the water, and the air. 

Those birds he drew! They could fly as he once could and as, until his last two weeks, he set his dancers to doing. He told me near the end of his life that choreography had become, for him, "a habit of mind." Even as movement was taken from him, his dancers gave it back. So direct, their process with Merce: thought into movement, with nothing intermediary.

In his last months, he was tired; but he was game. He never stopped laughing, at himself as much as anyone or anything. To the end he was  gallant and courteous with visitors, and clear. Always clear, like those green eyes that could look as blue as the sky on a cloudless day.  I asked him this:

"Merce, how is it that without music, without narrative, and with your using chance procedures to remove yourself, to keep from imposing your personality on the movement, that your dances are so passionate?"

"Because, he said, I love dancing!"

portrait of Merce Cunningham courtesy of Hugo Glendinning  ©copyright Hugo Glendinning
Quotations from an interview by Nancy Dalva  ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010, 2013. 2014





This marvelous footage is among my favorite dance films--it speaks to clarity, nuance, phrasing, intention, pacing, detail, the innate authority of the choreographer and his first cast, to grandeur and softness, to romance and what it takes to achieve it. Applicable to any dancer and--in my dream--to any choregrapher. Those familiar with Balanchine and Cunningham will lean forward saying to yourselves, "Yes, and yes." Douglas Dunn is right. Dancing is dancing. Here, cigarette in hand, is the loose-limbed, Bloomsburyish Sir Frederick Ashton. His eyes can hear, and his ears can see.



Appearing this month
June 18-19, 2015
          at the
International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Shubert Theater
New Haven, Connecticut

 originally published in

Happy we!
What joys I feel
What charms I see.

The auditorium lights dim halfway. The band strikes up (the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, under Nicholas McGegan). Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” zings into the house, filled with Mostly Mozart Festival and Mark Morris regulars. The urge to boogie in your seat is fierce. Then, action! The stage fills with dancing. And right away, when the music is sweeping you up in an unconfined surge of joy, the choreographer sends out a nod to his previous great Handel work, and to those who love it: “L’Allegro, Il Penserso, ed Il Moderato,” which you can hear underneath the overture (an echo of “Then Let Hymen Oft Appear,” a tenor aria from the second act). We’re in familiar and beloved territory.

Mark Morris Dance Group. Credit: Ken Friedman.

In the Morris version, “L’Allegro” ends with a surge of dancing. Wave after wave of dancers—duets, trios, quartets—run in from upstage and frolic towards us, only to exit and return again. All of the movement save the fast exits is from upstage to down. Here, in “Acis and Galatea,” Morris begins with similar bubbling waves of dancers, but in diagonals traversing every way but towards us. Then he gives us our “L’Allegro” moment: a quartet joyously advances and then drops to the floor and rolls sideways, with one dancer still neatly upright and sidestepping over the others. The audience laughs—as they will throughout the dance—which has some choice visual pranks, often engaged with the libretto’s text or subtext. Here, there’s a joke and an in-joke.

But this is not “L’Allegro,” and it isn’t Handel. It is not a dance. It is a two-act opera, and a Mozart rearrangement of the original Handel. Besides its clear connection to the Mostly Mozart Festival, this version of the music is fuller yet lighter, racier, less stately, and more dance-y. This score moves us forward in the Morris canon.


PARIS, 1970 

photo: James Klosty

with thanks to the photographer for this beautiful and evocative image




PARIS circa 1900

Did Marcel Duchamp see this aircraft or one like it?

photo: Oscar Bailey

photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Before its accidental shattering and subsequent reconstruction:

photo of Carolyn Brown: James Klosty

photo: James Klosty


(Marcel Duchamp was then 21 years old)



"Chance is the dogma, but look deeper."

                                      Carolyn Brown

"If the dancer dances, everything is there. The meaning is there if that's what you want."

                                       Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham with composer Gordon Mumma in St. Paul de Vence, 1966            

STARTING more than  seventy years ago, Merce Cunningham began to change the way people dance and the people see dancing in the same way that Picasso and the cubists changed the way people painted and the way people see painting.

He took dance apart and put it back together again, leaving out all but the most essential. He stripped dance of conventional narrative; he ordered it by chance procedures he conceived it without music and without decor. He took it out of the proscenium (but later put it back) and exploded the stage picture into fragments. He made the viewer the auteur. The great irony inherent in all this is that only a great storyteller possessed of extraordinary musicality could have stripped away so much and be left with more. Cunningham was able to separate dance from its traditional trappings not because dance does not need them, but because dance--at least in his hands--already had them.

There has been a lot said and written about Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their working method--most of it said by neither of them. But of all of the odd things people have thought about Cunningham's dances over the years, the oddest--including the notion that the dances are in part or whole improvisational (which of course they are not)--have arisen from his use of chance, the most confusing element of the Cage-Cunningham dogma. To some, its use seems flaky. To others, it implies a certain haphazardness, the evidence of the dances themselves notwithstanding.

Cunningham used chance, in some form, at some point (but not necessarily the same point) or points in the making of every dance. While the habit may have originally been inspired by Cage and Marcel Duchamp--friend to both Cage and Cunningham, and Cage's chess partner--two reasons (other than a playful disposition)  for its continuance suggest themselves. First, that Cunningham either did not like to make or at times could not easily make choices, though that is speculation; second, that Cunningham was intentionally--if at times quite minimally--depersonalizing his work in order to open it out to the individual viewer. In retrospect, one can see the choreography getting himself out of his own way, to allow for possibilities he had not encountered before, and to keep himself interested and challenged, with ever new puzzles to solve. Still, his work indelibly bears his signature, and conveys his cast of mind, and temperament.

#Throwback Thursday: Boris Eifman's "Anna Karenina"


Throw Tolstoy From the Train

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg
“Anna Karenina”
New York City Center
May 26, 2005

All good ballets are alike. Each bad ballet is bad in its own way. Or ways. For instance, the ballet Boris Eifman calls “Anna Karenina” is vulgar, meretricious, rapacious, and lewd, a low-brow spectacle cloaked in high brow pretensions. Rather than reminding the viewer of Tolstoy, the author of a novel of the same title, or even of Freud, with whom Eifman seems to confuse him (he notes, in the program, Anna’s “psychoerotic essence"), the work is reminiscent of the MacMillan of “Manon” (though that louche ballet is a paragon of delicacy next to this one) tempered with the subtle elegance of the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s genteel pageantry.

I admit I was vexed with the choreographer going into this, for I have not forgiven him for his portrayal of Tanaquil LeClerq in his ballet about—or I should say, “about”—George Balanchine, made for the New York City ballet for the Balanchine centenary. But I resolved to emulate the open mindedness of Tolstoy’s concert-going Levin.

He, you will recall, is actually a character in the novel, although not in the ballet, where neither he nor his wife Kitty appears (sparing us a childbirth scene). There are, however, some characters in the ballet I could not quite place—for instance, two corps of leather queens and leather goons for whom I searched the novel’s pages in vain upon returning home after the performance. But there, in Part Seven, Chapter V (which would be p. 684 of the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, in the Penguin Classics edition), Levin attends a matinee. “Both pieces were new and in the new spirit,” Tolstoy writes, “and Levin wanted to form his own opinion of them....[he] resolved to listen as closely and conscientiously as possible. He tried not to get distracted and spoil his impression....” Me, too, and it wasn’t easy.

Eifman chooses to set the opening scene of his ballet to the same music Balanchine chose for “Serenade,” the first ballet he made in America, and well enough known to me that I could run it in my mind while watching the Eifman—or to be more precise, I couldn’t not run it. At the opening, a little boy is playing with a train. (The whole thing takes place, basically, in a set that is variations on a train station. A ballroom that sees frequent service is an inversion of it, and the whole thing reeks of foretelling and doom and sexual imagery unknown to readers of the novel, who actually do not know in advance that Anna is going to kill herself, as neither does she.) A beautiful woman in a gorgeous velvet cocoon coat parts her legs and opens her arms, and drops the coat at the exact moment the girls in “Serenade” snap out of parallel position.

I doubt this is a coincidence. Eifman is smart, and Eifman is talented. He is also an extrovert, without any seeming self-knowledge, or indeed a sense of humor. (He is not, for instance, self-knowing in the way Liberace was, though certainly given to flash.) It probably hasn’t occurred to him that but for politeness, one could fall out one’s seat laughing at some of his excesses, like the sex scene where Anna engages erotically with her bedframe, or the one where she drinks a potion like Alice in Wonderland and has a bizarre hallucination in which, seemingly naked (nude unitard, and, let’s not forget, toe shoes),she dances a section of something not unlike Jerome Robbins’s “The Cage,” if Robbins had included a chorus of the damned (also naked). After this, she gets carried off stage, stiff as a board.


"It's obvious he's trying to tell us something. But what?"


                          --from the French cartoonist Voutch

#ThrowbackThursday: Cédric Andrieux's Visual Autobiography (conceived and directed by Jérȏme Bel)


Il est Cédric Andrieux


Cédric Andrieux joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1999 ( after first dancing with  Jennifer Muller). He left in July,  2007 to join the Lyon Opera Ballet. 

On June 20th of that year, on the most beautiful late spring day, The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was on a bus returning  to the city after the outdoor dress rehearsal for a Cunningham Event at Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut.

The long day had been a true fête champêtre, with the dancers sunning on a hill after lunch, and then resuming the long pair of stages connected by a walkway, with the woodland opening behind them like a day dream. On stage, they seemed to have come out of the forest. Just as, In Cunningham's Ocean, they seemed to come out of the sea. 
Cedric Ocean
Cedric Andrieux and Andrea Weber

 IN EITHER ELEMENT, Andrieux could take dominion. He could be Poseidon, he could be Orlando in the Forest of Arden. Just in doing the steps and making them as big as they could be, he could summon up a world. This is the Cunningham magic, and Andrieux was an adept.  
  "I've been in New York for 10 years," he said at the time, "dancing Merce's work for nine years. I didn't think there's anyone else in this city who could bring me to as may levels as Merce did. But I want to dance different characters--which is why I chose Lyon. Because what I need in my career is diversity.""I'm glad to be going back."
"It comes with a sense of apprehension a little bit, because I haven't lived my adult life there. It is mostly a lifestyle choice. I feel at a place where I've done the pieces I wanted to do, and I've done them enough."

 "I leave with no regrets, and I feel very fortunate about the experiences I've had in this company. I feel very at peace, and that's great. I feel very lucky that I got to dance for Merce Cunningham. On top of the experience, he opened so many doors for me. " Andrieux was looking forward to dancing a wide repertory in Lyon, including works by Trisha Brown, Maguey Marin, William Forsythe, and Jérôme Bel. He was moving into an old apartment building with a balcony, a five minute walk from the opera house, and an eight minute walk from "an amazing outdoor market.

Later that spring, Merce Cunningham --named by the French first a Chevalier and then an Officier of the the Légion d'Honneur--would say, "From childhood I always wanted to see France. Not just Paris but the North, South, East, and West of France." And there Andrieux would return.
Derry Swan and Cédric Andrieux


One of his favorite roles was Merce's own in "Suite for Five." He performed a section of it--as if quoting his own earlier performance-- in this "visual autobiography" conceived and directed by Bel, telling the story of his dancing life from his first training in France though his last three years in Lyon.

This was the fifth in a series of pieces Bel describes as "questioning the experience and the knowledge of performers." (The first, about a member of the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, was shown here in its film version at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.)

The winter after Cunningham's death, on a memorial program at the Théâtre de la Ville, Andrieux performed the Cunningham section of his piece.
 Standing alone on the unadorned stage in his practice clothes, Andrieux spoke quietly into a microphone fastened somewhere on his shirt. [There he spoke French; performing in the United States, he spoke in his very New Yorkais English.

'Je m'appelle Cédric Andrieux, " he began.

He was still, modest, plain, and in fact the exact opposite  to what he had been with Cunningham: a master of projection. 

His intensity, his gaze, his ability to appear large in any context--these were some of his qualities dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  He was focused, he was ardent, he was there
And he was completely, compellingly present in this piece too, but not by sending himself out into the house. 
Instead, he drew his audience in. Somehow, he had reversed his polarity. 
In the course of the work, he performs what feel like sketches, very clear, of two of his  Cunningham roles--the "Suite" part he loved, and a solo from "Biped." Without music, without decor, just the steps. 
I hadn't thought I'd see Cedric in this work again, but there he was, drawing it out of his memory of that dancing, and so it seemed, out of mine.

That's a kind of magic, too, an Andrieux magic. Even if you didn't know this work he's danced in before, you could know it then, though the medium of his performance. It stood for itself, as itself. 

  He carries it foward, in his bones, his brain, his heart. Il est Cédric Andrieux.

photos: dressing room, Jamie Roque de la Cruz; Cédric  Andrieux and Andrea Weber in "Ocean," Stephanie Berger; courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust; "Suite for Five," Tony Dougherty, courtesy Merce Cunningham Trust, performance, Herman Sorgelos
 ©copyright Nancy Dalva 2010 , 2014
 originally published in an earlier version in