Jack Ferver’s I Want You to Want Me, presented at the Kitchen by the American Dance Institute, deals in the overlapping nature of the gothic and the queer in classical ballet. As Peter Stoneley contends in “The Queer History of Ballet”, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Giselle, and even Sleeping Beauty depend on the supernatural and gothic in order to resolve the narrative. Furthermore, Mair Rigby and other scholars propose the history of the gothic tale as frequently queer in it’s manifestations of collective cultural anxieties. In the popular cinema, The Red Shoes and Black Swan also perpetuate ballet’s affiliation with the supernatural, along with a healthy dose of camp and various queer readings. With that being said, I Want You to Want Me arrives with a fertile lineage of history.
I watched the piece with an interest in Ferver’s use of camp and curiosity regarding use of text and choreographic structure. Stylistically, the piece depends on an overt self-aware theatricality that Ferver and his cadre of excellent performers (Reid Bartelme, Barton Cowperthwaite, and Carling Talcott-Steenstra) deliver with unbridled glee. I Want You to Want Me succeeds in both lampooning and honoring the conventions of ballet as well as historical and contemporary narratives of the ballet dancer’s plight.
This narrative finds an American ballerina (Talcott-Steenstra) making her way into the European company of Madame M (Ferver) and her sidekick (Bartelme) where she encounters a hunky love interest (Cowperthwaite). As with most gothic tales, love leads to horror and eventually a few dead bodies.
Mr. Ferver’s portrayal of Madame X relies heavily on quotes from Martha Graham (“we have so little time to be born to the instant” and others) which I found interesting. While Graham certainly holds the dramatic flair and over-the-top tendencies to serve Mr. Ferver, her status as an American (Madame X is also American) renders her outside the lineage of classical ballet. Perhaps that’s part of the joke. Madame X speaks in hilarious pronouncements and ridiculous French. She’s certainly a diva, but not really a ballet dancer, not really European, and…played by a man.
The actual choreographic material depends heavily on balletic quotes. I recognized a few references to Balanchine (a grande battement into a hinged lunge with pelvis jutting forward and the arch of the foot exposed) which I also find curious as Balanchine worked mainly in a form of ballet modernism that avoided narrative and the supernatural. The costumes (gorgeous use of shape and fabric by Reid and Harriet Design) also play out in black and white, which Balanchine frequently employed. Madame X does end up in a white variation with a glittering red appliqué on a shoulder when things get nasty at the end. The plot adheres to the tragic ending, yet Ferver subverts this through an insidiously celebratory duet for himself and Bartelme danced to Arca’s hypnotic “Sever”.
Find Brian Siebert’s (one of my favorite dance critics) thoughts in NYTimes here: I Want You to Want Me
In A Queer History of the Ballet (2007), Peter Stoneley charts out preliminary studies into the historically queer aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century ballet traditions. Stoneley strategically chooses his time periods and subjects to simultaneously tease out and excavate the de-stabilizing, radical, and queer aspects of his studies, rather than provide a comprehensive and wide-sweeping account.
I found Stoneley’s most interesting writings to be his inquiries into the figure of the fairy, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and the emergence of queer modernity, the queer usage of the prima ballerina, and his reading of Swan Lake.
One of the most interesting aspects of Stoneley’s research is the way in which he sets up Frederick Ashton’s creation of Margot Fonteyn. Ashton’s transformative experience of seeing the legendary Pavlova dance in his youth is correlated to his work with Margot Fonteyn. Fonteyn became an international ballet star in large part to Ashton’s choreography and coaching which was drawn from and fueled by his infatuated memories of Pavlova and the idea of her hyper-femininity. The dancing ballerina is not a “woman”, but an abstraction of femininity that has been pressed through the sieve of an enraptured man. Stoneley explores this queer relationship quite fully and opens up an important area of scholarship.
Stoneley uses just enough theorists (the usual suspects: Butler, Bersani, Edelman, Foucault, Mulvey, Sedgwick) to bring an academic heft to his writing, without drowning in it. I found it and incredibly enjoyable and immensely interesting read.
Nancy Buirski gives us a beautiful, heart-wrenching film documenting the life, love, and work of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clerq. A muse to both Balanchine and Robbins, Le Clercq contracted polio at the height of her dancing prowess. Although she survived, she lost the use of her legs and lived the rest of her life in a wheelchair. A captivating presence, Tanaquil Le Clercq haunts the film through archival performance footage, interviews with colleagues and friends, and the various letters she wrote and received.
I was completely engrossed in this film. All of the interviews are wonderful, but I found Jacques d’Amboise’s accounts particularly earnest and poetic. He recounts how all the dancers lined up to get the polio vaccination before going on a European tour, and Tanny stepped out of line, opting to wait, fearing the side effects of the shot would make the flight to Europe too uncomfortable. Arthur Mitchell recounts how further into the tour, Tanny complained of feeling miserable and stiff all over.
At times the film became a hard to watch for me. Memories of my own injury in Europe, having to leave my company, and wondering if I would ever dance again began to flood my mind as echoes of this experience surfaced in the film. Jacques d’Amboise reaches into the heart of the matter when he asks who a dancer becomes when they are unable to dance. To have dancing wrenched from a dancer’s life unexpectedly is a peculiar type of tragedy.
Arthur Mitchell’s extending of a teaching offer at Dance Theatre of Harlem to Tanny provides a certain resolution. How wonderful for the students at DTH to learn from Tanaquil, one of the great ballerinas of the 20th century. Arthur Mitchell attributes the technique and performance of DTH star Virginia Johnson to the tutelage of Le Clercq while we are treated to clips of Johnson’s brilliant dancing of Mitchell’s Creole Giselle.
AFTERNOON OF A FAUN Trailer:
Dance documentaries provide new insight into events we may have heard or read about, but allow us to participate and understand more fully the experiences that have shaped the dance community. Another recent dance documentary I’m not sure I mentioned earlier is Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter, which documents the life of Martha HIll. I was treated to a viewing of this brilliant film while at ADF this summer. It really illuminates many aspects regarding the genesis and development of modern dance training in the United States in ways that I had not previously thought about. Trailer is below, enjoy!
The iconic Met chandeliers
Tonight I attended ABT’s La Bayadere at the Metropolitan Opera House. I had seen this version of the ballet a few times before, but forgot how much storytelling goes on at the beginning. I especially enjoyed the scene between Nikiya (A. Cojocaru) and Gamzatti (M. Copeland). The interaction was taut with theatrical drama, and just enough opulence to make it very enjoyable. I could watch them simply walk and stare each other down all evening. The women confronted each other with urgency and commitment, which I always enjoy. The famous Kindgdom of Shades scene was executed respectfully by the corps de ballet. I counted 24 dancers that were dived into 4 horizontal lines of 6, 3 horizontal lines of 8, and 2 perpendicular lines of 12. This happened beautifully after that long and luscious serpentine diagonal crossing that slithers across the stage about 4 times before dispersing into more square formations. The corps de ballet really danced as one unit, and it was beautiful to behold such sophisticated simplicity executed so truthfully. H. Cornejo was in wonderful form as Solor. Turning, jumping, and lifting in the most admirable way. The Golden Idol is usually one of my favorite moments, but something about the dance failed to ignite the sense of majesty and wonder that I recall having upon seeing it in the past. Everything was in working order, but nothing impressed about this soloist. Alina Cojocaru really stunned in her final solo during the wedding scene. Especially gorgeous to behold were a series in which she lowered onto one knee, with the other leg extended diagonally to the floor as if in arabesque. She’d hit this shape and then melt achingly further into the ground in a way that I found tragic and beautiful.
Of course certain elements of classical ballet, and specifically La Bayadere stir up questions regarding the politics of representation and approproiation in my head. La Bayedere is a primarily Russian creation of a French dance language based on an Indian story. What to make of the Indian-esque gestures and costumes that have been appropriated and implemented into the technique and style of classical ballet? I wonder what a classical Indian Odissi or Kathakali dancer would think of this ballet. Is La Bayadere embedded in layers of misogyny? Nikiya is a slave with no agency and Gamzatti nearly kills her in order to keep her man, the valiant Solor. Is the sometimes pliant and quivering, sometimes stiff and erect ballerina a representation of the phallus? At any rate, I enjoyed the evening as a witness to the spectacular artistry and technique brilliantly executed by ABT in this performance of La Bayedere at the Met.