Something weird happened at the New York State Theater the other night–we slipped through a crack in time. Or was it a crack in space? The event was billed as the “Millennium International Ballet Gala: Stars of the 21st Century,” but it was mostly non-stars of the 20th century dishing up warhorses of the 19th, plus some junk from the 20th. This kind of thing still goes on in certain culturally challenged parts of the dance world: A couple of years ago, I saw an “all-star” spectacular in Russia, in St. Petersburg, but although most of the choreography was silly, we did get a fair look at current Kirov style (and taste). And that same year, in Miami, I caught a group of “Stars of Latin America” flaunting their virtuosity before a mostly émigré and deliriously happy audience. I felt bad for these capable but misguided dancers who had clearly been led to believe that mindless exhibitionism somehow reflects the great days of Russian ballet when Pavlova’s swan died nightly and Nijinsky soared out the window in Le Spectre de la Rose .
But in New York? Today?
The gala program opened with the pas de deux from the last act of The Sleeping Beauty –a sacrificial Susan Jaffe of American Ballet Theater and her last-minute substitute partner, Charles Askegard, were trotted out onto a stage bare of scenery or royal court to make sense of the emotional climax of this great ballet whose prologue and three acts have been leading up to this moment. That they weren’t a disaster, except for a flubbed fish dive, was a tribute to their professionalism.
Then things got seriously awful. Those of us with long memories remember how Maya Plisetskaya, touring with the Bolshoi, deployed her implacable will and extraordinary presence to try to convince us that the Soviet “realism” of Spartacus was something other than Stalinist camp. She didn’t succeed, and neither, the other night, did the unfortunate Anna Antonicheva, dressed like Tarzan’s Jane, and the even more unfortunate Yuri Klevtsov, dressed like Jane’s Tarzan. Their gesturings and posturings, their risibly exaggerated lifts and swoops, looked not only like bizarre remnants from another era but like mysterious artifacts from another art form.
Was this the most ludicrous moment of the evening? Probably. But a nod has to go to Diva , a solo choreographed by Carolyn Carlson, whose work is, I believe, admired in Paris. The only diva present was Maria Callas, whose recording of “La mamma morta,” from Andrea Chénier , provided the background music. To this recording, Marie Agnès Gillot of the Paris Opera Ballet, all in black, emerged from darkness and, moving forward, began discarding pieces of apparel. Remember the Rodgers and Hart song from Pal Joey ? “Zip!” Off came her hat. “Zip!” There went the cape. “Zip!” Goodbye, gloves. Just when things started getting interesting, the predictably anguished and unimaginative solo began. Maybe Ms. Gillot’s Mamma was indeed morta , and she was stripping out of grief; maybe not. What difference did it make? At least we had Callas.
All this was prelude to the program’s true theme: the big, all-out classical pas de deux that Marius Petipa and others once regularly programmed into the final acts of their evening-length ballets, the moment when the stars come out and dance together, followed by his solo variation (barrel leaps and endless turns) and her solo variation (climaxed by endless fouettés ), followed by a whirlwind coda, usually with her diving perilously through the air into his arms. These are audience rousers, and why not, if they’re performed with virtuoso brilliance and real star power? And if there’s one to an evening. We got four –the Corsaire pas de deux, the Esmeralda pas de deux, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, the Don Quixote pas de deux–and none of them was performed with virtuoso brilliance or real star power. The chief drawing cards of the gala–Diana Vishneva and Farukh Ruzimatov of the Kirov–are adept at this kind of thing, but something (an instinct for self-preservation?) caused them to withdraw at the last moment. The honors were left to four pairs of dancers who had nothing in common but grim determination.
The best known of these works is the number from Le Corsaire , popularized in the West during the 70’s by Nureyev and Fonteyn–it’s the one in which he’s bare-chested and in harem pants and has a feather sticking up from a jeweled headband, and ends up stretched out at her feet, arching upward in adoration. Darcey Bussell, the Royal Ballet’s leading ballerina, does many things well, but impersonating a Greek slave girl isn’t one of them. (She also isn’t much of a French prostitute, as she later demonstrated in a snippet from Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon .) What she’s like is a lovely English deb at a garden party who–”Look, Ma!”–can really dance. She’s a kind of Julie Andrews of ballet.
By the time we got to the fourth of the fouetté -ing ballerinas and leaping men, ballet as an art was beginning to seem expendable.
There was one exception to the general nullity of the evening: an actual artist! Lucia Lacarra, a Spanish dancer who for the last three years has been with San Francisco Ballet, was so focused, so quietly in command, so beautiful in the second-act adagio from Swan Lake , that she partially redeemed the entire event. Later she appeared in a standard piece of choreography by Gerard Bobotte to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and–once more impeccably partnered by San Francisco’s Cyril Pierre–she was ravishing. Even the peculiar gala audience (every bit as peculiar as the gala itself) cheered her performances. Of course, they liked everything–except an excerpt from Balanchine’s Apollo : Susan Jaffe and Charles Askegard, together again, were more than adequate, given the circumstances, but they had no chance with the demented fouetté -lovers. Apollo , arguably the greatest ballet of the 20th century, was far too tame for them.
What can explain such an event? The Millennium Gala was the brainchild of Nadia Veselova-Tencer, who, we are told, graduated from the Kirov school and “performed with several major Russian dance companies.” In 1979, she moved to Canada, where she “made a career out of developing the traditions of classical ballet in her new homeland.” (Canada, with its long and honorable ballet history, will be interested to hear that it has taken Ms. Veselova-Tencer to develop classical ballet traditions there.) This is not her first international gala–apparently they’re something of an annual event, having sprouted up in Paris and Cannes in previous years. And I gather that her support, at least in New York, is from the Russian business community. Which would explain the audience–how it was dressed, why Russian was being spoken everywhere, the ecstatic reception of all this dated razzmatazz. And they tell us we won the Cold War!
No doubt Ms. Veselova-Tencer’s heart is in the right place, but she should realize that (a) you can’t have an all-star gala without all stars; (b) you can’t have a respectable dance event with canned music–particularly if you’re charging up to $105 a ticket; (c) you can only run an applause machine so far without appearing ludicrous. Embarrassingly extended pauses before soloists come on to begin their variations, endlessly milked curtain calls, are, to put it gently, counterproductive. And then, of course, you have to have a guiding principle that goes beyond plucking a bunch of disparate dancers from half a dozen companies around the world and sticking them into the most clichéd repertory imaginable. To add insult to injury, the evening’s playbill sported the cover for the New York City Ballet’s current season. The company should consider suing for slander.