A Great Program

26 February 2005, 2 p.m.: I’m sitting high up in the fourth ring of the New York State Theater, waiting for the lights to dim. An amiable, passionate man is pointing at names in his program, and regaling me with stories and gossip about dancers and choreographers. He’s so enthusiastic that he keeps saying “holy crap” and “un-fucking-believable” when describing a dancer he particularly loves. “We’ve got such a great program today,” he’s saying. “Everything is here. We’re so lucky and privileged to live in a place that has this sort of thing.” I don’t mention that I’m a tourist.

Thirty minutes earlier, I had gravitated towards an elderly Brooklyn woman who was yelling something at me. I must have a friendly face; cranks always feel comfortable unloading on me. After a liturgy of complaints about her legs, her children, the lack of handicapped seating in the theater’s lobby, and the security guard who wouldn’t allow her to sit on the steps leading into the theater, she told me that she’d been coming to see the New York City Ballet for over thirty years. Thirty years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. She was funny as hell, and I was glad to listen to her. She was genuinely thrilled to be seeing yet another dance, even if it meant a long subway ride and security guards who got “fresh” with her.

I looked around me. The lobby crackled with conversation, smiles, and bonhomie. There were balletomanes everywhere. In most places, the average adult doesn’t know what a balletomane is, much less that dance aficionados actually exist. It seems mildly juvenile for an adult to be passionate about such a thing. Two years ago, I would have agreed. Dance is not something widely appreciated by straight, black men. Snoop Dogg doesn’t name-check Arlene Croce.

But here I am, mashed into a small seat in the nosebleeds, talking with this excited man, listening to the creaks of musicians tuning their instruments, and waiting for the curtain to rise on my first ballet since junior high. The “great program” features Shambards (music by James MacMillan, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon), Apollo (Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine), and Glass Pieces (Philip Glass, Jerome Robbins).

The lights dim, and Shambards begins. The curtain rises on a group of eight dancing in unison to joyful, if fragmented, music. Then, a couple emerges from the group, in a duet of undulating, insinuating beauty that defies the group‘s movements. Gradually, the group mimics the couple’s moves, trying to either purge them from the stage or absorb them back into the fold. The bright, cheerful music becomes more sinister; the couple succumbs to the group. The music and lighting become intensely dark. Another group of eight appears. Again, the couple resists and is thwarted, this time more aggressively as the group circles around the duo and blocks their path.

The hive disappears as two dancers, Miranda Weese and Jock Soto, come forth. Weese is pale against Soto’s hale skin, and she’s as slack and stiff as a corpse. Soto slings her around forcefully, trying to shake life back into her. Gradually, her limbs become buoyant, and they perform a duet that’s lovely and haunting. It’s joyful, but she still occasionally slips into unconsciousness. Finally, after a long pas de deux, Soto slings her around for a final pirouette and, instead of curling back into his embrace, she tumbles hard onto the ground. The fall is so harsh and startling that, for a moment, I think it’s an accident. But no. It’s too sorrowful and stylized for that. He tries desperately to revive but it’s too late. Fade to black.

When the stage is once again lit for the final segment, we see two groups line-dancing to Celtic music and steps that could have come from The Riverdance. Weese and Soto return to reprise their theme. Again, Weese falls dead, and the curtain lowers as Soto drags her mournfully away, and a harsh red lighting tone swaths over the stage. He’s dragging her into Hell.

I can’t possibly say what it was about, and don’t care—it floors me. An intermission. I notice several groups of women who have come without spouses—a girls’ day out. The women next to me argue amiably about whether Sideways was overrated. (Yes, yes, it was.) A black woman and her very attractive daughter chat about nothing in particular.

Then, we’re back, this time for Apollo. Maybe it’s the solid blue backdrop and the fluorescent-white costumes and the blanched white lighting, but this telling of a Greek myth leaves me a little cold. I admire the stark elegance of the solid colors and the pristine fluidity of the steps, but I don’t love them. Still, Apollo’s duets with his three muses are at least engaging.

Another intermission. And then comes the masterpiece: Glass Pieces. I should say, first and foremost, that I’m not a fan of Philip Glass’s minimalism. The endless repetitions of simple phrases, the minute changes in each variation, the synthetic, mathematically precise sound of his arrangements—it’s all too processed for me. That being said, Jerome Robbins’s muscular choreography is the perfect conduit for Glass; the music becomes expressive and emotional when paired with steps.

Part one, “Rubric,” opens on an eggshell-white backdrop, in which a thin-lined black grid superimposed on it. (It looks like an extremely large sheet of graphing paper.) The lighting is stark white, the better to see the corps of at least thirty dancers, all wearing solid tights of different colors: blue, red, peach, green, yellow. Despite the graph-paper backdrop and rigidly structured music, the dancers don’t move with any discernible choreography. They just charge across the stage, taking care not to touch one another. Having spent the past two days on Manhattan streets doing the exact same thing, the onstage bustle was familiar.

Suddenly, though, a man and a woman (both in peach) see each other from afar and, like reunited friends, synchronizes their steps and move towards each other. They dance a short duet, separate, and get absorbed by the crowd. More crowded foot traffic. Then, another couple (in blue) breaks out and dances. Their fluid movement is made even more dynamic by the sharp, disorderly steps of the corps around them. They separate, and move back into the crowd. This happens over and over with different couples, until, on a final chord, the entire corps stops, as if a cold snap had frozen everyone at once. The stage goes black, just like that. The woman next to me gasped.

When the lights come back on for “Facades,” the backdrop is solid blue. Not much else is lit. Again, the music is angular and mathematical. Slowly, a single-file line of women march across the stage in robot steps, parallel to the backdrop. Since they’re unlit, they loom like shadows on the backdrop. They’re just silhouettes, mimicking (or maybe mocking) the music.

Just as I’m being lulled by this gentle calculus proof, a couple in red glides onto the stage, following the sinuous line of a soprano saxophone. This jazzy solo, both musical and choreographic, is a romantic pas de deux, made more so by the shadows behind them. The couple swoops and swings all over the stage. They’ve broken free of rigidity. The piece ends when they leave—they infused the stage with blood, with life. Without them, the piece can’t exist.

Lights go down, again, and come back on to the graph-paper backdrop and bright lighting for “Akhnaten (excerpt),” the final piece. The full corps is back, but everyone is synchronized this time. It’s here that Glass finally allows his music to cut loose. The pounding drums and jaunty strings make the stage pulse. Groups of dancers make shapes—squares, circles, lines. It’s gorgeous to watch, and for the first time I’m glad I’m sitting high enough to see it all. It ends exultantly, with everyone in color-coded order and beautiful steps onstage. The innate fluidity of “Facades” and the rigidity of “Rubric” combine finally to make something—I don’t know what—that overwhelms.

I know I’ve forgotten steps. I’m sure I’ve mislabeled others. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: Coming out of the New York State Theater, I’m looking at human movements differently than I had three hours ago. One man hurtles through a crosswalk, and I’m trying to match his walk with the string section in my head. A relaxed couple weave their way between stopped cars, and I see a pas de deux in the making. The cars honking and screeching seem more choreographed than they really are. The sunlight glances off the snow-wet streets, like golden-hued footlights. I see glimpses of the sky between tall hunks of skyscrapers that I can’t help but think of as huge, glassy curtains. The crowd emerging from Lincoln Center, spilling out into the streets and into cabs, seems synchronized somehow, their footsteps syncopated.

I decide to go back to my hotel the long way, down a stretch of Fifth Avenue, crossing over to Madison Avenue around 45th Street for the hell of it. I see steps and sunlight, rhythm and grace, wherever I look.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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