You know you’re standing next to a writer when: their stance is unassuming, their posture is hunched, and when they move it’s only after hours of being in one spot either typing furiously, day dreaming earnestly, or working out that writer’s block by playing yet another game of computer solitaire. (Hey … don’t put it on the computer it you don’t want me to play it!)
You know you’re standing next to a dancer when: their stance is elegant, their posture is perfect, and when they move it’s by way of a grand jeté, or pas de bourrée. Even when they’re waiting to move, they somehow seem to be shimmering.
Sigh. By definition if you’re reading this then I must be writing it … so I fall into the first category. I was born with a writer’s build: short and squat; good for hunkering down for hours (days if necessary) crammed into a small spot, moving as little as possible and living off my own God-given insulation … goodness knows I could hole myself away and write the great American novel and never starve, just give me some chilled beverages (caffeinated if possible, please) and I’m good to go. Maybe that’s why dancers fascinate me. To see what a body can be when it’s in its most perfect state, and then to further that … to see that perfect body used for artistic expression is to see glory magnified one hundred fold.
Dancers inspire phrases of poetry and music; they are lithe and limber, they flutter and float, they’re graceful yet powerful, muscular yet ethereal. They leap and fall, tumble and stumble intentionally, no movement unnamed: cabriole, entrechat, pirouette, arabesque. Yet a dancer without a choreographer is like a violin without a bow; although the possibility of beauty is there, it takes one to awaken that beauty and bring it forth in the other. Without the choreographer bringing the dance to life, there would be no progression in the art of it, no influence of one dancer upon another, no innovation of movement, of interpretation, no distinction of what it means to be a Dancer versus someone who dances. Certainly, the joy of the human spirit can move the body. But only the choreographer can move many bodies as one. Choreography gives structure to the innate birthright of movement itself.
Aside from a Swing Dance class I took one winter around ten years ago, the closest I ever got to a real dance studio was through Debbie Allen (And here’s where you start paying … in SWEAT!) … and half the time that FAME dance class was only the backdrop for some juicy exchange of gossip, or the set up for some mean-girl type stunt. In real life, girls like me don’t get to climb those stairs and enter that room; If we want to know that world, we have to buy a ticket to A Chorus Line and marvel at it from the orchestra section. We don’t get to blur the lines and step onto that hardwood floor and feel it vibrate as gravity defying leaps give way to synchronous landings.
Well, last night, that all changed. Last night I got to do something I never thought possible; I got to sit next to choreographer Seth Gertsacov as he led his corps de ballet through a rehearsal of his new piece entitled Ballet Verite which will be showing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on March 9 and 10. He was kind enough to let me come and sit in on one of his rehearsals to see first hand all the hard work that goes into bringing a vision like this to life. Mr. Gertsacov started out many years ago as a professional ballet dancer and now is using his talents as a choreographer to continue his artistic vision; every step aligned with every note, every note metered out to a part of his story, and all of it the culmination of years of hard work, results of chances taken, decisions made based on a strong belief in his gift.
Entering the dance studio was intimidating to me — was there a protocol? Should I take my shoes off? Is there a secret handshake? I had nothing to fear, however, for within moments, the man himself immediately broke from directing his dancers and took a moment to introduce himself, find me a good place to sit where I could see all the action, and made sure I was settled in before returning to rehearsal. I introduced myself to pianist LeRoy Johnson who was accompanying the dancers for some of the pieces for the show. For the first half hour I just sat back and took it all in. Even to my untrained eye the framework of it all quickly became obvious and I watched different collaborative pairings; if the dancers felt a phrase of music was faster than they’d rehearsed it before, they discussed slowing it back down; dancers huddled together reviewing certain steps, they conferred as to which arm movements went with a certain phrase of music; and the movements had names, french names, that sounded beautiful and looked elegant and to my eye looked virtually the same but to them made a world of difference … the way, to me, a semi colon and a comma impart two totally different emotions. I was in awe.
I watched the dancers rehearse several pieces, all set to different styles of music, all conveying different emotions and meant to bring a different story to life, yet all coming together under the collective style of Mr. Gertsacov who reminded me of an orchestra conductor and theatre director wrapped up in one. I watched a dance between a Princess and her slave girls set to Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico followed by Mephisto Waltz by Franz Liszt and then the mood took a departure … a lively, fun dance set to Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes followed by a stirring ensemble piece to Seeger’s We Shall Overcome. When the dancers took a break I was able to chat with Seth for a bit about how this show came to be, and what he hoped to bring to the audience.
Seth began by explaining how he’d come to call his piece Ballet Verite; how the name suggested the idea of trying to find the truth of human identity within the ballet form, using classical ballet steps woven into music that isn’t normally found in ballet. “Pete Seeger stands for what I stand for, ” he said thoughtfully, “and I wanted to introduce that to the audience.” He told me more about Mephisto Waltz, how it was about regret. “Regret,” he repeated, nodding his head, trying to make sure I understood, “You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced it. I want to show through this dance, the two lovers, the great love they have for each other, but they have to separate and they die alone. The dance is about not knowing what you had till you lose it …” his hand moved through the air in front of him as if echoing the path of something just out of reach, and I was reminded that this was a man more comfortable using movement to convey his thoughts, as I’d seen him just moments before, giving dancers the movements to speak for him; to tell his story. It was all very powerful.
We talked about his life, for of course you can’t choreograph a ballet about truth, regret, and loss unless you’ve had a few miles of road behind you. It was almost philosophical, and of course, that’s the beauty of telling a story without words, the movements are up for interpretation and can transcend all ages, all races, all colors and classes. Dance is the art form that relies on the one thing we all use to communicate at our basest level. Seth told me how knowing he could reach people as deeply as they were willing to be reached made it important for him to imbue every step with the echo of the joy he found in doing what he love most in the world. “When you have a real passion for something,” Seth said to me, “it’s a waste not to pursue that. In my life I’ve learned that money doesn’t equal the joy of doing what I love. And that’s what I want to show the audience. I want to give a fun evening to people that also transcends our differences. I want to bring back the connection between the dancers and the audience”.
Soon Mr. Gertsacov had to get back, but now he invited me to sit next to him up front by the mirror to get the best view of the dancers. Sitting there, watching a show take shape before me, but watching so much more too … watching a man doing what he loved to do, and doing it with joy was an amazing moment. I was allowed a glimpse of a choreographer’s vision, from his vantage point. I got to be part of his process.
All too soon it was over, and for the dancers it was just another exhausting rehearsal that had come to an end. But for me … well, I got to see the truth of it all for just one night. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about? The truth?
For more information about Ballet Verite visit www.balletverite.com.
Tickets are $25; two performances only: Monday, March 9 at 8pm; Tuesday, March 10 at 8pm.