Can ballet come alive online?

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Can ballet come alive online?
Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen in the New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s “Diamonds,” Sept. 19, 2019. The two major companies usually at Lincoln Center at this time of year, American Ballet Theater, which would now be celebrating its 80th anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera House, and New York City Ballet, which would just have finished its season, have reimagined programming for your screens. Erin Baiano via The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Sara Mearns wavered for a millisecond during a supported pirouette in George Balanchine’s “Diamonds,” my breath caught in my throat. I forgot where I was: in the kitchen drinking coffee on a rainy Saturday morning.

I cherish performances by Mearns and Russell Janzen, her partner, but I didn’t think “Diamonds,” which New York City Ballet streamed in May, would be the ballet to sweep me into the sensation of liveness — losing track of time, the chills, the whole nine yards.

Up to that point, little that I had seen online affected me so palpably. And while I admire “Diamonds,” it can feel distant, with a thin performative line between poise and anguish. That it felt authentic was a relief because, like it or not, video is our reality now.

As spring seasons are lost and debuts and premieres erased, ballet companies have been releasing digital content at breakneck speed. The two major companies usually at Lincoln Center at this time of year, American Ballet Theater, which would now be celebrating its 80th anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera House, and New York City Ballet, which would just have finished its season, have reimagined programming for your screens. Quality varies.

But digital programming doesn’t just mean a straightforward performance. Before the coronavirus pandemic, ancillary experiences like discussions, open rehearsals and lecture-demonstrations tended to fall under the category of donor-friendly fare. They scratched the surface or seemed overly staged.

That has changed. Now when extra content with substance and depth is added to the mix, it helps to bring a dance to life through accumulation, immersion — especially with artists guiding the way.

A podcast places a dance in broader context; a tutorial shows a ballerina dancing her heart out — and faltering, too — in her apartment. Taken together, this braiding of forms may not create the feeling of a live performance, but it generates an authentic excitement: It paves the way for remembering that spirit of aliveness.

When watching a dance, you’re faced with two choices: to daydream or to pay attention. In recent weeks, more than the companies it has been the dancers — their resiliency is astounding — who have given me reason to pay attention, from their online classes to their interview segments.

I can’t get enough of Megan Fairchild’s YouTube channel. A principal at City Ballet, Fairchild is working her way through the dance world with her informal talk show: It’s not only of the moment, but it reminds me of her glorious dancing: fast and seamless, full of intelligence and wit.

Dancers are opening up their world and their art — to you. Isabella Boylston, the Ballet Theater principal, is teaching variations. In her apartment. For you.

“Variations with Bella,” which like Fairchild’s interviews, is on YouTube and separate from her company’s digital season, is another lively program to come out of the quarantine. In life and in her dancing, Boylston is full of casual joie de vivre; where classical interpretations in story ballets can lean toward melodrama, she lends them a fresh, carefree modernity. In an Instagram post featuring “La Esmeralda,” she substituted a frozen pizza (wrapped in plastic) for a tambourine.

You’re not in a lecture hall; you’re in her kitchen. But she’s not joking around as she demonstrates her variations and shares — slightly out of breath — details from coaches, as well as her own opinions. For “Giselle,” she stressed that it should look natural. “You’re a peasant girl,” she said. “You haven’t gone to dance school. You just taught yourself, basically.”

Her series shows more of what makes Ballet Theater distinctive, unfortunately, than any of the company’s official digital offerings on its website. Ballet Theater is struggling to find an imaginative digital voice. It can be puzzling. And it can be downright strange. During its recent digital gala, the company compared the coronavirus pandemic to “Swan Lake.” As ambulances wailed past my window, the analogy seemed dubious at best. The logic had something to do with a heroine’s ability to push through her fears and hold onto hope. Is “Killing Eve” about the coronavirus, too?

Arts organizations are hurting, and no one can blame Ballet Theater for going ahead with its gala: Money is needed. But its hourlong presentation last month felt more like a branch of its marketing arm than a company taking a stab at making art online. There was more talking than dancing — and too many awkward toasts from well-wishers like Al Roker, Katie Couric and Jennifer Garner.

I wasn’t expecting much under sheltering-at-home conditions, but the gala was trivial — and sad. Throughout the program an unspoken question persisted: Is Ballet Theater essential in the age of a pandemic? Is ballet?

Clearly, of the two big New York companies City Ballet has an advantage: It has been able to stream works in their entirety this season because it already had a process in place. About 10 years ago, the company negotiated with its unions to have broader promotional capabilities, including filming some performances for its social media channels.

Ballet Theater is not in the same position. Union issues and licensing rights prevent it from broadcasting performances that were recorded for programs like Live From Lincoln Center and Dance in America, although negotiations to secure rights for some of those are in progress. The company’s archival recordings, shot from the back of the house, are regarded as records of performances and the quality is not ideal.

But that isn’t the only reason Ballet Theater isn’t getting the job done right. What sets the company apart — its arsenal of story ballets, its emphasis on acting — is also what can make it seem stuck in another time: the dusty glamour of the 1980s. A digital discussion about the female roles in “La Bayadère” with Boylston and the former principal, Cynthia Harvey, was telling. Harvey, who played the original Gamzatti, spoke about being inspired by Alexis on “Dynasty.”

Now it’s basing much of its digital output on reliving memories. In a recurring video feature, dancers and staff look back at performances at the Met. In one, Susan Jones, the principal ballet mistress, explains the plot of “La Bayadère” while pictures pop up, decorated with cartoon emojis of hearts and tears. It undermines the seriousness of the art form.

But City Ballet has created a universe for its ballets. In addition to showing complete works, there is its weekly podcast, often hosted by dancer Silas Farley, which started before the pandemic and improves each week; and City Ballet Essentials, a series of movement workshops that focus on specific works.

For one about George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” the principal dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring spoke about the ballet — including how Balanchine was influenced by African American vernacular dance, which is not the sort of thing you see in program notes, but should. Danchig-Waring led a barre warmup to get participants, he said, “settled in their bodies.” Then he taught choreography, one phrase at a time.

It was not only detailed and serious, it was somehow holistic. Danchig-Waring, with his stellar direction, was not facile; the workshop was predicated on the mind-body connection and it had a clear result: To get inside of the dance.

My “Diamonds” experience was enhanced by a pair of podcasts in which Farley interviewed former principal Merrill Ashley and Mearns. Each was strangely thrilling. Ashley cried out as she described the dynamism and speed of the finale: “You can’t believe he could have built it any more,” she said, referring to Balanchine, “and he does!”

The ballet's overwhelming mix of beauty, complexity and power, she continued, “just hits you in your soul somewhere.”

And Mearns’ impassioned play-by-play of dancing the ballet — what she is feeling, thinking in every moment — made the performance come to life again. In preparation, Mearns and Janzen had worked with Suzanne Farrell, the original lead; Mearns spoke about how Farrell changed penchés — when a dancer tilts forward while extending the back leg — into arabesques and told them that in “Diamonds,” the spatial pattern was about etching diagonals and angles onto floor in the shape of the actual jewel.

She also told them not to try to be as big as Tchaikovsky. “You’re not going to win,” Mearns said, recalling her words.

Were those changes part of the reason their “Diamonds” was so breathtaking? To a certain degree. Beyond that, though, I know that the ballet will mean something more to me after the pandemic; more than its outward beauty, I’ll feel its essence, and that’s because of digital programming.

But it was also about Mearns and Janzen’s approach: calm and internal. We had to lean into them; they were more in the moment — in their moment — then they were performing for us.

During Fairchild’s YouTube interview with Mearns, she spoke of how present her friend’s dancing is. “I don’t know if you know what you do, but it’s like everything has such a care to it,” Fairchild said. “And it’s almost like you don’t just step. It’s with such care. It’s almost like you’re dancing on glass.”

Is it that authentic care and purpose transcend a screen? In the end, it’s not just the ballets we’re missing, it’s the dancers that make them come to life. Janzen and Mearns, Fairchild and Boylston don’t just bring their bodies to the stage. They bring their being, their light, their minds — the way they move through the world when they aren’t dancing. And they have never been more essential than now.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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