Only connect: Yearning for the intimacy of a danced, onstage world
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Only connect: Yearning for the intimacy of a danced, onstage world
The New York City Ballet dancer Russell Janzen near his home in New York, April 28, 2021. Janzen misses the physical and emotional closeness forged onstage, which are lost on Zoom and in socially distanced dancing. Jingyu Lin/The New York Times.

by Russell Janzen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the music begins, we start to dance. It’s early April, and for the first time in 13 months I’m rehearsing with a partner in the New York City Ballet studios. Ashley Bouder and I bump into each other as we dance side by side. After more than a year of dancing on our own we’re not used to this sort of closeness.

We’re working on the first moments of George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant” to prerecorded music on my iPhone, while our repertory director Zooms in, her adorable daughter bouncing on her lap. Ashley and I have been tested for COVID twice and we both wear masks. It is a far cry from work as we have known it, but we are back in studios we know, dancing steps we’ve danced for years, and we are holding hands.

The excerpt we are preparing, for a film directed by Sofia Coppola that will be part of the company’s virtual spring gala, clocks in at just 2 minutes and 11 seconds. But this is the longest I have danced with someone else in quite some time, and after running it in this first rehearsal I am winded.

With each breath I suck my mask to my mouth, making it harder still to recover. “I’m smiling!” Ashley says, making sure that the repertory director, Glenn Keenan, and I know that behind her mask she is enjoying dancing again. I giggle breathlessly. I too am happy we’re back but disappointed by how impersonal it feels to dance masked. I had been anticipating that the return to this work would be emotional, precious, but with the quick clip of the excerpt we are dancing, and the fact of our masks, it feels unfamiliar, almost like we’re dancing next to each other but not with each other.

After the onset of the pandemic last year, my life and my colleagues’ lives, like everyone else’s, were radically transformed. Used to gathering in sweaty groups in windowless rooms where we constantly hugged and touched one another out of both choreographic and emotional necessity, we have spent the last year dancing alone in small studios of our own making.

With my portable dance mat I have taken ballet class remotely from the five New York City apartments that I’ve stayed in since March; from my sister’s garage, driveway and deck in Maine; and from my parents’ living room in Philadelphia. In the fall I got to return to City Ballet’s studios at Lincoln Center to dance on my own, and more recently I have been dancing in our studios with small groups of masked colleagues, maintaining our distance and sticking primarily to ballet class exercises. But with the exception of an idyllic bubble residency in Martha’s Vineyard with 18 other dancers in October, it has been some time since I have really danced with my colleagues.

In some ways this time away from the studio and the stage has felt necessary. Groups of us in the company gather regularly on Slack and Zoom to strategize about how to strengthen and reshape our community to prepare for what we hope will be a transformed cultural landscape. And I have had time to properly rehab my ankle, which I injured in fall 2019, and to reflect on what it is about my job and my dancing that is most precious to me.

During this pause, I have often yearned for the space (and strength) to do a coupé jeté manége or thought longingly of the fulfilling exhaustion that overwhelms me as the curtain falls on a particularly challenging ballet. But when I really imagine being able to dance again, two moments always spring to mind. The first comes in the opening section of Justin Peck’s “Rodeo.” Dancers appear in a series of small groupings, rushing to take the stage from each other for short, playful vignettes. When it’s my turn I run full speed toward center stage, then pull up short, a few feet from two other dancers. There’s a pause in the music where we all lock eyes. Smiles just begin to creep to our faces when the music launches us into our dance.

The second moment is in the Grand Waltz of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering.” Really I just think of one dancer’s face. I picture Indiana Woodward, who sometimes reminds me of my younger sister, grinning up at me. We are pony-stepping around the stage flanked by four other dancers, and she’s smiling so hard that I think she might burst from excitement and explode into something uncontainable.

These moments of connection are possible only in the context of a dance. This unspoken recognition of each other and of our shared passion is something my colleagues and I find repeatedly in the intimacy and physical proximity of a danced, onstage world. And it is these relationships, and the closeness forged onstage and in movement, that have been impossible on our Zoom screens and in our socially distanced dancing.

In ballet we are told where to stand, what to do, and often how to do it. But this doesn’t change how, when I reach for my partner’s hand — when I offer my hand the way I have been taught to offer it, and it is taken the way my partner has been told to take it — the connection is meaningful. The prescribed nature of ballet doesn’t take away from the intimacy I experience again and again in these repeated gestures and choreographies. Intimacy heightened by familiarity, but also heightened by the fact that my partner and I are simultaneously carving out our own space in these dances.

The quotidian act of taking a partner’s hand before dancing a combination of steps that requires trust and spontaneity can feel like an essential acknowledgment of our personal investment in each other and in the work we share. This sort of physical contact has long been a comfort for me, and before the pandemic was so often my mode for showing care.

“Duo Concertant,” which Ashley and I have danced together on and off since 2015, is full of these moments, rewarding for their choreographic ingenuity and humanity. Balanchine made “Duo” in 1972 for the Stravinsky Festival — a weeklong tribute to the composer who had been Balanchine’s longtime friend and a favorite collaborator. Their connection, and Balanchine’s devotion and closeness to Stravinsky, are evident in “Duo.” It’s a contained work. Intimate, so a natural COVID-era ballet.

To dance this ballet is to inhabit a world of your own making. There are only four performers onstage: two dancers and two musicians. The two pairs of performers challenge and complement each other, the music expanding the dance and vice versa. In a concertante, there is often the pairing and counterpoint of two musical lines: tension and duality. In “Duo” the piano and the violin play opposite each other and together in a conversation traversing the piece’s dramatic and ebullient terrain.

This score emerged from another close collaboration. Stravinsky composed it to play with violinist Samuel Dushkin on tour, tailoring it to Dushkin’s hands, to his abilities. And apparently Dushkin weighed in as well — his riffs on Stravinsky’s composition and arrangements were worked on and into the final piece.

So built into this music, into this work, are many pairings, many intimacies: Balanchine and Stravinsky, Stravinsky and Dushkin, the violin and the piano, the music and the dance, and of course, the two dancers. The ballet feels like banter and like there is nothing else my partner and I could possibly be doing onstage with each other to this music.

When the curtain rises on “Duo Concertant,” Ashley and I stand behind the piano, looking at the pianist and the violinist. For the first four minutes of the dance, we stand and listen. After this charged opening, I take Ashley’s hand and we walk to the other side of the stage and begin to dance. Only now, after listening, are we ready to dance. Only now, after listening, is the audience ready to watch.

The violinist intones six somewhat wistful notes then the piano begins a rhythmic amble and Ashley and I bob up and down — I’m up when she’s down. “Like a metronome,” Glenn says. Then we add in our arms, like we’re trying things out, like we’re building something, building up to something. We strum at imaginary lutes, playing for each other, then she strikes a series of poses and I tick my arm around in a circle like a clock, counting down to the dancing that releases us from this measured, constant clip.

What follows is a dance of push and pull, forward and back, side to side. We stomp and do-si-do, fling out our legs and arms in quick casual skips and lunges. We egg each other on and forward and right before the movement ends, we pause, catch eyes, I offer my elbow, and we rush to the musicians just in time to hear them play the final notes.

Onstage, the dance goes on — but this is where Ashley and I will stop in the filming. Manageable, if a bit of a tease. As we prepare for the day of the shoot and our time in the studio progresses, our dancing begins to feel more and more like the dancing I’ve been missing. Our breathing soon isn’t quite as desperate, our bodies relax, we find the rhythm again of trying new things out, of being together in a studio.

On Friday we are in costume for a dress rehearsal before the filming on Tuesday. Our section is being shot backstage left — almost onstage, but not quite; we’re back at work, but not quite. Ashley and I have piled on the warm-ups, unused to the flimsy leotards and tights we used to don nightly — costumes that are meant to be exposing and bare. There are people watching — Sofia Coppola and her team, and a handful of familiar and comforting faces from City Ballet’s artistic and administrative staff. It’s a fraction of a fraction of the audience we’re accustomed to but more eyes than we’ve had in a year plus. Ashley and I are both nervous.

“All right!” someone calls. “Let’s see it.”

We strip down to our costumes and take our place. After a few false starts with the recording we’re off. I can feel our dancing pulse with something more than what we have been giving in rehearsals. Ashley’s body is taut with effort and excitement, and our movements have a kind of oomph and vigor absent from our time in the studio. We’re wearing masks, we’re backstage and the audience is small, but as the dance unfolds Ashley and I find something for ourselves inside this shared experience.

“That was fun!” Ashley says, resting her hand lightly on my shoulder when we finish. “I could tell you were smiling.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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