I have been on a nostalgia kick lately for some reason. Last week I received a long-anticipated DVD by mail from Zipporah Films called Ballet. I knew of this film about five years ago when it was available only to rent in 16mm and for a princely sum at that. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman shot the movie in 1992 at American Ballet Theatre’s studios on Broadway in New York and on location with the company in Athens and Copenhagen during their tour of those cities that same year—the year after Mikhail Baryshnikov stepped down as artistic director, but before current director Kevin McKenzie was hired. The film aired on PBS in 1993. Imagine my joy when I opened last month’s Dance Magazine to discover its release on DVD for a paltry $29.95 plus shipping and handling. Ballet is 170 delectable minutes of footage documenting a period in the life of my favorite company. There is no dialogue; Mr. Wiseman simply takes his camera into the studios, into the company lounge and offices, and finally on tour, recording everything. He links carefully chosen rehearsals of some of the company’s repertoire that season with footage of the same moments in performance later in the movie. I could easily go into seclusion for weeks to study every minute of this film, but then my family would be forced to subsist on frozen dinners and my ballet school would fail. So instead I watch snatches of it late at night. And remember my ballet roots.
We get precious little help identifying dancers and staff in the film’s credits, but the Dance Magazine story revealed many clues, and I could name several at first blush: here is David Howard giving company class; here is Susan Jaffe in rehearsal with Irina Kolpakova (seen here working with two ABT dancers), coaching her on Nikiya’s variation for La Bayadere; here is Michael Somes setting Symphonic Variations on Cynthia Harvey and others; here is Georgina Parkinson taking issue with Irina’s instructions on how a ballerina should carry her shoulders in a particular variation; and here is the company writhing around seductively on the floor in Le Sacre du Printemps rehearsals.
But Amanda McKerrow in particular caught my eye, rehearsing a ballet unfamiliar to me in one of ABT’s smaller studios. I saw one of Amanda’s final performances as Giselle only a couple of years ago in Chicago. And her husband (and former ABT soloist), John Gardner, is a fellow alum of my old performing arts school. In this scene, there is an ancient woman at the front of the room, sitting in a wheelchair, crowing directions to Amanda in the cracked voice of ninety or more years: flap your arms, dear, like you are…you are absolutely broken; now pas de bourre around, like a snake—that’s right; now stop, and turn, slowly, slowly, and then you look up and see your beloved Jane.
Amanda is respectful and reverent. At one point she stops and walks forward, bends over and places her hands on her knees, her face only inches from the old woman’s face: she is trying to understand exactly what it is she should do. And I am wondering, Who is this old woman? At long last her young assistant, seated beside her, calls her Agnes. Agnes de Mille. And this is the last ballet she made, called The Other. The ballet had its premiere in April of 1992, and Agnes died the next year. Immediately I recall a moment during a 1995 interview with Amanda McKerrow in which she refers to The Leaves are Fading rehearsals with Anthony Tudor as “a gift.” And it is clear to me why Amanda has been chosen to dance the lead in Agnes de Mille’s final work: she appreciates the magnitude of what is happening, of this moment, perhaps in a way that another dancer could not.
Maybe this movie has brought on the nostalgia. In performing arts school during the late 1970s my classmates and I were lucky to be in the company of ballet icons. Were we duly reverent and appreciative? To varying degrees, we probably were, but maybe not so much on occasion. Some of these iconic figures were ancient, like Ms. de Mille; they smelled funny; they spoke broken English; and they had strange habits, like carrying little dogs around inside their dance bags. I recall my mother threatening me with unmentionable consequences if she ever caught me (in person or by way of the school staff) behaving disrespectfully towards my ballet elders.
With that threat still burning my ears at the start of a new term, I found myself along with my roommate, Leonessa, at breakfast one early morning sitting opposite an old man with twinkling eyes. And a funny smell. And speaking broken English. (You know where this is going.) He was in fact so ancient that his voice was nearly gone. Hunched over his burned toast and peaches, he carried on about the benefits of carbon on the digestive system. We did not quite know what to make of him. What’s more, there he was a short while later in the front of the studio teaching our morning technique class—an old-style Russian technique class.
Turns out the man was Vitale Fokine, son of Michel Fokine, legendary choreographer (Les Sylphides comes to mind) from St. Petersburg and the Mariinsky Theatre. Right there in that room with us. And eating burned toast and peaches at our breakfast table, too. (Leo: if you’re reading this, do you remember?) My mom nearly dropped the phone when I called to deliver this news. And then she reaffirmed those consequences for me, in case I had forgotten. That was not the only morning I was to sit opposite Mr. Fokine while he ate his burned toast and peaches, as my mother had used her Southern voodoo on me: Now, you be KIND to that old man and have breakfast with him.
Now that I find myself at the front of the studio, I am glad I had those moments with Mr. Fokine. Amanda McKerrow was right—that is indeed a gift. I like to think that a strand of ballet DNA made its way from St. Petersburg and the Mariinksy Theatre, through Michel and Vitale Fokine, to me, and now on to my students. It is a tiny strand, as my own teaching style bears little resemblance to Mr. Fokine’s, but still carries some little echo from nineteenth-century St. Petersburg.
ABT’s tour of Athens in 1992 opens the second disc in Wiseman’s Ballet; the venue is the amphitheatre at the Parthenon, which looms just beyond in the night sky on the Acropolis. Here is a clip of Symphonic Variations from the film. If you are an ABT fan, you must add this movie to your collection. (Note: the YouTube text suggests the female lead may be Susan Jaffe. It is actually Cynthia Harvey. If anyone can identify the lead male dancer here, I would love to know who it is. In the rehearsal footage it was, I believe, Ethan Brown.)