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Barbara Newman offers some ideas for New Year’s Gifts

Posted on January 10, 2018

On New Year’s Eve, New York City Ballet used to slide tiny jokes into The Nutcracker – I don’t know if this tradition continues – to delight the cognoscenti and relieve the dancers’ exhaustion after weeks of performing the same ballet. If you’re also tired of fairytales and eager for a change of pace, you might want to investigate these surprising treats. It’s unlikely they will have materialised among your Christmas presents.

Eakins Press in New York has published Balanchine Teaching, an elegant book of only 36 pages containing 14 photographs by Nancy Lassalle and an incisive essay about them by Suki Schorer. Having attended the School of American Ballet in its earliest days, Lassalle has remained closely involved with it ever since, and Schorer has taught there since 1972. In the 1960s, when the Ford Foundation sponsored eight Teachers’ Seminars at the School “to survey the quality of American dance instruction,” Lassalle obtained Balanchine’s permission to photograph him at work among his professional dancers and the visitors.

Schorer opens her remarks by quoting him: “I am a teacher,” he said. “That is my contribution.” The proof lies in these striking photographs, unseen for decades, and in her meticulous clarification of the principles governing the technique he constructed to realise his ballets exactly as he imagined them. Her comments are precise, better suited perhaps to those who know the ballet vocabulary inside out, but the book allows all of us, even those who cannot name a single step, to observe and learn from the teacher Lassalle calls “a consummate giver.”

Pictured: A series of Nancy Lassalle’s photographs of George Balanchine teaching, as reproduced in the book Balanchine Teaching and used here with permission.

 

Between 1942 and 1949, Ballet Society published 56 issues of a journal entitled Dance Index, each a scholarly study of a single subject; my small collection includes one on “Americana, Romantic Ballet.” The original journals are now available for reference through the internet, completely indexed and searchable. A monograph about Isamu Noguchi and his stage designs launches the new Dance Index series, which the Eakins Press plans to expand biannually.

A less rarified and far longer book by Brent Phillips, formerly a soloist with the Joffrey Ballet, traces the colourful achievements of Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. Probably best known to film buffs, Walters began his career as a dancer in the early 1930s, developed his talent for staging and choreographing dance sequences in live theatre, and gradually moved into directing and choreographing movies. By the time he left MGM in 1964, he had contributed to 20 films in 22 years, guiding everyone from Judy Garland and Fred Astaire to Leslie Caron, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly through hits such as Easter Parade, Lili and High Society.

Phillips charts his progress film by film, tossing in lively details about individual stars, the studio system, Walters’ private life and Hollywood’s evolving attitude toward homosexuality. Film fanatics will appreciate this exhaustive study the most, but dance fans will discover, maybe for the first time, a prolific choreographer whose output they may already know.

If you’re seriously interested in unfamiliar dance, head for the main foyer of the Barbican in London, find a comfortable chair and settle down for as long as you can to watch HÍBRIDOS, The Spirits of Brazil, an extraordinary 24-hour documentary. It’s the remarkable creation of the independent French film-makers Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon, who spent three years travelling around Brazil to record more than 60 ceremonial rituals and sacred rites, which appear onscreen without titles or explanation.

Though occasional chanting and incessant drumming underscore nearly every scene, you won’t need the headphones – few are available anyway – to discern the tone, structure and rhythm of these spiritual gatherings and the profound involvement of the participants.

The installation is free until February 11 whenever the Barbican is open to the public, and the film is unmissable; I’ve never seen anything like these expressions of celebration. Indescribable in their hypnotic fervour and shared momentum, together they represent the most compelling show in town.

Pictured: Stills by Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon taken from the film HÍBRIDOS, The Spirits of Brazil.

 

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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