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Stepping out

Posted on September 26, 2018

New York skyline e1537960591801

The city of New York doesn’t feel like any other part of the US I’ve visited. When you’re walking down Sixth Avenue, or jumping on to a subway at Times Square, you walk a bit quicker and hold a little more elasticity in your body; you could go anywhere and do anything. In the middle of August I was performing at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, and what follows are some reflections of my feelings about the city and why the metropolis is so important for dance.

New York City comprises five boroughs, but we tend to only think of Manhattan when we’re planning our travels. Enduring images of the city are of the Statue of Liberty; the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings glistening above yellow taxis; subway vents letting off steam; but Manhattan is unusually connected to the arts. It is fascinating to consider how in less than a century, dance in all its forms is a vital part of city life. More astounding is how entrenched a classical art form like ballet has become to Manhattan’s cultural fabric. The litany of dance names associated with the city is Valhallian: Martha Graham, Paul Taylor (who sadly passed away on August 30), Alvin Ailey, Pam Tanowitz, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Justin Peck. So prolific a list, it begs the question: is New York the axis point of dance today?

The city boasts two legendary ballet companies: American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and New York City Ballet (NYCB). To be simply reductive, each institution embodies different aspects of our world. ABT makes a place for the canonical works of ballet history, producing and displaying star dancers, whereas NYCB is the temple of one man, George Balanchine. The Georgian choreographer and the company he assembled is probably most associated with New York City. The value of Balanchine’s relationship with wealthy aesthete Lincoln Kirstein cannot be emphasised enough in the story of ballet in the US. Kirstein gave Balanchine the means to transpose his Russian world, onion domes, icons, Marius Petipa and all on to a new frontier. How much of Balanchine’s success came from the city he was in? Could he have made some of his remarkable ballets anywhere else and received similar results? Has anyone assessed the reciprocal benefits ballet master-in-chief and city received from one another? Today, both companies are still at the vanguard in how they have become the respective homes of emerging masters Alexei Ratmanksy and Justin Peck.

What is compelling is the proximity within which these two companies work, being just feet across the Josie Robertson Plaza from each other during the summer season when ABT performs at the Metropolitan Opera House and NYCB performs at the David H Koch Theater. This could only be in New York. Lincoln Center itself is also remarkable. For me its structure – three architecturally distinct rectangles around a fountain, flanked by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center Theater, The Julliard School, Alice Tully Hall and the Rose Building – suffuses the air with a palpable vibration: you feel you ought to look your best, and possibly be carrying your CV and dance photos in your bag in case anyone of interest is around. It has the atmosphere for dancers that I suppose Wimbledon has for tennis enthusiasts.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the cultural behemoth intrinsically linked with New York and, indeed, Lincoln Center, because of his relationship with the New York Philharmonic. On BBC Radio 3 on August 25, Bernstein’s birthday, his daughter Jamie spoke astutely of her father’s legacy in the city. It was important to hear her comment that Leonard Bernstein “used his own music making… to make the world a better place”. Jamie mentions the phrase “citizen artist”, a term that has emerged to describe the way we are eschewing the traditional “ivory tower model” where artists isolate themselves within their own art. Leonard Bernstein was progressive in his openness to musical style and his engagement with the issues of his world, and the mood “citizen artist” encapsulates feels positive, altruistic, and relevant. This is the best of New York. The same radio programme continues by presenting 2008’s In the Heights and 2015’s Hamilton both by Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Broadway musicals that correspond to our political world. These are musicals of the Obama era, a time when the US was capable of embracing its diversity so as use it as a strength.

The cast members of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which closed on September 16, bubbled with this idea. Though they were highly skilled, powerful dancers, they were also people I believed I could walk out on to 45th Street and see for myself. Justin Peck’s choreography moves in and out of itself, evoking the precarious off-balance feeling of a rollercoaster. In ballet we talk about the dancer’s “portable square”, a concept that enforces a radial, baroque look to body design and humeral and pelvic angles. Peck has allowed that square to melt in on itself, like a Salvador Dalí clock face, yet instead of languorousness, we have slippery mercury on stage. I experienced the show from a front row seat for the relatively small price of $40 by turning up at the box office on the morning of the performance.

The institution of New York dance that is Steps on Broadway occupies one floor of a building above a supermarket on 75th and Broadway. Offering open classes in all genres of dance, Steps built its reputation on providing gifted teachers that attracted dancers from ABT, NYCB, and international companies on tour, as well as Broadway royalty. I took class with Karin Averty, a former premiere danseuse with the Paris Opéra Ballet and principal with San Francisco Ballet. It was a special treat to become alert to all the ebullient, sing-song brilliance of French technique, accompanied by an excellent pianist. Averty’s petit allegro exercises were buoyant and exacting in their speed; you felt proud of yourself to execute them correctly. Once you are done with class, head over to Levain Bakery on West 74th Street. This small bakery’s cookies are a New York cult phenomenon. The chocolate chip and walnut flavour is a well-deserved treat after sweating at Steps.

Why does New York put a spring in my step? It’s the city’s deep colour, and how radically different each neighborhood feels. The verve of Koreatown contrasts with the colonial avenues of Union Square where New York University has proliferated, and all within walking distance. London is so green and sprawling in comparison. The way the UK capital spills out of the centre couldn’t happen on the island of Manhattan. Everything is intense, layered one on top of the other. In New York, there often feels like there is little sanctuary, in the sense that nobody goes back to their castle and lifts up the drawbridge at night like we do in cities in the UK. When you’re paying through the nose for a small studio apartment in midtown, you live your life literally on top of others. New Yorkers find their peace with each other, out in the streets, at concert halls, opera houses and in coffee shops, and everything literally stays open until 3am. In its 2018–19 season, the New York Philharmonic begins a series of concerts called Nightcap where performances begin at 10.30pm at the end of September. That a city can support so much good dance and interest in the art form is cause for celebration. It’s testament to the city’s unique history, its philanthropic sense, and its civil championing of culture for everybody. Hurrah!

Photograph: Jonathan Gray

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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