Of Pretzels and Pashminas

When, in today’s ballet, you see a man express his feelings for his lady by hurling her into the air, catching her upside down, and wrapping her around his neck like a pashmina, you are seeing the legacy of the Bolshoi.

— this from Joan Acocella in her latest New Yorker article, analyzing Morphoses (whose NY season just wrapped up) and trying to place Christopher Wheeldon in the pantheon of choreographers.

I burst out laughing when I read this quote because that’s a perfect (albeit hyperbolized) description of my favorite partnering moves in my favorite of all dance scenes, the balcony pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet — the scene that made me fall in love with ballet. (See Julio Bocca and Alessandra Ferri go at it here.) Acocella says MacMillan is a disciple of the Bolshoi style with its sweeping expressivity, its Romanticism, its high-theater dramatics.


When, on the other hand, you see a woman in a leotard merely hold the man’s hand as she flashes her legs out in eighty-two fabulous, clean ballet steps, and then, in a change of heart, fall into his arms and do something hair-raisingly sexy, like a front-facing split, you are seeing a child of “Agon.”

“Agon” being one of George Balanchine’s masterpieces, Balanchine style being the antithesis of Bolshoi / MacMillan (aka “the pashmina”).

Acocella goes on to say Wheeldon’s choreography contains a bit of both styles. I hadn’t really seen that though. I saw him as more a follower of Balanchine with everything abstract, subtle, understated, and focused on steps, on movement rather than on creating character or bringing about an emotional response in the audience. Which is probably why I’m not an enormous fan of Wheeldon, though I do value seeing his work from time to time. On the other hand, I can’t imagine ever tiring of a pashmina.

The article is very interesting, as all of Acocella’s writings are. She always makes me see something I hadn’t before, makes me reconsider, want to see a piece again. Here, she finds in some of Wheeldon’s original, intricate partnering (which people have, aptly I think, referred to as pretzel pas de deux) something actually rather unsettling, even sinister in a way. I hadn’t thought of those twisty, undefined shapes that his dancers make with each other that way before. I always spent my time at a Wheeldon dance playing the inkblot test, trying desperately to figure out what exactly the odd, contorted shapes evoke. But maybe they’re not meant to evoke a specific image at all, yet still charge you with feeling, the same as a pashmina but in a less over-the-top way, without the drama. I will look at the partnering in his ballets anew now. (I couldn’t find a video of such a pdd, but here’s a Wheeldon sampling for comparison to the MacMillan.)

In any event, I dearly hope Mr. Ratmansky brings some of the Bolshoi with him to ABT. And I hope Mr. Wheeldon can let loose some more of his inner pashmina 😀 What is life without passion?…

Seriously, here is the full Acocella.

And, while on the subject of the New Yorker, for people interested in books and art and the artistic life and all, here is an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell, on the different types of artistic genius and how each is cultivated, which I think could just as easily be titled, “Why This Country Will Never Produce a Cezanne”… Interestingly, Gladwell seems to locate young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s genius in the fact that he was a “best-seller” in his twenties rather than the critical acclaim he received. We’re so accustomed to equating success with money in this country, which is part of Gladwell’s point about the Cezanne issue.

Oh, one last thing: I’d written earlier about Acocella interviewing Ratmansky as part of the New Yorker festival. I was extremely sick that weekend and unable to attend, but Evan was there; here is her report. And here is reportage from Lori Ortiz on Explore Dance.

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