Kyra Nichols, the prima ballerina assoluta of New York City Ballet, hung up her toe shoes last Friday. She danced with the company for thirty-three years, all the way back to the fast-receding days of George Balanchine. Except for Darci Kistler, she is the last NYCB dancer to have worked with Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century.
I’ve been watching Nichols from afar ever since I started looking at ballet in 1987. Throughout that time she has been my touchstone of excellence. I saw Suzanne Farrell dance a few times prior to her retirement in 1989, but her performing career was essentially over by then, whereas Nichols was only just reaching the peak of her powers. As I wrote in All in the Dances, my Balanchine biography, it was Nichols “who first showed me exactly how beautiful George Balanchine’s dances can be.” At a time when the company was struggling to find its way in the painful wake of Balanchine’s death, she continued to dance with a simplicity, clarity, and perfection of style unrivaled by any of her colleagues, and she kept on doing it until the curtain fell on Friday night.
I was lucky enough to see Farrell’s last performance, and will never forget the endless curtain calls and the shower of white roses with which her fans bid her farewell. Back then I was going to the New York State Theater once or twice a week, and was totally wrapped up in the life of the company. Now I spend most of my evenings sitting on other aisles. Still, I knew I had to be there, just as I’d been there eighteen years before, when the ballerina who has meant more to me than any other vanished forever into the wings.
In 1989 I was writing editorials for the New York Daily News, and my editor gave me a couple of inches at the end of the column to pay tribute to Farrell on the occasion of her retirement. I quoted from Cymbeline: Nobly he yokes/A smiling with a sigh, as if the sigh/Was that it was, for not being such a smile;/The smile mocking the sigh, that it would fly/From so divine a temple. Sir Edward Elgar wrote the words “smiling with a sigh” over a piercingly nostalgic passage in his Introduction and Allegro, and that was the feeling I sought to evoke by quoting the same words.
I felt the same way on Friday, only more so, since Nichols, unlike Farrell, played a pivotal role in my life-changing discovery of the genius of Balanchine. For this reason I was especially glad that the all-Balanchine program, chosen by Nichols herself, opened with Serenade, the 1934 ballet in which Balanchine first unfolded his vision of dance before American audiences. To quote again from All in the Dances:
It is, above all, a dance about dance, about the beauty of pure movement. Though the soloists each have their moments of glory, what one remembers above all is the unceasing sweep of the corps, swirling atop Tchaikovsky’s music like a flock of doves. It’s as if the soul of a nineteenth-century story ballet had somehow been lifted out of its rigid framework of plot and décor and given a life of its own. Breathtakingly specific “scenes” emerge from the constant swirl of movement like episodes in a dream. A ballerina lies prone at center stage, surrounded by five ranks of women who lift and lower their arms in ritual fashion. What does it mean? No one knows, nor did Balanchine ever explain the “little apotheosis” of the elegy, in which a woman whose lover (if he is her lover) has been taken away by an angel (if she is an angel) is solemnly lifted into the air by a group of blue-clad boys and carried in a procession whose apparent destination is a bright light that might be heaven (or fame, or love). One can make up any number of “plots” for Serenade, all equally plausible-sounding and none of which explains its impenetable mysteries.
Next came Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” made just three years before the choreographer’s death, a darkly expressionistic parable of love, madness, and loss about which I wrote in the late, lamented The New Dance Review in 1992. It was the first time I had written about Balanchine’s work, and the first time I tried to put into words the effect that Nichols’ dancing had on me:
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nichols’ classicism is taking on a touch of drama as she grows older; her emotional palette is growing steadily richer and more diverse. When she danced Karin von Aroldingen’s role in Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” this winter, Nichols’ face was a taut mask of anguish, her gaze that of a woman haunted by foreknowledge of tragedy to come. At the final curtain, as Adam Lüders slipped off into the encroaching darkness, it was impossible to look away from her strong white back, bent by the hand of fate….It is as if she has suddenly come to feel that there is something at stake in her dancing, something beyond even the resplendent glory of a fully achieved classicism.
Nichols is forty-eight, and in recent seasons her dancing has started to show the inexorable effects of age. Never, to be sure, in an obvious or embarrassing way: it was lessened but not diminished. Even so, you could tell that she was older, and that her career was drawing toward its close. In last Friday’s Davidsbündlertänze, though, the years fell miraculously away, and she danced like a much younger woman, the same woman at whom I so clearly remember marveling in the late Eighties and early Nineties. It was as though she had decided on the spot to give us all that was left in her.
Then came the finale of Vienna Waltzes, the same ballet with which Farrell took her leave of NYCB, and after it a standing ovation that went on for twelve minutes. Twenty years of memories washed over me, and I wept unashamedly, though not for Nichols, who is by all accounts a likable, level-headed woman and will doubtless be perfectly content to teach ballet at Princeton and raise her children. “I’ve had such a wonderful career,” she told an interviewer last week, “and I’m leaving at a good time….I danced a lot, I think I’ve danced well, and I was starting to love being with my family more.”
I wept, rather, for lost time, for the quickness with which the present becomes the past, the very evanescence that is the essence of dance itself. Paintings can be hung on your wall, music heard on your stereo, but dance exists only in the moment and in the imperfect memories of those who make and see it. It is notoriously unfilmable (though the 1993 film of Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker, in which Nichols dances the role of Dewdrop, offers a vivid and representative glimpse of what she looked like in her prime). Balanchine himself used to say that ballets were like flowers: “Dancing disintegrates. Like a garden. Lots of roses come up, and in the evening they’re gone. Next day, the sun comes up. It’s life. I’m connected to what is part of life.”
So he was–but so, too, are we. In the first intermission Apollinaire Scherr introduced me to Ms. Swan Lake Samba Girl, an enthusiastic young blogger who recently fell in love with Balanchine’s choreography. Nichols’ last Serenade was her first, and the visible excitement with which she responded to what she’d just seen reminded me of what I wrote in the last chapter of All in the Dances:
“You know, these are my ballets,” Balanchine told Rosemary Dunleavy, New York City Ballet’s ballet mistress. “In the years to come they will be rehearsed by other people. They will be danced by other people. But no matter what, they are still my ballets.” Of all the self-contradictory things he said about his work, that one seems to me closest to the truth….I have taken countless friends to see their first Balanchine ballets, in New York and elsewhere, and watched them weep at the sight of blurry, infirm performances far removed from the way such works look when lovingly set by first-string répétiteurs on meticulously rehearsed companies. That’s as it should be: Balanchine’s best ballets are sturdy enough to make their effect in any kind of performance. Whether the dancing is good or bad, accurate or approximate, they are still his ballets, and always will be.
Of course it was hard to part with Kyra Nichols, a great artist whose art I have been blessed to behold for the past twenty years. I will miss her terribly. But it consoles me to have seen at first hand the proof of Balanchine’s wise words: each night the roses die, and each morning the sun comes up again. Even when we are no longer there to see it for ourselves, there will always be someone else seeing it for the first time, and marveling anew at its fierce brightness and transforming warmth.
UPDATE: To see photos of Nichols’ farewell performance taken from the wings of the New York State Theater, go here.