Heads and Eyes

I was just going to write about the lost heads and clichéd eyes of our women ballet dancers when The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella came out with a Critic’s Notebook, “All Smiles,” that begins,

An epidemic of flirtiness has attacked our ballet companies. The dancers woo us, grin at us, give us saucy looks. “I’m going to do something special,” they say. Then they do it. Then they cock an eye at us as if to say, “Wasn’t that marvelous?”

As I see it, flirtation is only part of the problem. Whether she’s

her eyes and tilting her head coquettishly before subjecting us to a full-frontal
stare or, alternately, distending her neck like a meek yet searching swan maiden–shoulders pulled
back, face lifted to the light
she (and this is mainly a female problem) is signaling that she isn’t simply executing steps but interpreting a role, she isn’t merely inside the choreography but presiding over it. New York City Ballet has a complicated relationship to interpretation, so its women in particular seem to need to offer this statement.

But their gesture toward freedom has the unintended consequence of making them seem unequal to the choreography, not the masters of it. Balanchine makes the vixen staredown redundant, because his choreography is already direct–while deep and mysterious too. Likewise, the dainty-maiden affectations are ridiculous when the choreography is so much more interesting in its own elegance and refinement.

Maybe this epidemic has struck because the head and gaze are the only areas where dancers feel free to experiment. But how odd that in their freedom they chain themselves to clichés: the eye-batting coquette, the shameless vixen, the virgin maiden.

The solution, though, isn’t for them to give up on the head and gaze, but to remember that the head bone is connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected to the back bone, the back bone…. (Oh, hear the word of the Lord!) They need to think about the choreography more, not less. If it’s any good, it will help them.

Acocella points out that the problem isn’t particular to inexperienced dancers. I’d add that individual dancers don’t apply their mannerisms across the board. New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski loves the blunt vixen effect (even for Chaconne!). Her body often divides top to bottom, so a bold gaze serves to unify her. But in the two roles she does best, with the least herky-jerkiness and the most immanence–the Firebird and the ballerina in the Swan-Lake-inspired “Diamonds”–she becomes consumed by the tragedy and majesty of the part and forgets to stare us down.

Tiler Peck only adopts the dainty-maiden posture for floaty classical roles, such as Robbins’s Four Bagatelles, perhaps to convince herself that she’s right for the role (I’m already convinced: Peck is proving protean).

Rebecca Krohn generally incorporates her head intelligently into her dancing, but she had problems with the lilac part in Dances at a Gathering, I think because she understood the girl as impetuous and impassioned, and then couldn’t decide how such a person would do something as simple as walk, so she lowered and raised her gaze shyly. (Maybe walking tames the passion in the lilac girl and she can simply walk like everyone else–looking ahead.) In the same ballet on the same night, Kathryn Morgan kept her beautiful, round head level with her gaze; she seemed open and honest, and meant for the choreography.


Poses that come too naturally–from Mauro Bigonzetti’s “In Vento” (photo by Paul Kolnik for NYCB)


The internet forum BalletTalk has an engaging and insightful discussion of the Acocella piece here.


To be fair, I should say the New York City Ballet men have their affectations and overcompensations, too. They puff up their chests (yoohoo, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Joaquin De Luz, and Tyler Angle) and thicken their quads with so much cross-training that their legs hardly seem to straighten anymore (ahem, Sebastien Marcovici, Antonio Carmena, and Robert Fairchild). If they’re doing the crosstraining to protect themselves from common knee injuries, okay; but to avoid looking–and moving–like lunks, they shouldn’t overdo it.

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  1. Mary Margaret Reilly says

    Perhaps the current NYCB interpreters should spend a little time at the dance library reviewing the performances of the original casts of the repertory. Who can forget the queenly detachment of Suzanne Farrel in “Diamonds”? In the art of ballet one’s body and soul are the transmitters of art and individuality. The art form ballet is ancient and comprised of layers and layers of development throughout the ages of symbolic movements of the body one calls attitude, glissade, arabesque, jete, pirouette,etc. Expression is communicated as much through the precise execution of the choreographer’s vision as through any personal interpretation an individual dancer intends in his or her dancing.
    We live in an age dedicated to personality and self-gratification. The first dancers who devoted themselves to the choreography of Mr. B. were, in my view, handmaidens and man servants of his vision, and their joy was an inner presence, a holy flame they carried within. Images of vestal virgins, noble figures of mythic proportion or patriotic icons flashed before us on the stage of the State Theater, but not through the individual intention of the dancer. The young men and women who are currently carrying forth Balanchine’s vision may wish to rethink their approach to the art and subject themselves to the original intent rather than a soap operatic version replete with facial grimaces and coquettish whims.
    [Apollinaire responds] Thank you for writing. I don’t think this generation of dancers is any more in it for their own gratification than any other generation was. And, contrary to popular balletomane opinion, I don’t think this generation is any less devoted to the vision of Balanchine than dancers who worked under him; from what I’ve heard, they do watch those videos. But they *are* necessarily at a greater remove. Being able to channel his spirit isn’t simply a matter of will–or “devotion”–but also of proximity and the amount of time you can devote to any one part. Plus, imitating older dancers won’t bring the role any closer, I don’t think. Dancers have to find the spirit in their own terms, even when they’re doing the same steps.
    Perhaps the dancers aren’t being coached on heads and gazes because Balanchine didn’t much coach their coaches on these particulars (though, my guess is, he probably discouraged particular tics as they cropped up. He’s not here to do that anymore). City Ballet was famously erratic in its epaulement even during Balanchine’s lifetime. The company also has an enormous repertory–some four dozen ballets a season and at least two casts for each ballet–so it’s inevitable that certain details don’t get addressed. I do hope the coaches start attending to the head problem, though, as it’s getting out of hand (as it were).

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