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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue (Vol. 15, No. 2) of Dance Now.

Dance fans are forever complaining about dancing stars who refuse to recognise when the time has come to call it quits and retire from the stage. Two of the last century’s ballet divinities, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, continued not merely for years but for decades past their prime, first adjusting their repertoire to diminishing physical capability, eventually creating a performance out of charisma alone. Among the incomparable artists still with us, Darci Kistler–the last New York City Ballet ballerina identified by Balanchine–has for some time been treading down the perilous path traced by Fonteyn, albeit with a gentler persistence. During the Nineties, switching from ballet to more physically lenient modern and postmodern choreography through his White Oak Dance Project, Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared to be evading retirement as Nureyev did, though in a supremely tasteful way.

Viewers new to the game will watch the severely compromised performances of a protracted sunset and, in extreme cases of benign blindness, will not even notice that they’re underpowered. Inexperienced viewers tend to respond with almost unerring instinct to the truly terrific, while ignoring, untroubled, the less than wonderful. To the neophyte observer susceptible to dancing, everything about it is odd and fascinating.

The spectators who suffer from the decline of a once-transcendent dancer are the ones who witnessed and rejoiced in her glorious prime. Instead of merely lamenting the passing and ravages of time, they now feel angry, betrayed. They feel the performer is desecrating their memories of her artistry when it was sublime. They feel that she, having once so significantly enhanced their lives, has no right to do this, that she should know better, and so forth. In their petulant righteousness, they forget that the artist they once revered is only human, subject to human folly based on exigent human need.

Why do such artists go on? I imagine it’s sheer hunger for the stage. Modern dance, rather than ballet, has provided us with the most extreme example of this need. Martha Graham, past performing even those roles she created for herself as an observer confined to imperious arm gestures, still couldn’t relinquish the audience’s attention. In her ninth decade, barely able to walk, she’d address the house, pre-curtain, from a Ming dynasty chair, free-associating at interminable length in her soft, hypnotic voice. I watched those displays–which I now look back on as a cross between Butoh and circus–with an uncomfortable mixture of distaste, embarrassment, and awe.

As for the ballet dancers, they’ve spent the better part of their lives labouring relentlessly and single-mindedly not just to achieve an ideal of beauty but also to satisfy their appetite for performance. This hunger is, of course, one of the elements that makes them thrilling. At the same time, the stage is an addiction for them, and a tough one to kick, especially since classical dancers, who typically begin their training in childhood, often haven’t had the time to cultivate alternative gratifications or even learn alternative trades.

Some stellar performers who continue long past their peak years claim financial necessity–not due to crass greed, mind you, but in service of a noble cause. Fonteyn said she needed the money to care for her invalid husband, who had been grievously wounded in a political fracas in his native Panama and to whom she appeared devoted. Baryshnikov spent several years raising funds for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, opened in 2005 with the airm of furthering ‘artistic collaboration and experimentation’. Few dancers, though, can command fees high enough for them to use money as the excuse for hanging on. I’m still convinced the reason is an inability to leave the stage, perhaps because doing so would be a foretaste of death.

Whatever the justification–and must we identify it? ‘Oh, reason not the need’, as the elderly king so famously cried–we get to watch such artists go on and on and on, abilities inexorably dwindling, giving performances that look like accidents waiting to happen, distorting or emending set choreography because of their limitations, inviting pity as well as exasperation and rage.

Granted, as time goes by, great dancers as well as many just pretty damn good ones grow in wisdom and thus in impact. Fonteyn and Nureyev, certainly, among the examples I’ve witnessed. Galina Ulanova. Among the moderns, Merce Cunningham–even in a state of near-stasis. Carla Fracci. Irina Kolpakova. Henning Kronstam. Nora Kaye. One of the tragic ironies of a career in dance, especially in ballet, is that the body’s glory years are already winding down just as the soul fully awakens. There’s no simple or single solution for dancers whose athletic prowess is waning; their dilemma (and the anguish that must accompany it) is part of the career they’ve bought into. But for us, members of the tribe of dedicated onlookers, I have an idea. If the artist who probably should retire won’t, the viewer must decide when enough is enough and retire the artist.

Here’s how: Just stop going to her performances. Casting is announced by all the major companies I know. Nearly all ballets are offered with at least one alternative cast. If your former idol is appearing in one ballet on a programme of several and you’re dying to see the others, sit out the piece with the ill-fated casting. Devote the time to conversation with your date, as if the two of you had been granted a particularly long and blessedly depopulated interval. If you’ve come to the theatre alone, read your book (surely you’re never foolhardy enough to leave your home without a book). Think good thoughts (or dire ones, if you find them more entertaining).
Have a glass of the bar’s dreadful wine. Better yet, since you know in advance you’re going to have those twenty-to-thirty minutes free, bring a thermos of properly prepared martinis. If you go the personally-composed martini route, go for broke; bring, carefully wrapped, a pair of crystal cocktail glasses. If you’re catering to your sensibilities to the point of forgoing a performance that will vex your soul, it’s surely appropriate to elect not to drink from plastic. If alcohol’s not in your rep, fill the thermos with some decent coffee. Bring biscuits, a very few really good ones. After all, you’re a connoisseur–and should behave accordingly.

True, there are a few of us who are obliged by their nefarious trade, criticism, to cover whatever moves and is news in certain venues. But even in New York, a dance capital, we are very few. No one else, apart, perhaps, from the intimates of the dancer in eclipse is obliged to bear witness. I’ll bet even her boss is looking the other way.

If, for whatever reasons, you end up seated before one of these performances that’s bound to break your heart (or at least tax your charity beyond endurance), I suggest you just close your eyes and remember. Remember the pleasure the now sadly compromised artist once gave you. Remember it in very specific detail. Unlike the human body, memory can survive the depredations of time; it need never be extinguished.

© 2006 Tobi Tobias

an ArtsJournal blog