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Two’s Company

NOTE: This essay was written some five years ago–intended for posting on The Dance Insider in the “Vignettes” series I was writing there. My editor advised against going public with it, since it made me sound ungrateful toward the companies who issue press seats in pairs and might alienate readers who did not enjoy press-ticket privileges. I took his advice. This week, the twinned postings of my friend and colleague Eva Yaa Asantewaa and my ArtsJournal colleague Apollinaire Scherr persuaded me to offer it belatedly.

Since the rewards of writing dance criticism are largely aesthetic, rarely enough to pay the rent, one of the job’s few perks is especially welcome: free tickets to the performance. Usually the freebies come in pairs–one seat for the critic and one for said critic’s guest. Most critics enjoy the privilege and produce a companion for the show, though legend has it that one reviewer consistently arrived alone. “I need the other seat for my coat,” he’d explain.

Having had access to press pairs for several decades, I feel qualified to report that securing a guest for that second seat is by no means simple. I’m even willing to admit–go on, call me a misanthrope–that sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Here’s the drill: You decide who would be congenial company (remembering that high-maintenance friends are simply too exhausting when you’re working) and who might enjoy the performance. Then, with a couple of back-ups on your list, you try to reach your first choice.

Understand that I’m writing from New York, where the populace is perpetually unreachable. You phone your prospective guest (let’s call this person your PG) and get his answering machine or you send her an e-mail. And then you wait for his/her response. If she tries phoning you back, you’re invariably out; thus the two of you are launched into the exasperating game of telephone tag. These unproductive maneuvers can go on at absurd length, unless one of you is sensible and bold enough to quit midway. If so, you are still without a date. A “no, thanks” response by e-mail is blessedly definitive–though it requires you to start again with another prospect, as did aborting that game of tag. An e-mailed “yes” simply engenders further e-mails–a dozen of them, easily, as the details of the arrangement are filled in. What time was it again? Which theater did you say? Where, exactly, shall we meet? Dinner before? Drink after? (More about the add-on socializing later.)

Mind you, merely managing to contact your PG doesn’t mean you’ve got a date. Once the two of you are in direct communication, you have a good chance of finding the object of your invitation busy at the time of the performance. As I’ve indicated, I’m based in New York, where the citizens pride themselves on being too busy to breathe. Even if your PG is free in the relevant time slot, she may inform you (if she’s frank as well) that, since she last shared your pair, she has developed a morbid loathing of–you name it: opera houses, black box theaters, traveling to Brooklyn; classical dance; modern dance; experimental dance; narrative, abstract, or dramatic dance; world dance (the stuff we used to call “ethnic”); Broadway musicals; hoofers old and new; butoh; mime; the tango; or works in progress. And so you must start your search all over again, should you have the time to do so. And the patience. And the desire. Often you discover that you have expended your full measure of all three on Round One.

Say, however, that you’ve been lucky enough to have secured yourself a companion for the show. Next you run smack up against a peculiar truth about such outings. You may be attending the performance for work purposes, but your guest is more likely to be doing so for the normal reasons people go to the theater: to be entertained and to socialize. So, having said yes to the show, your PG is now, quite logically, suggesting dinner before or a drink after. Problem is, I’m a dance critic; I can’t afford to dine out more than once in a blue moon. Besides, the restaurants reasonably close to the major theaters have become so crowded and noisy, meaningful conversation–assuming that’s what you’re after–is precluded. For me, post-performance gallivanting is equally hard. Either I have to write overnight or I have to get up early in the morning if I’m going to fit the gym into my crazed schedule. (As it is, when Twyla Tharp frequented our mutual local gym, she was already on her virtuous and athletically toned way out of there by the time I arrived.) One friend commented wryly after a performance, as we headed briskly for our respective neighborhoods, which are separated by the width of Central Park, “Thanks for the chance to see the show. We should get together one of these days.”

Assuming you’re successful in acquiring a companion for the show and negotiated the extras to your mutual satisfaction, pitfalls remain. First in chronological order, there’s the guest who doesn’t show up–“It was Thursday? I was sure you said Friday”–or, being chronically unable to show up on time, leaves you standing in the lobby for the last five minutes before the curtain’s scheduled to rise. During that time you oscillate between imagining him/her lying dead on a bleak city street and vowing furiously to do whatever thugs or driving drunks may have left undone, rendering her/him lifeless at the earliest opportunity.

As those five minutes count down to one, you’re obliged to press your absent guest’s ticket (along with your name and the guest’s name, as well as a telling physical description of the no-show), upon a publicist or ticket taker who is often understandably reluctant to assume responsibility for tardy strangers. If your guest is unharmed, merely late, and manages to dash into the theater as the lights go down–treading on toes and whispering loudly, oblivious to the annoyance of everyone his immediate vicinity, “Here I am, here I am. So sorry. You’ll never guess what happened!”–he has still wrecked the concentration you needed to summon up to do your job and prevented you from reading the program before the performance begins. Skip the program notes for a piece by, say, William Forsythe, and you won’t have a clue to the significance of the onstage shenanigans. (This, of course, may be revelatory. At the onset of postmodernism, a colleague told me that, as a matter of principle, he never read the notes for a performance until he was traveling home in the subway. At which point he’d find himself exclaiming aloud, to the bemusement of his fellow straphangers, “Oh, so that’s what it’s about.”)

Then there’s the date who arrives promptly but, failing to enjoy the performance, sees fit to blame her disappointment on her critic host, whose very job description often features enduring these emotions, which must then be cogently expressed. The guest who reacts in this blame-the-critic mode is well on the way to having her name expunged from the critic’s list of PGs, unless she can get comfortable with the fact that the critic’s invitation merely offered her a free ticket and was not a guarantee of a good time.

My husband, whom I was careful to offer some of dancing’s best bets in the early stages of my reviewing career, was too well-mannered to take me to task if a performance failed to seduce him. But I have rueful memories of his sitting beside me, passively submitting to what was clearly torture to him, as was indicated by the fact that his shoulders were traveling up toward his ears. In the intermissions, mind you, he didn’t voice his complaints, apart from a regular even-toned observation: “That music was not meant to be accompanied by dancing.” But his body language said it all.

Ironically, my husband is an ideal audience member, the one established dance companies are trying to reach. He is highly educated, highly cultivated. Though his professional life lies in science, he’s particularly sensitive to the arts. When it comes to dance, he lacks that passion that characterizes the fan and the specialist–the art of his heart is music–but he can be counted on to respond to dancing perceptively. Unfortunately, as time has gone by, there has been increasingly less that can engage him. Through him, I’ve regretfully come to understand that much of what a dance critic goes to see in the line of duty will not speak to the ordinary viewer–the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s “common reader.” This does not mean that the fare needs to be dumbed down or juiced up to the level of popular entertainment, as key dance purveyors have decided of late, but that high art–superb choreography sublimely danced–has become a rarity. To this day, colleagues and sundry other acquaintances indicate that my husband should be at my side when I’m working, sharing the pair. “What does he do while you’re at the theater?” they inquire plaintively. Over the years, I’ve developed a reply: “I don’t know. I’m not there.” Often I suspect he’s having a better time than I am.

If mates form a special category of guest, children constitute another. For the young–at least for those not entirely corrupted by popular culture and its souped-up, mechanically delivered spectacles–attending a live performance is in itself an adventure. When my offspring lived under my roof, they were my frequent theater-going companions. The boy eventually got all too choosy. Invited to see Swan Lake or Agon performed by the big guns, he’d inquire, “Who’s dancing?” The more he saw, though, the more his interest shifted from the purely aesthetic to the excitements and the inner workings of theatrical performance. (You have to understand his type: As a high school student, volunteering once a week at a hospital, he preferred being assigned to intensive care and the emergency room.) I believe my son’s biggest dance-viewing thrill was getting to stand in the wings when Erik Bruhn, who had a passing acquaintance with our family, performed the role of the witch, Madge, in La Sylphide. “When Erik threw the stick into the wings,” the elated boy reported afterwards, “it hit me!” After that, offered the chance to share my press pair, he’d ask, half wistful, half-challenging, “Can I watch from the wings?”

The girl child, who was training at the School of American Ballet, readily accompanied me to whatever the classical gang was up to and to a sampling of the major moderns as well, though she was understandably prejudiced in favor of the former, New York City Ballet in particular. I must confess that I got her started at the ridiculous age of four–and with a full-length Swan Lake, no less. (The ideal starter ballet for the younger set is Balanchine’s Coppélia, but it’s not always available.) When my daughter grew up, her interest and activities shifted to modern dance and the genres that descended and spun off from it, so then she also happily accepted my invitations to performances that encompassed full body contact with the floor. Eventually she started writing about dance and occasionally invited me to share her pair, a reversal that pleased us both. Over the years we’ve been to (and through) so much together–dancewise and otherwise–that we have a simultaneous accord at moments of aesthetic bliss and, on the other hand, need only glance at each other, in the course of a performance that should never have been allowed to happen, to indicate, Oh, God, here it comes again! When my daughter grew up even further, pregnancy and motherhood curtailed her availability for performances, but before long the cycle began again with her elder daughter, Lili, now a nymphet of five.

I and my daughter tacitly refrained from introducing the child to the all too seductive (and cruel) world of professional dance, but an aunt on the other side of the family, who simply thought dancing an appropriate thing for the “girlie girl” she fancies her niece to be, gave this innocent my colleague Barbara Newman’s excellent tome for susceptible youngsters, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories. The die was cast. Imagine a child of three and a half for whom a domain of fantasy uniquely corresponding to her temperament and inclinations was opened by a single book. We had to buy a second copy of it, because she wore out the first one, carrying it around with her everywhere, demanding that it be read to her, poring over it by herself, as if absorbing the pictures and the words (which she could not yet read) by some sort of magical osmosis. After much hesitation my daughter and I decided to take the inevitable next step: letting her see a performance. Since I was the one with the access to free tickets, it was I who made this possible. Mea culpa.

Given her tender age, which requires an early bedtime, and the fact that most weekends she’s in the country, this nascent balletomane is pretty much restricted to Wednesday matinees. Nevertheless, in the course of three seasons, she has managed to see Swan Lake, Giselle, Balanchine’s Nutcracker; the Kirov’s Bayadère (nearly four hours, mind you!), two program-length ballets by Ashton, and a miscellany including abstract works. Like most children and many an adult viewer, she favors ballets that tell stories, yet after attending an ABT program of short pieces and excerpts set to Tchaikovsky music, chosen because she longs to see The Sleeping Beauty and chunks of it were being offered, she claimed as her favorite “the one that was just steps” (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations).

Attention span is no problem; this child is obsessed by dancing, and her passion keeps her riveted. (Not being allowed to watch television helps too.) If, as has happened on occasion, she gets tired or bored, she quietly dozes off for a few minutes, then returns to the action. Her viewing behavior might serve as an example to my more fractious adult companions.

The only stumbling block with this exceedingly young guest was familiarizing her with the more intricate narratives, pre-performance. Give the Swan Lake or Giselle stories a few readings and even Sara, Lili’s toddler sister, could absorb the essentials. La Bayadère and Ashton’s Dream, were more of a challenge, though–until I lit upon the idea of acting out the plot with the little girls’ formidable collection of Playmobil figures (two-and-a-half-inch-high plastic mannequins, designed to embody any story the owner’s imagination projects upon them).

Although our household didn’t possess quite enough women to make up a decent corps for the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, Lili was content to let men and children wend their way down the ramp we constructed, and we did have the obligatory tiger, to say nothing of a snake reputed to be poisonous, for other key moments in the ballet. After several rehearsals over a two-week period–I would read the libretto aloud and hum snatches of the music while my granddaughter put our plastic cast through its motions–we were ready.

That vivid, hands-on act-it-out-with-toys preparation may even help the adult instructor. Always fuzzy about the human lovers in Shakespeare, I am now crystal clear on the vagaries-in-love of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander and can view Ashton’s and Balanchine’s takes on their kaleidoscopic adventures of the heart without confusion.

When I was teaching–dance criticism, at Barnard College–my students were another excellent bet for sharing the pair. Many of them could not afford to buy tickets on a regular basis, so the freebies were of practical help. If the students’ means were limited, though, their eagerness and openness were just the opposite. Their average age was 20, so much was new to them, and–not through naiveté, for they were in many ways sophisticated, but because the world was still fresh to them–they endowed everything in sight with the potential of being wonderful. These undergraduates repeatedly expressed their gratitude for my generosity, but it was I who was indebted to them. Their response, devoid of the jaded, cynical stance that can result from overexposure or too much disheartening experience, refreshed my own vision. And I found something well-nigh sacred in witnessing a young adult’s first encounter with Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, say, or Taylor’s Esplanade or Graham’s Primitive Mysteries; I felt privileged to be present as a sublime work of art kindled its light in a new soul. Barely recovered from the poetic shock of his first Serenade, one young man asked me, awestruck, “Is it always like this?” I hated telling him no and did so as gently as possible.

One long winter season, years ago, I got fed up with the process of getting a date for performances and embarked upon a project that was, granted, peculiar but relevant to a couple of my interests. My aim was to read the entire Little House series (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic account, for children, of a pioneer American family)–in Danish (at which my skill is low-intermediate), during intermissions.

Alas, you can’t comfortably carry out such a reading program tucked comfortably into your seat unless you’re safely placed in the middle of a row. Press seats, however, are most likely to be just off the aisle. Once upon a time, this location was assigned to critics for the daily newspapers, who had to zip out to their journal’s office as the curtain fell and produce a review for publication the next morning. Today, with few exceptions, only the new breed of Internet reviewers are in that much of a hurry, but the critic’s two-on-the-aisle tradition persists. Forget about reading your book in this perch. At intermission, half your row clambers over you to get into the aisle, and then, of course, must clamber back. No, you have to seek out a secluded corner in the lobby or corridors of the theater, away from your colleagues who are quite naturally disposed to meet-and-greet you, lean against the wall, and, in that unlikely position, attempt to immerse yourself in the alternative universe of your book.

It’s a hard act to bring off, and I couldn’t keep it up for more than that single season. But it was an illuminating experience, one I believe I’m ready to try again. Wilder’s prose style is so pure, her narrative translates deftly into another language. (And you can use the exquisite English original as a pony.) This text is an impeccable model for journalists. Dance writers in particular will find instructive examples for their trade in the descriptive passages, which show how unadorned clarity, steadily pursued, accumulates into expressive power. The key characters in the saga–Laura, Mary, Ma, and Pa–are excellent company, free from the trivial distractions and self-absorption typical of our contemporary urban lives, and (again blessedly unlike our PGs) perennially accessible. If further argument is needed for this admittedly offbeat alternative to a sharer of the critic’s pair, I’d suggest that learning a language by reading children’s classics in it is no more singular an occupation, no more excessive a folly, after all, than a night-after-night diet of watching dance, which results in, among other lamentable things, a social life largely confined to intermissions.

© 2007 Tobi Tobias

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