Pennsylvania Ballet: Balanchine and Millepied

When artists are athletes (and vice versa)

Ochoa (right) with Zachary Hench: They could have been weightlifters.
Ochoa (right) with Zachary Hench: They could have been weightlifters.

A weightlifter friend of mine trained in ballet from age four to 18. She stopped to attend college, picked up judo, quickly qualified for collegiate nationals and then competed internationally. Two years ago, she touched a barbell for the first time; today she places in national level competitions.

I thought of my friend's athletic history while watching Balanchine's Agon at the Pennsylvania Ballet the other night. More specifically, I thought of the breeding— both "social" and genetic— that makes such a varied high-level athletic career possible.

In Greek, agon denotes a contest, whether intellectual or athletic; as a root, it forms the basis for the combatant terms "protagonist" and "antagonist." Balanchine's ballet touches on these concepts by drawing first on the courtly dances of 17th-Century France, such as the Sarabande and Galliard.

The men and women who originally performed these dances represented the pinnacle of aristocratic social and genetic breeding. Each dance accentuates both forms of development, for instance, by requiring the poise to display a finely shaped calf as a dancer crossed one leg over the next while striding across a stage.

A dancer's breeding

Likewise, Balanchine's Agon looks very pretty at first, with alternating quartets or octets cocking a head or unraveling an arm in gestures that begin and end with curtsies and bows. In its grace and charm, Agon certainly reflects the type of breeding that enabled chevaliers carrying epees to claim descent from knights who once wielded broadswords.

But as this Agon progressed, it dropped the courtly gestures and evolved into a pitched contest that showed the breeding a ballet dancer requires. Ian Hussey exploded forward with a high kick to the harsh sound of a horn, only to land confidently on one leg and then repeat the motion for each note of the music. Later, Arantxa Ochoa paired with Francis Veyette to match her strength and will against his in a pas de deux that blended gymnastics, contortionism and the execution of seemingly impossible poses.

As Ochoa stood I with one leg, she titled forward at the hip and slowly raised her other leg up along the contour of Veyette's torso. With her leg now pointed vertically and resting against his body, he slid around the side of hers— while she remained en pointe!— and used her strength to lower himself down by her one arm onto the floor.

With each slight, painfully executed movement, the gasps of the audience increased in both frequency and intensity. When Ochoa and Veyette finished, I felt so exhilarated I wanted to scream.

Gift to the audience

My friends include some of the top strength athletes in the country, and yet I've rarely seen such displays of tensile strength. To see it coupled with Agon's required grace and charm— well, the words "respect" and "admiration" fail to convey my regard for an athlete like Ochoa.

Like my weightlifter friend, Ochoa and Veyette could have excelled at the highest levels in many sports. That they chose the relatively underpaid and underappreciated world of dance is their gift to any audience that sees them perform.

Two dimensions or three?

If Agon evinced the dancers' unexplored athletic careers, Benjamin Millepied's This Part in Darkness showed that many of them could pursue Hollywood roles. The curtain rose on a 60-by-40-foot screen hung at the back of the stage, showing real-time footage of soloist Barrette Vance walking into the theater from near the orchestra pit. At the back of the stalls, Alexander Iziliaev shouldered a video camera and filmed her walking up the aisle toward him.

As the audience watched onscreen, Vance proceeded into the lobby to find Jonathan Stiles; the pair danced slowly to the opening percussive sounds of David Lang's intensely haunting Pierced. Millepied wisely chose Vance for this role; with her sun-drenched California look, she's the company's most telegenic member, and the camera sharply shot the pair from the waist up.

As that video faded, four male dancers bounded across the stage and four more men joined them a bit later. Meanwhile, Iziliaev moved backstage to film eight female dancers walking from their dressing rooms to eventually form a line behind the giant screen. The men faced them, and then the visual image split to show each gender, as if in reality, squaring off against the other through the screen. All then raced toward the center of the stage.

Trance-like energy

If that sounds cool, well, it certainly added a level of spectacle. But Millepied's work, filled with a frenetic, trance-like energy, could have stood alone without the video.

(I can't say the same of a work like Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, whose entire second act hinges on a multimedia sequence. There, the addition of video depends entirely on execution.)

In Millepied's case— and perhaps the integration of video to any dance— the real question is: What does it add? And what does it reveal?

Millepied positioned four cameras to film his piece: three stationary and one on Iziliaev's shoulder as he darted in and out of the ensemble moving across the stage. A camera hung from the scaffolding lent a bird's eye view that captured the geometric positioning of bodies writhing or spinning on the floor below. Projected onto the screen, the shifting arrangements looked like the reflection inside a kaleidoscope.

Bird's eye view

On one level, I appreciated this visual element— I've always wanted to see the choreography unfold from up above. But Millepied's spare use of this technique drove home the reason why few art forms prioritize looking down as the primary vantage point for experiencing a work (think how we hang tapestries to view them). Those performing arts that do— for instance, marching bands that spell out letters and words— explicitly design the whole of the performance to achieve a visual effect for an audience situated at a high angle.

But Millepied only structured part of his piece for this effect, and then asked us to view it not looking down, but looking straight ahead on a screen, and that in two dimensions only. (If nothing else, Millepied demonstrated the risks inherent in turning a three-dimensional spatial-temporal art into an aesthetically diminished two-dimensional rendering.)

Backstage tension

In one brief vignette, while Veyette and Vance danced on stage, Iziliaev's camera filled the upper right corner of the screen with footage of Lillian Di Piazza and André Vytoptov sitting backstage against a wall, stealing glances as they intertwined their hands. Here Millepied grabbed hold of video's potential to reveal the psychological complexity behind a piece. Of course, he could have rendered that bit in dance.

Millepied deserves applause for his attempts at innovation as well as his desire to expand the boundaries of contemporary ballet. But do we really need a reminder that backstage tensions affect a performance— especially when Darren Aronofsky, not to mention Millepied's fiancée Natalie Portman, recently explored this theme better in a real film, Black Swan?

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