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When the Power Fails

In dance, the breakdown of prowess is nearly as important as strength as a potent form of communication

July 14, 2002|LEWIS SEGAL

Nearly a decade ago in the Sahara, just outside Timbuktu, I saw dances by the nomadic Tuareg people--the women in black, the men in deep indigo with turbans that covered their faces except for their eyes.

A one-legged youth kept joining these dances, always with greater energy and bravado than everyone else. If the others danced for their own pleasure, he seemed propelled by another agenda--not, I think, to solicit sympathy, but to show that he belonged, to stay in the game.

In world dance, physical prowess defines an individual's place in a specific culture, the absorption of its value systems and its ideals of manhood or womanhood. Similarly, in much of European and American concert dance, prowess usually reflects our obsession with youth and fitness, in a heightened and celebratory form.

But as important as prowess is in dance, there is a long tradition of dramatizing its breakdown or destruction as a potent form of movement communication.

After all, the game eventually ends. While some concert dance forms can be performed with high proficiency in old age (notably tap), dancer prowess often erodes quickly and cruelly. Dance makers have long interpreted that loss metaphorically, depicting crises in human endurance or showing the skill that comes with dance training as a kind of mask, with the real dancer revealed only when it is stripped off.

Consider a quote from choreographer James Kudelka, now artistic director of National Ballet of Canada, who once said that he likes to exhaust his dancers early in a piece. "I believe the point of exhaustion is when people move the way they really move," he said. "All the pretenses drop away and they really start seeing that it's got to come from another place that's much deeper inside."

"A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths," wrote modern dance icon Martha Graham in her autobiography. "The first, the physical, when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish."

Although Graham never choreographed a work on that potent theme, you can find plenty of dances that depict the destruction of physical power.

In the ballet "Giselle," for instance, the title character dances herself to death, her unwelcome suitor Hilarion soon succumbs to the same fate and her beloved Albrecht dances nearly to the point of extinction at the end of the ballet.

In such passages, the priorities of a veteran dancer summoning all his resources to perform a taxing role can neatly dovetail with the priorities of a choreographer showing a character attempting to survive a dangerous ordeal.

When Argentine ballet star Julio Bocca first danced Albrecht, he feigned exhaustion, he said recently. "But when I do a ballet, I use what I feel, and now, at 35, I'm really tired at that moment, and I show it."

At 34, Ukrainian ballet star Vladimir Malakhov also says that Albrecht's dancing leaves him "without energy because I give everything away and put all my energy [into Albrecht's need] to survive somehow." However, he, like Bocca, is careful about the shape he makes when Albrecht collapses, trying "to fall in a nice position, not with one leg to the left and one to the right."

One of the 20th century's earliest and most strangely personal depictions of prowess' destruction comes in "The Rite of Spring," a seminal one-act evocation of pagan Russia choreographed in 1913 by Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest virtuoso of his time.

In the finale, a village maiden is sacrificed by dancing herself to death in a twisted turned-in movement style that was wildly controversial at the work's premiere. "Everything you do is pulled down into the earth," according to Carole Valleskey, one of two dancers who alternated in the role when the Joffrey Ballet reconstructed the ballet in 1987.

"Dancing it, you really became exhausted and glad when the end was near," she remembered recently. "But that feeling served the role really well because the character has to come to an acceptance of her fate, a sort of welcome that all the pain is going to be over."

"When you read Nijinsky's diaries, you understand that he saw himself as a sacrificial victim," Valleskey said. "So I used to identify the role with Nijinsky himself. What he gave the dancer to do was something he was noted for: jumping. But instead of creating straightforward jumps, he made them inverted, awkward and desperate, leading to collapse.

"In that sense, Nijinsky showed himself being offered up as a jumping sacrifice. That role was him."

The over-reliance on technique in all forms of concert dance inspired major backlashes in the last half of the 20th century: such anti-prowess idioms as postmodernism, with its initial emphasis on everyday movement and rejection of virtuosity, and radical Japanese butoh, with its focus on cycles of decay and regeneration alien to the concept of dance as hyper-athletic.

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