Lucking Out: my life getting down and semi-dirty in seventies new york by James Wolcott and Vaganova Today, The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition by Catherine W. Pawlick recently arrived in the mail in the same box, bound tightly together with thin, stretchy plastic wrap. Haglund stared at them in the box for several days trying to decide which one to read first. In the above photo of the book on the right side, Agrippina Vaganova's spooky eyes glare out into a ballet studio at the famous Vaganova Academy while an advanced student confidently grasps the barre to execute a grand battement. On the left book jacket, a spooky fellow hovers under the glare of lights shining down from the Manhattan Bridge while perhaps he searches for an open bar or someone with whom to share a battement. Cozy plastic wrap aside, these two books which focus on cultures that are worlds apart were written by two strangers who Haglund now estimates are probably linked by fewer than three degrees of separation.
In Vaganova Today, Pawlick introduces us to the woman whose teaching methods and influence have held Biblical importance in the ballet world for many decades. No other methodology or school has produced as many universally recognized icons in ballet as the Vaganova Academy. In the years since Vaganova's death in 1951, generations of gifted dancers have continued to be schooled in the traditional methods at the Vaganova Academy. However, modern western influences that appeal to a broader, less sophisticated audience have pressure-wormed their ways into the school's artistic end product which lands on the Mariinsky stage. Gymnastic feats that employ extreme flexibility in a single joint or limb which then disassociates from the overall harmony of the body have sent the needle on the meter of moronic applause wild the world over. The dancers and directors at the Mariinsky are not immune to the applause meter, especially if the sound of the ovation floats in from the west where the grass of artistic opportunity has always been perceived as being greener.
Pawlick recites a recent Italian study that firmly illustrated the audience's changing preferences for higher extensions from 1962 to 2003. As she notes, there had been no change in dancers' abilities to crank up their legs over that time; rather, the change evolved as an artistic choice in response to audience appreciation and expectation.
What Haglund observed is that during the 41 years covered by the study, there was a significant broadening of the western audience for ballet and a corresponding and significant watering down of sophistication of the ballet audience. As the uninitiated were seduced to ballet performances, they brought with them expectations informed by gymnastics, diving, basketball, high jumping, ice skating, and other sports where the more extreme the physical action, the greater the reward and the more likely the win. Ballet has done little to educate audiences about what they should assess or value in a ballet performance. In fact, ballet's media campaigns have pushed along the concept that ballet is just another sport that everyone will enjoy for the height of the legs, the extreme flexibility, and big jumps. That is all that mainstream media can measure, and that's all ballet companies can think to do in order to tap into a broader audience.
Employing some fancy footwork herself, Pawlick managed to secure brief but revealing interviews with reigning pedagogues, coaches, and teachers at the Vaganova Academy and the Mariinsky, the current director of the school, Altynai Asylmuratova, and the current predominant classical ballerina in the world, Uliana Lopatkina. So many of the interview subjects expressed to Pawlick their concern and sadness over the waning of the high standards created by Agrippina Vaganova and the overall adverse effect it has had on the way the Mariinsky Ballet dances. Lopatkina, who now and then slips an excessive extension into her balletic voice, is considered by many to be the ultimate representation of what the modern Vaganova-born ballerina should be. That she is also beautifully articulate in her speaking came as no surprise. Pawlik writes:
At the mention of the shifting of aesthetics in ballet today, Lopatkina is very frank and direct in her response. She doesn't hesitate to point out that the Vaganova style can be preserved even while adopting new "trends" in dance, but that it must be done with extreme care:
'The tendency of modern classical ballet to change the measure of degree of the pose, the approach toward what is artistic gymnastics, it's my opinion that the Vaganova system saves classical ballet from entering into sports, if you understand her system correctly. What is "correctly"? I can explan: no matter how high you lift the leg, each position must be a harmonious composition that incorporates the diagonals of the legs, arms, and the pose of the head. So you have to look very carefully at how high to lift the leg. The requirements of beauty must be harmoniously combined together; if you pay specific attention to the beauty of line, then classical ballet remains ballet even under the changes in the degrees of a position. The line must be logical.'
It may not be too soon to offer a little prayer that Uliana Lopatkina will one day be the Director of the Mariinsky Ballet.
While Baryshnikov, Makarova, and even Gelsey Kirkland were all sailing through success after success in New York in the 1970s promoting the purity of the Vaganova aesthetic, James Wolcott was caressing the underbelly of the big city ship as it slowly sank into the sludge of hard times. In his memoir Lucking Out: my life getting down and semi-dirty in seventies new york, Wolcott escorts us through the years that were the high times and the low of times for New York. He makes you smell every part of it, and at times, makes you want to wash your hands before turning the page.
Upon first arriving in New York, Wolcott was introduced to the charms of the locals at the Port Authority Bus Terminal – pimps, winos, etc. – before making his way down to the Village Voice where he eventually landed a desk job of sorts. Some time later, the Village Voice Vaganova principal, Maryia Perotrova Nicholova, expelled him for throwing his leg all the way up to his ear one too many times – or something like that – the H.H. Fact Checkers will need to verify that when they return from sabbatical. But he continued to write critical pieces for the Voice and many other publications, covering the evolution of punk and rock at CBGB's and other significant clubs, all the while hanging with the likes of Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and especially film critic Pauline Kael.
Wolcott notes that Kael was the driving force in the 1970s who persuaded The New Yorker to enhance its dance coverage by hiring writer Arlene Croce. "Croce's arrival at The New Yorker was a signature moment for the magazine and for dance criticism, another masterstroke by the editor William Shawn." Kael's mentoring force and friendship are warmly remembered through much of the book. In recalling the first time he was blown away by a relatively unknown Patti Smith and her drummerless band and then had to pen his review in the Village Voice, Wolcott recalls:
One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or "carried away," because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care. It's better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in the '70s that drew Wolcott into the New York State Theater where sitting in the Fourth Ring he first breathed in Balanchine and Robbins in a bill of Firebird, Afternoon of a Faun, and Serenade – the last which he recalls was his "Song of Bernadette moment, my face bathed in miracle light." A few more innocent excursions to the NYCB followed, and then bam!, he was one of them - a subscriber in the Fourth Ring who referred to his favorite dancers by first name "I saw Patty last week in Coppelia" and haunted The Ballet Shop on Broadway. He was in the audience for Suzanne Farrell's first performance upon returning from Bejart and for Darci Kistler's return after her long layoff from injury. He witnessed PAMTGG and Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir. He recalled Baryshnikov's first Giselle with American Ballet Theatre as "not only a comet moment for ballet but one of the defining jolts to hit New York in the seventies."
Wolcott recalls that back then:
To the faithful, New York City Ballet was the only true team in town, the diamond crown. I once asked a literary intellectual if he followed ballet, and his response was, with a distinct note of corrective, "I follow New York City Ballet," as if any other brand were simply too lower shelf. NYCB was the monarch Yankees and its closest rival for attention, American Ballet Theatre, the patchwork Mets, its bench strength and institutional heritage nowhere near as deep or storied. NYCB prided itself on not being fame-driven in its casting and promotional material (it didn't import internationally renowned dancers for B-12 ass-bumps of glamour)
Of course, it took a renowned import, Baryshnikov, to guide ABT on a path toward blessed, blissed-out organic growth before the current director reversed its evolution to its current sorry state.
On the accessibility of ballet, Wolcott writes:
And what I grew to learn about the ballet world was that, once inside, it was like every other subculture high and low in Manhattan in the seventies. It looked like a members-only society only if you lacked the nerve and desire to enter; it wasn't warm and welcoming–what was?–but it offered its own gradations of grudging acceptance, based not on money, breeding, boarding-school connections, Ivy League affiliation, the right address, or the ability to wield a salad fork like a neurosurgeon's scalpel but on the measure of knowledge, passion, and dogged curiosity for seeing what was out there to see because there was always something new to see even in things you had seen so many times before, a fresh interpretation that blew off the chalk dust. It made you come to it, rise to the challenging occasion.