Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform a “working dress rehearsal” of two upcoming ballets. The first was Summerspace choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1958, followed by a performance to Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
I knew nothing of Cunningham or Summerspace, but one of the Lincoln Center docents provided an explanation in the lobby before the rehearsal began. [These lectures are also provided before and during intermissions at actual performances, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history and concepts of the performances] Cunningham was romantically connected to John Cage, described in Wikipedia as a “pioneer of indeterminacy in music” and “one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.” Cage’s studies of Far East philosophies led to the idea of “chance-controlled music.
Thus, the docent explained, Cummingham believed, like Cage, that meaning and art should be separated. The musical score for Summerspace, actually composed by one Morton Feldman, indicated which instruments would play a specified number of notes at which moments in the performance but the notes were to be chosen by the musician on the spot. The orchestra leader’s job was simply to metronomically keep the time of the beats. The choreography was completed in the absence of music which was then “added” to the performance. As described in Wikipedia:
The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text decision-making tool, which uses chance operations to suggest answers to questions one may pose, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage]
If you can accept the idea that art has no meaning, that music should not follow any thematic or melodic structure and that music can be a sequence of random sounds, you might be able to appreciate Summerspace. I am not one of those people, so I was thoroughly put off by seeing the rehearsal involving 4 ballerinas and 2 male dancers accompanied by a grating sequence of beeps and squeaks provided by flutes and a few other instruments. The dancing was more “modern dance” than ballet and involved a lot of running around (and on and off) the stage with random leaping and interactions of sorts among the dancers. For me, at least, a major part of the magic of ballet arises from the correspondence of the dancers’ feet and the music. I am hardly an “expert” but I know what works for me.
Summerspace was, in any case, a minor distraction. The Piano Concerto rehearsal was next. This stunning piece was performed by a large corps de ballet of 22 dancers and a seven-dancer lead group at the head of which was Sara Mearns who gave the term prima ballerina its full and true meaning. I was transfixed trying to imagine what this ballet would look like when the dancers were in costume. When the rehearsal wound down, I raced home determined to buy tickets if we could get decent seats at an affordable price. We could and I did.
By the time Saturday night arrived, I was afraid I had over-hyped the coming spectacle to my wife but in the event there was no reason for concern.
The first performance was to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, choreography by George Balanchine. Even without any dancing, this would be a great experience because of the glorious music, but with the ballet, it was sublime, a taste of things to come. Then came Summerspace, pretty much as rehearsed.
And then … Sara Mearns and company, again to music by Tschaikovsky, based on a very difficult score but, unlike the rehearsal, with the full orchestra involved and the dancers in beautiful costumes with tiaras both adorned with Swarovski crystals. Watching Mearns was both exhilarating and exhausting. Her gifts seem truly supernatural – she must have been on the stage at full tilt for 90 percent of the entire performance, rarely at rest. Mearns and Russell Janzen were in perfect synchrony throughout and despite the physical demands of their roles, no loss of grace, style or command could be seen.
I remarked at the end that Mearns must need a 24-hour sleep to recover but the truth is likely otherwise. In a 2017 interview, she answered the question: What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?
A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don’t usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day. [https://www.sakara.com/blogs/mag/sara-mearns-prima-ballerina-nyc-ballet]
That article describes Mearns’ early dance history, starting, unhappily (the ironies), at age 3. Fortunately for those privileged to see her dance as a mature woman in full command of her mind and body, her early unhappiness with dance didn’t last long.
The only other astonishing aspect of this event was that many of the seats in the upper (4th) ring of the theater remained unsold. I had never seen anything like this since our first ballet and it was disconcerting that so many people missed this opportunity. The lesson is to never assume that even the greatest performances will be sold out. We had a perfectly fine view of the entire stage and from the heights could see the action in the back and front equally well. It’s a shame that when there is this disconnect between supply and demand, the seats cannot be made available to schools (for example). I understand there are issues of impact on demand for the “better” higher priced seats. and I don’t know how that can be solved. It just seems tragically wasteful that so much talent and beauty is not witnessed and enjoyed by the maximum number of people, many of whom would be converted, as I was, to fans for life.