on dance: a conversation

elinor hitt & cassidy hall

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Elinor Hitt and Cassidy Hall, dancers with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, question how the rhythm of New York shapes a dancer’s identity, and discuss the aesthetic of choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, who together created seminal 20th-century works for the New York City Ballet. 

C: When I was sixteen, I moved to New York City and was exposed for the first time to ballet training in the Balanchine technique. It is radically fast-paced and mentally challenging. I was also trying to figure out how to navigate a city that’s also bustling and fast-paced. The excitement of the city and the technique aligned so perfectly.

E: I’ve been thinking about a book I read recently, The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. It’s about an opera singer, about sixteen, seventeen, moving to Chicago and then to New York. We usually think that a city feeds art in some romantic way—like Woody Allen and Gershwin, if you’re placing it here. But the city affects Cather’s protagonist very harshly. She gains momentum only by moving against the grain of the city. She is sent, by her first experiences in Chicago, into an excited state of artistic revelation. Reading it, I thought a lot about first moving to New York. The city felt abrasive and energetic, and it was exciting to learn to incorporate that energy into my body’s movement.

C: At the time, I actually felt more pride about moving to New York and living in New York than I did about dancing, which, when I think back, is kind of absurd – the sole purpose of the move was ballet!

E: But it’s true. Part of the appeal of Balanchine technique is that it’s specific to New York.

C: I wonder, though, if it still is. Because Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets were such things of their time. They created these pieces in a certain era.

E: New York from the 1930s through the 1970s.

C: Exactly. The ballets are still poignant today, and the technique is still there. We are still learning from Balanchine-trained dancers, but as soon as that generation dies out, are we going to keep the New York style?

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E:  I think that as long as dance is being made in New York, the creative process will always retain the energy. But post-Balanchine, there is no longer a genius tapped into that energy, which is what I think makes things different. Could you explain what the Balanchine technique is like? And how it relates to musicality and time?

C: To me, the technique is all about presentation: how you show your face, and how you show your chest, and how you open up to an audience.

E: It’s about angles and architecture.

C: And at the same time not making the movement strict or harsh.

E: To a lot of people, the Balanchine style comes across as incredibly harsh, though. Even the way the Balanchine training sculpts your body can be off-putting. This is what struck me when I auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet. I stuck out from the crowd because my muscles were built like an athlete’s, sprung to move quickly. My body is trained to interpret musical time differently than the French body is. It’s a different kind of lyricism. A French dancer seems more lyrical in my mind, but I don’t know.

C: Well, the difference is in how they interpret the music. They hear the music and they are lagging a half a second behind it. They are letting the note take them and carry them somewhere. Whereas a Balanchine dancer is almost ahead of the music, knowing what’s next and already anticipating it, which is imperative to dancing to Stravinsky. But I don’t think there is any dance style that is directly on the music. I can’t picture what that would be.

E: It comes down to a personal interpretation of the music by an individual dancer, and you know it when you see it. But it’s not something you can teach.

C: Movement never totally aligns with sound, just from a scientific point of view—how sound and light travel through space. By being a little ahead of the music you can create the illusion that you are perfectly on the music. Moving a little bit behind the tempo, it looks as if music carries the dancer. It’s a different way of trying to create an image on stage. It’s about what you’re trying to convey.

E: The Balanchine technique is much more deeply rooted in urgency. He and Stravinsky came to New York from Russia and felt the pace of the city. They took it to the extreme, and could translate urgency into dance and music.

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C: But is that urgency still present in dance being made in New York now?

E: Choreographers have somehow lost it. Something about the scene is dead—which is odd, because you think art would continue to naturally feed off the city in the same way.

C: But maybe the city itself is going through a bit of an identity crisis. When you think about it, there is gentrification happening in places that were defined by the communities that first lived there. And maybe through all this change, we are losing something. All this we say as we sit in Harlem, two white Columbia students.

E: It’s true. Balanchine and Stravinsky were very aware of what was happening in the world, especially of what was happening in Europe on the brink of World War II. Cultural awareness provoked an urgent need to make art. It was an emergency. As an artist and as a dancer, you must ask yourself questions – you must come to terms with your own identity and your place in the world. And then you must translate it into art. I don’t know if the need to ask those questions is as immediate any more. Maybe that’s why dance, here, is in a sad state. Because people aren’t asking vital questions any more.

C: I think some people are asking. I think making art is about loving something passionately. And I think people still feel romantic passion for the city. I’ve noticed this urgency in the work of younger, independent dance companies throughout New York City. New standards are being set. The larger arts establishments need to find a way to channel the new energy and rise to the changing standards.

E: Suzanne Farrell said something that stuck with me: “Make the tempo be your pulse.” That’s something you can get as a dancer, and that’s also something you can get as a New Yorker. The energy you get from walking down the streets of New York is the same energy you get from dancing to a complex Stravinsky score—because the music was built out of this city’s architecture.