Violette Verdy Tells it Like it Is

Violette Verdy Tells it Like it Is

Violette Verdy, coaching students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Some of the best dancing I saw last week was not at a performance at all, but rather at a kind of masterclass/discussion in a studio at City Center, part of the “Studio 5” series, hosted by the former New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel. What made it so special was that Woetzel invited the wonderful Violette Verdy to talk about three Balanchine ballets, two of which featured roles which were made for her, and the third of which she danced many, many times. Five dancers from New York City Ballet performed excerpts, which were interspersed with coaching tips by Woetzel and Verdy. It was endlessly revealing.

The three ballets, all of which were created in 1960, were: “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” “Donizetti Variations,” and “Liebeslieder Walzer.” They could not be more different. “Donizetti” is playful and tongue-in-cheek; “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” is a bravura showpiece, with an air of grandeur; and “Liebeslieder” is an elegant chamber ballet set to Brahms songs, about real, adult, couples, as well as an exploration of love. Tiler Peck and Joaquín de Luz performed the partnering sections in the first two (and Daniel Ulbricht danced the virtuoso male variations). The more senior dancers, Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle performed two pas de deux from “Liebeslieder.”

As a dancer, Verdy was famous for her wit, temperament, and musicality. As a coach, she reveals the same qualities. She seems to find just the right words to say to evoke an image, a mood, a point of view for the dancer to find her way through the steps. Throughout the session, she made the most piquant observations and corrections, corrections which immediately offered an insight into the role. What she revealed was a vivid and quick imagination, a grasp of the totality of the role, something which young dancers do not yet have and can learn much from. After Tiler Peck effortlessly performed her buoyant, quicksilver opening solo from “Donizetti”—which, in many ways, feels like a belcanto aria full of trills (the music, after all, is by Donizetti)—Verdy said, “it’s like singing”. In fact, what Peck’s first try had lacked was a clear melody; all the steps—the notes—were played with the same intensity. On her second try, the contrasts began to emerge. Verdy exclaimed her delight: “she’s so buoyant, everything is so fully delivered, and at such a speed!” Then, she gave her another bit of advice: “dance it a little bit for yourself, not just for he audience.” (This was one of Verdy’s specialties—she always looked like she was dancing for herself.) Again, Peck took the hint, giving the steps a tiny edge of pleasure, as if she were surprised at her own ability to throw of the devilishly fast, complex jumps and turns. Again, Verdy was delighted with the way she had executed the steps: “her body laughs when she dances.” Again, the French ballerina had hit it right on the button: one of the delights of watching Peck dance is that, though she does not “project” an interpretation of the steps, her movements themselves are intelligent and reflect the intricacies of the music. Her feet are witty. A final word of wisdom on “Donizetti”: Verdy asked Peck to “lift the soles of her shoes” whenever she did a pas de chat—a jump in which the dancer raises one foot to the nee, then the other, in quick succession. Again, Peck understood just what she meant, or at least her feet did; when she performed the phrase again, she pulled her feet up tightly beneath her and literally hovered in the air, like a hummingbird. It was stunning.

Afterwards, Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle danced a pas de deux from “Liebeslieder”. Verdy had introduced the ballet by saying that it was like a series of very intimate confessions, in which truths were “not exposed,’ but revealed.” In this particular pas de deux, the woman seems to be in a kind of melancholy daze. She walks in slowly; her partner supports her lightly with one hand, the other hand reaching out elegantly. He is giving her the space to move and to think. In a phrase that is repeated several times, she falls softly to the side, resting against one of his arms, with her legs extended beneath her and to the side; she moves one leg slowly in an opulent rond de jambe, forward, then rises into an arabesque on pointe. The lushness and elegance of this simple (but not so simple) arc, and the trust and support it implies, are heart-stopping. Ringer held the mood, gazing into her partner’seyes, or deeply into herself. As the pas de deux came to an end, and the mood slowly lifted, Verdy sighed. “What’s wonderful about her,” she said, “is that she is so true.”

Over the next few months, “Studio 5” will host the Paul Taylor Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, flamenco dancers, and young dancers from the Youth America Grand Prix competitioin. It’s well worth going.

Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N more


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