Dancing At The White House — Finally!

Cover of "Billy Elliot"
Cover of Billy Elliot

Great story about Michelle Obama yesterday inviting a disparate group of professional dancers — and students — to perform at The White House:

Dancers of all types — ballet, modern, hip hop and Broadway — take over the room, first for an afternoon workshop, during which students from around the country will have the chance to work with some of the biggest names in dance.

Then, after a short break, the students return to see their mentors perform in an hour-long, star-studded show. Even Broadway’s young “Billy Elliot” will be there — four Billys actually, from the show’s rotating cast.

But the main attraction is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and that’s because its celebrated artistic director, Judith Jamison, soon to retire after two decades in the job, is the honoree of the event.

“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said in a weekend interview. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times before, but this event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”

I’ve been studying dance — ballet and jazz — for decades. Right now, class is off-limits because of my arthritic hip, and I miss it terribly. Once you have studied dance, the world looks different. You carry yourself with grace and strength. You learn the amazing things your body can do, and its limitations. You hear a piece of music and wonder how you might choreograph it.

I once performed in Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center, a production by the National Ballet of Canada, as an extra. It was one of my life’s greatest thrills, not to mention being able to use the stage entrance!

Unlike music, easily and cheaply downloaded on iTunes and available free on any radio or Internet stream, dance remains less visible, less understood and, sadly, less appreciated for the skill, stamina, artistry and dedication it requires.

Watch La Danse, a great new documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a portrait of the Paris Opera ballet company, and you’ll get a great primer in this complex, challenging world.

I loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about one of my favorite ballets, ever, Balanchine’s Serenade:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

If you have never watched a live dance performance, go! Try modern, tap, ballet, hip-hop. Anything. It will — I hope — change your life as well.

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