Looking at Older Dancers

Looking at Older Dancers

It is the American Ballet Theatre Fiftieth Anniversary Gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the flickering shadows of the past are falling tall on the ground. Fifty years ̶ no great length of time for human institutions yet, in the special circumstances of dance, long enough to embrace four or five nearly distinct generations of dancers.

We are so accustomed to the idea that for a dancer it is a short life but a merry one that we take for granted concepts of age that would be unthinkable in virtually any other profession, except most sports. Consider, for a moment, music: At fifty a concert pianist is thought of as only just reaching his maturity, while a conductor is still regarded as positively young! In acting there are all the career gradations needed to accommodate the Seven Ages of Man; even opera singers, if as caring with their voices as an Alfredo Kraus or a Carlo Bergonzi, can still sail along cheerfully and sonorously into their sixties.

Nevertheless, although the curves of its career arc may have some resemblance, dance is not a sport. Sport ̶ which depends almost exclusively on physical prowess and skills ̶ is indeed a young person’s game. But for a dancer, the capacity for interpretation develops as it does for any other artist.

A violinist of fifty will bring qualities different from, and presumably deeper than, those of a debut artist of twenty and will stroke his Stradivarius with increasing mastery. The same is true of a dancer ̶ except in one respect. A dancer’s body is his instrument, subject to all the frailties that the body is heir to.

It is as though the master violinist had been given a perfect Strad: every year his artistry developed, his comprehension became more profound. But every year the Strad deteriorated, its qualities slowly eroding until it became impossible to play upon. For a time the gain in artistry and technique will outweigh the losses suffered from the instrument’s decline, but sooner or later the point will be reached when the physical losses can no longer be offset. There will only be sad echoes of genius. And so it is with dancers.

Some dancers’ careers are rather longer than many people would imagine possible. Physically the demands seem to be more akin to marathon running than to sprinting, and in competitive running the career of the long-distance runner is markedly longer than that of most other athletes. But even for the longest-running dancer, time will tell.

Two of ABT’s most illustrious stars, who were once among its most celebrated partnerships, were present at the gala: Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch. Alonso, at sixty-eight, is, so far as I know, the oldest active classical ballerina in dance history, and she performed punctiliously BUT PAINFULLY, THE Odette duet from Swan Lake, Act II. Youskevitch, at a remarkably youthful seventy-seven and long retired, restricted himself to speech, although he did permit himself a ghostly rond de jambe en l’air which, as he ruefully reminded us, he once “did better.”

Youskevitch seemed the wiser of ABT’s two prodigals ̶ although until comparatively recently the incredible longevity and continued mastery of Alonso was a matter of almost universal comment and agreement among dance audiences. But the time does come.

Many of our ballerinas in recent years have performed well into their fifties: Alicia Markova retired at fifty-two; Galina Ulanova also at fifty-two, even though she did not make her acclaimed New York City debut until she was forty-nine; the French ballerina Yvette Chauviré did not retire until she was fifty-five; an at this same Ballet Theatre gala Carla Fracci, at fifty-three, danced a fragment from Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of long-distance dancing came from the incredible Margot Fonteyn, not so much for the length of her career ̶ although she continued to make mime appearances I her late sixties ̶ but for taking the idea of late development to unbelievable lengths. Fonteyn actually, and uniquely, improved technically in her late forties and early fifties; she did not even start the partnership with Rudolph Nureyev that set the seal on her career until she was forty-three.

In modern dance the situation is rather different.  Modern dancers tend to take up their careers later and to continue longer.  Martha Graham danced until she was seventy-six.  Merce Cunningham is still dancing at seventy, and Erick Hawkins only retired last year, at eighty.

Dancers that don’t retire comparatively early always run the risk of outstaying their welcome.  Sometimes (and the Danes are unusually adept at this-think of Erik Bruhn) they have the sense to vary their repertoire so that they dance roles more suitable to their maturity and do not run the saddening risk of competing with their past.

Despite all the exceptions, however, most dancers retire before they are forty, and quite a few before they are thirty.  And they are not like policemen or firefighters, retiring young on a substantial pension.  In this country at least, they are retiring on zilch-or rather on nothing but the little they have been able to save from a generally underpaid career.

Some can continue in dance in another capacity: occasionally as choreographers or regisseurs, sometimes as company directors, or as teachers, coaches, or administrators.  But most will have to start a second career at midlife with virtually no experience of the outside world, for the hermetically sealed dance community has only tenuous contacts with economic and social reality.

In Britain a scheme is being developed for dancer reeducation, giving dancers vocational training and guidance to enable them to make the transition to “civilian” life and to start new careers with new skills.  This is surely something to which we as a dance community must pay much more attention than we have in the past.  Dancers have special talents, and their training has honed special skills, all of which might be applicable to use in quite different fields-various forms of therapy, for example, sports training of theatrical technology, journalism or photography.

Meanwhile, the work of gerontologists and others that is enabling most Americans to live longer and even to stay younger should, of course, enable dancers to have longer active careers.  And this too is vitally important, for older dancers have a great deal to give.

Serge Diaghilev was fond of saying that he was only interested in dancers when they were either very young or very old.  One can see what he meant-as long as they are not too old or, for that matter, too young.

Copyright©1990, Dance Magazine.

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