Eleanor Shows Us How

Here, courtesy of a YouTube channel called ltmoira, are Eleanor D’Antuono and Ivan Nagy performing, with American Ballet Theatre, the pas de deux from Les Sylphides:

This video was posted in 2010 and, other than the poster noting that this is ABT performing Les Sylphides and who the principals are, no other information is given as to when or where this performance was taped.  I’m sure it’s from the 1970s; Nagy, per his Wikipedia page, retired from ABT in 1978 (he died, sadly too soon, in 2014).  I did see him perform live, once, right before he retired, with Natalia Makarova in Giselle—an attentive, respectful partner, his dancing a model of classical deportment.  You can see him here, in another Les Sylphides excerpt, performing the pas de deux with Margot Fonteyn.

As for D’Antuono, she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (why, I ask), but some biographical info on her can be found here at The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory Web site, where’s she’s listed as resident coach and classical repertoire coordinator.  She danced at ABT from 1961 to 1981, mainly as a principal, and performed all the major classical roles.  You can watch an interview with her, a lovely, gracious, and modest woman, recalling her time at ABT here and here.  (You can also see her in excerpts from the Corsair PDD with Alexander Godunov here.)  I saw her onstage twice, once as Coppelia, and once at a gala performing the Spartacus pas de deux.  Her dancing is like her personality, at least as presented:  Lovely and gracious, marked by a becoming modesty.  It’s also clean and unfussy, accented by speed, lightness, and clarity.  She doesn’t call attention to herself but to what she’s performing, in that you see the precision and line, the musical rhythm of the choreography.  You see the dance itself, the dancer serving as its vehicle.

Would D’Antuono be accepted as a ballet dancer today?  She’s slim, compact, and well proportioned, but she doesn’t have the hyperextended limbs and elongated torso now favored.  She instead looks—human.  Her career began in the mid-1950s (as a teenager with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), and she probably would have looked to 20th-century audiences as how a ballet dancer would have been expected to look.  And to dance.  She doesn’t move in a slow, overstretched style, she doesn’t fling her legs and arms about.  Instead, her dancing is quiet, balanced, and harmonious, in a correct, classical style.  And she dances.  By which I mean she keeps the movement impulse flowing, she doesn’t stop to stretch in a pose, she continues with the impulse, the rhythm, even in a balance; and she links each step and phrase to the next.  D’Antuono is not showy, she’s focused on the choreography, music, and overall pattern of the dance.  She had a long and illustrious dancing career, yet she seems almost forgotten today.

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But I love how she dances with Nagy in Les Sylphides.  Nagy and D’Antuono were not a famous partnership (such as Nagy had with far starrier ballerinas like Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland), but they perform the PDD beautifully, seamlessly, rapt (and wrapped) in what they do, without a self-conscious air of Romantic Mood.  As a YouTube commenter on this video noted, there are lovely details in this performance.  Such as when, around the 40-second mark, D’Antuono kneels at the downstage-right corner and briefly, bewitchingly, whirls her arms, as if casting a spell.  Note the moment at 3:35 when D’Antuono leans back rapturously into Nagy’s arms and simultaneously twists her torso round as she holds her up leg à la seconde, done without a break in motion, D’Antuono carried by the flow of her rhythm.  And there’s that lovely bit at 3:12 when the pair momentarily pauses, D’Antuono softly dropping to her knees by Nagy, who responds by lightly placing one hand to his heart, his gesture seemingly both heartfelt and spontaneous.

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Note also how D’Antuono moves through her body, right into her hands, which continue the impulse flow; there’s no flattening of the palms and flapping of appendages.  She does some other nice things, such as pausing on pointe next to Nagy and dipping into a penché without breaking her rhythm.  And Nagy does some lovely things also, especially in the section when the sylph balances in arabesque over her kneeling partner’s shoulder and whispers into his ear.  As D’Antuono whispers (and she does so delicately, without being blatant about it), Nagy brings his hand to his ear and lets his gaze travel up, his eyes lost in contemplation—seeing, yet not seeing; or rather, seeing not what’s in front of him but inward, at a vision suggested by the sylph.  It’s a moment very much in this ballet’s “spirit,” as it were, of a realm existing beyond tangible perception, but made palpable to us through Nagy’s artistry.

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How to explain such moments when they happen during a performance?  No doubt Nagy and D’Antuono performed this piece many times, with each other and other partners.  But they make it fresh, they make it live here as they dance.  It reminds me of that performer’s dictum, of giving it your all at every show (“What are you saving it for,” George Balanchine was said to have told his dancers).  I think such moments are also owed, in part, to how the dancers are dancing in correct tempi, without the kind of exaggerated slowness or stretched-out phrasing I’ve seen in Soviet-era Maryinsky performances of this ballet.  Instead, the dance flows as if supported by the dancers’ own breathing, so that they move before us in a natural, unaffected manner.  I find I can’t take my eyes away from the screen as I watch, because I seem to flow with it, too.

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On a closing note, I have to say that I LOVE Les Sylphides.  I love its choreography, its music, its setting, its whole dreamy aura.  It’s over 100 years old, and, for today’s audience, probably looks old-fashioned, but it’s been performed, without a break, since its premiere; it’s in the repertoire of most major ballet companies.  Les Sylphides may be the first ‘abstract’ classical ballet, with no story, plot, or characters.  Its greatness lies not only in its melding of motion, music, and mood, but in that you don’t need it explained to you.  You grasp, from the moment the curtain rises, what it’s all about:  The sylphs, the poet, the night, the long, white dresses, the dancing…we’re caught up in it from the start, we understand its meaning at a level beyond conscious thought.  It suggests, it creates, a mood, a mystery about what you see; but most of all, it’s about dancing—moving in the moonlight, in deep quiet and peace, enacting a vision of life far removed from a world that is too much with us.

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