Performance in Life

By Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes I think if ballet didn’t exist, the New York Times would have invented it. That’s how often I see some form of balletic imagery dancing across the front page of the Arts section. In “Dancers, Glittering and Supernatural,” Times dance critic Gia Kourlas mentions “certain New York City Ballet performances that have a way of making you feel you’ve danced yourself, even as you sit, quiet and still, in your seat.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of Emily Kikta, who is described by Kourlas “as authoritative and smoldering … like a modern ballerina who has grown up in the era of #MeToo and learned a thing or two.” But what most impresses me about this dancer, shown performing in a recent production of George Balanchine’s Jewels, is that she looks so happy. The seemingly heartfelt spontaneity of her smile breaches the barrier of formality I’ve always felt between myself and ballet.

I began with ballet because two of the most imposing coffee table books this holiday season are The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance (Rizzoli $75) and Ballerina Project (Chronicle Chroma $40). With a foreword by Valentino Garavani, The Style of Movement is the second volume from photographers Deborah Ory and Ken Browar, the husband and wife team behind the New York City Dance Project. According to Pointe magazine, “the book showcases couture gowns, jackets and trousers in a way that only dancers can,” capturing, in the words of Harper’s Bazaar, “the poetic beauty of dancers in motion.”

New York City-based photographer Dane Shitagi’s Ballerina Project, subtitled (Ballerina Photography Books, Art Fashion Books, Dance Photography), features 170 images accumulated on Shitagi’s Instagram, which has more than a million followers. Showing ballerinas posed in a variety of visually striking locations around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, London, Rome, and Paris, the volume is bound in pink satin cloth with gold foil stamping, a pink satin ribbon marker, and introductions by principal ballerinas Isabella Boylston and Francesca Hayward.

Performance in Life

Two no less imposing new performing arts books are Howard Gutner’s MGM Style: Cedric Gibbons and the Art of the Golden Age of Hollywood (Lyons Press $45) and Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll (Metropolitan Museum of Art $50). MGM Style celebrates the career and achievements of Cedric Gibbons, the head of the art department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1924 until his retirement in 1956. The book is illustrated with over 175 duotone photographs, many of which have never been published, and according to Steve Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, “The shimmering art deco photographs and the perceptive and well-researched text finally give credit to the man who, more than any other, defined the physical look of the twentieth century.”

For me, the most memorable aspect of MGM style in the Gibbons era isn’t set design, it’s Gene Kelly joyously singing, dancing, and splashing his way through the title number in Singing in the Rain, “making you feel you’ve danced yourself,” as Gia Kourlas might put it. In the Central Park scene from Band Wagon, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse play two professional dancers who have been uncomfortable performing together, which is apparent when you see them walking through the park, still not at ease with each other, still a bit formal, before slowly, subtly, beautifully moving into the dance.

The other side of the performance-in-life dynamic is the inevitable return to reality, as when Astaire and Charisse settle down together holding hands in a horse-drawn carriage, or when Kelly descends from singing and splashing to feeling sheepish and self-conscious as he sees a cop warily eyeing him — sane, sober, law-abiding human beings are not supposed to sing and dance in public.

Performers Rule

Although the source of the Metropolitan’s multi-authored Play It Loud is the recent exhibition on the “instruments of rock & roll,” the performers are the center of attention, beginning with “The Quintessential Quartet,” alias the Beatles, who also appear in individual close-ups as soon as you open Vogue magazine’s lavish Vogue X Music (Abrams $65), a glam-glorious coffee table book with Lada Gaga on the front cover and Beyoncé on the back.

In his contribution to Play It Loud, David Fricke describes the deification of guitarist Eric Clapton that began in early 1966 with graffiti “scrawled on subway walls and other spare surfaces in north London.” One image that captures the amped-up, electric-guitar-crazed milieu of the time is Roger Perry’s photograph of a hefty, heavy-coated elderly woman with a cane in one hand and a leash in the other, waiting while her dog pays its respects to a big corrugated metal fence on which CLAPTON IS GOD is spray-painted in immense black letters.

You can juxtapose the gritty in-the-street ambiance of rock and roll with the impeccably stylish formality of ballet simply by comparing the photograph of the woman and the dog from Play It Loud with the elegant dancer in the Ballerina Project posing en pointe on a street in lower Manhattan with a leash in one hand while her dog looks on, as if admiring her style.

“The Red Shoes”

My favorite blendings of rock and ballet are Van Morrison’s “Ballerina,” where he’s urging the dancer to “step right up, keep moving on, moving on, stepping lightly,” and Kate Bush’s “The Red Shoes,” which takes its title and theme from the 1948 film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Faustian fairy tale. Bush’s lyrics break through the formality of ballet to the dark side where the dancer can’t stop dancing, the real world is gone, performance is all-consuming, “really happening to you, really happening to you.”

From Disney to Bowie

Other new books on the performing arts include Michael Goldman’s The Art and Making of The Lion King (Disney Editions $50); Portraits from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Lyons Press $29.95), drawn from Colin Slater’s Hollywood Photo Archive; The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together (Abrams $40) by Adam Nayman; and photographer Terry O’Neill’s Bowie by O’Neill: The Definitive Collection with Unseen Images (Cassell $50).