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Eva, Pina, Merce, and Michael

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Millions mourned Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” when he died on June 25 at the age of 50. Having given dance an edge for the MTV generation, he was a beloved icon across genres. But the dance world was hit particularly hard this year by the deaths of three other artists whose work defined their field. After Prima Ballerina Assoluta Eva Evdokimova succumbed to cancer on April 3 at the age of 60, Dance Division Artistic Director Lawrence Rhodes asked me to write a tribute to this extraordinary artist, and shared that he got to see Eva’s Giselle when he partnered her in a work by Hans van Manen in the 1970s in Berlin. Since choreographers Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham were also taken this summer, I wanted to honor these artists and give Journal readers a point of departure when researching their lives and work.

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Eva Evdokimova performed in Henning Rübsam Litanei & Frühlingsglaube at the Kitchen in New York City in 2002.

(Photo by Richard Termine, courtesy Henning Rübsam/Sensedance, Inc.)

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Eva Evdokimova (1948-2009)

“Today we have the world’s greatest ballerina watching our class: Prima Ballerina Assoluta Eva Evdokimova,” announced Maestro Hector Zaraspe excitedly sometime in 1990 to us Juilliard dancers, when he entered the studio.

And his words rang true. My most memorable experience in the theater occurred in the spring of 1987 in the Hamburg opera house. Although I sat in the high balcony, I can still easily recall Evdokimova’s entrance in the second act of Giselle: She walks heavily as if the earth still weighs her down. Her limbs almost creak when she unfolds them. She spins backwards and slams the heel audibly into the ground and increases her speed. At this point other ballerinas finish the spin with a soutenu (a simple turn on two feet), but Eva rises up on pointe and corkscrews her way out of the land of the dead with a triple attitude pirouette, and arrives in the sphere of the supernatural. The orchestra slows down and Eva begins to jump with bouncy lightness, her focus still up even after she lands, giving the illusion of never-ending flight.

Eva was the first non-Dane accepted in the Royal Danish Ballet, in 1966, and in 1970 she became the first American to win Gold in Varna, the “Wimbledon” of ballet competitions. She went on to become prima ballerina of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and the London Festival Ballet. Ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev picked Eva as his most frequent partner for the last 15 years of his performing career and her repertoire encompassed some 125 roles as she toured the world. After Eva made spectacular guest appearances with the Kirov Ballet, the company’s ballet mistress, Natalia Dudinskaya, named Eva prima ballerina assoluta—a title formerly given only by the czars—and subsequently, Eva was billed in this manner internationally as she performed with Paris Opera Ballet, National Ballet of Cuba, La Scala in Milan, Stuttgart Ballet, and many others. Her guest appearances with American Ballet Theater in New York were celebrated events, but when Baryshnikov took over the company, he instituted a no-guest policy, and since Eva was too tall for him, no exception was made.

“I had to give my all to be seen,” Eva once told me, speaking of her partnership with Nureyev, who she cited as her greatest influence. “When I studied at the Royal Ballet School in London, I saw him rehearse every Saturday through a little window and I never thought I’d get to dance with him one day.”

Did I ever think I’d get to work with Eva when I saw her from that top balcony at the Hamburg opera house? I experienced her otherworldly dedication, passion, and artistry when I created a dance for her in 2002.

She was revered as a master teacher from Monaco to Japan not only based on past achievements, but because she always continued her quest for knowledge and beauty. After her retirement from the ballet stage, Eva studied acting and took voice classes with Joyce McLean in Juilliard’s Evening Division.

I recall one humid summer day last year: Students sweat through an exercise at the Ballet Arts Studio at City Center. Eva waits for the end of the music and is puzzled. She turns to the pianist. “I admit I had something academic in mind, but by playing Lensky’s theme [from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin], you gave it so much more.” She addresses the students: “Take the opportunity to be expressive. You have a musician who feels and phrases. Listen.” We repeat the exercise with her and I am struck once again by her encyclopedic knowledge of music.

Her humility moved me deeply and she shared her wisdom generously. Eva was a guest lecturer in my Evening Division class and I trusted her to be my mentor for the last eight years of her life. I felt that the words were perfectly chosen when, in 2005, she was given the inaugural Galina Ulanova Prize on the Bolshoi stage in Moscow for “selfless dedication to the art of dance.”

To me she was an exhilarating muse. Like no one else she mastered the art of weightlessness and I am certain she dances on as Giselle or Sylphide—a spirit of the air.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009)

The lights dim, the performance begins. The audience looks at a high wall at the edge of the stage and nothing happens. When it finally crashes down with thunderous noise, there is dust to row K and a new landscape has been created onstage. I am at BAM. It is 1991. The torn down wall in Pina Bausch’s Palermo, Palermo allows a glimpse into the lives of the people inhabiting her ancient and present cityscape, and lets one be part of struggles and dreams.

All through her career, Pina brought down walls between dance and theater. She conveyed emotion through imagery, stagecraft, and a masterful eye for the essence of motion, and created a hybrid art form with her company Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Pina received accolades the world over, including a Juilliard honorary doctorate in 2006. She underscored her connection to her alma mater when she made founding faculty member Alfredo Corvino one of her company’s ballet masters—an assignment his daughter Ernesta continues.

Last December, Pina was presented with a Dance Magazine award. She reminisced about coming to New York to attend Juilliard in 1960, and how dancer/choreographer Lucas Hoving waited 13 hours for her to disembark the ship with what had become wilted flowers. Pina had forgotten her health certificate in a suitcase and everyone was let off the ship before her. Her misplaced health certificate came to mind when I heard that she had died only five days after getting a diagnosis of cancer, at the age of 68. Although she had been in pain, Pina had not taken the time to go to a doctor until her new work was finished.

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Why are there five dancers in Quartet? In the piece, set to David Tudor’s Sextet for Seven, one man and three women partner each other in all possible constellations, but one older man stays isolated. He is not part of the quartet, not part of the community, not part of the now. His look towards the young man tells me that he has yielded his territory. I am certain that Quartet is Merce Cunningham’s most personal work.

Dry and inaccessible to many, Merce not only abandoned storyline and any visible relationship to music, but also—for a long time—did not incorporate the wonders of stagecraft as the other more popular master of abstraction, Alwin Nikolais, had done. When Merce embraced technology, he became an avid user of computer programs to help devise his creations. He was pure dance and let his collaborators—one of them his longtime companion John Cage—do their thing. Ingenious parallel universes emerged. Looking at a work by Merce can be like observing a science project under a microscope. Dancers move in unexpected ways at seemingly impossible speeds. This kaleidoscope of motion may or may not evoke a kinetic and/or emotional response, and what I got from his Quartet may have been only going on in my mind.

Merce’s late work Ocean had a digital clock count down 90 minutes. That he died at the age of 90 was surely pure chance.

Eva, Pina, Merce, and Michael—you will be missed.

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