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Uncovering the Dance

Noah Gelber is the first American asked to create a ballet on the Kirov

by Catherine Pawlick

January 28, 2006 -- St. Petersburg, Russia

“Throughout the duet, as they dance, they never touch each other. They’re connected by the Overcoat between them.”

Noah Gelber, former dancer and aspiring young choreographer, explains in this quote the logic behind his choreography for a new ballet based on Gogol’s famous short story, “The Overcoat.” The work, one of three new ballets in an evening titled “New Names” that Mariinsky Ballet Director Makhar Vasiev has created, will premier on March 21.

The evening presents young choreographers with an opportunity to create new works, and gives young dancers the chance to perform them. A second ballet by Moscow choreographer Nikita Dmitrievski, based on one of Moliere’s plays, and another by the Mariinsky’s resident choreographer Alexei Miroschnichenko, based on Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” will complete the bill.

“The theatre should always be doing new things,” Vasiev explains. “They may be successful or not, but this is a creative project. The theatre is an enigma, you never know what the results will be, so you must trust. These new names are hope for our future. I can only wish that the evening will be interesting creatively for the audience.”

Vasiev explained that the company was previously familiar with Gelber’s talents before hiring him for the job. “Noah is a very talented young man who already has his own choreographic language. When we suggested the theme of the ballet to him, he was very enthusiastic about it from the start.”

Gelber, in his turn, was honored to be asked to set the new work. “Although I periodically receive invitations to create choreographies of my own, in my activities during recent years I have been mostly in the position of reconstructing and setting William Forsythe’s ballets, ensuring that they are intact, properly coached and performed as they should be. Now, having been thrust so entirely into the position of choreographer, I’m finding my own voice, my own vocabulary.”

Gelber shared his thoughts on this unique experience during a rehearsal break at the theatre.

“When I was asked if I would create this new ballet, my first thought was not of myself, but of what I could possibly bring to the repertoire, to the Mariinsky dancers. I concentrated on how could I possibly make a piece that would suit them, allow them to excel, and meanwhile present a process that would maybe provide some kind of relief, some kind of significant change from their daily routine. Not that there was something which needed to be changed -- but I aim always to create a rehearsal atmosphere which offers them significant change of scene, a change of pace, an opportunity to let go of what they’re used to doing. I strive to maintain a playful, supportive atmosphere in the studio, where the dancers feel safe to try out new things, trust themselves to make decisions for themselves and express themselves in their own way as individuals. This is crucial, because I’m very much making this ballet for them. I look to them as whole entities, just as I give wholly of myself to this process.”

A question about Gelber’s choreographic style prompts a quick explanation of his approach to the ballet.

“If I had to describe my choreographic style, I would have to use adjectives like complicated, complex, multi-layered, visceral. ‘Painfully attentive to detail’ would have to appear as well. Anyone who really knew me as a dancer would probably use such words to describe how I was in my work ethic and physical execution. I rarely did something merely on the surface. I usually had 4 or 5 unseen, unfathomable ulterior motives active somewhere in the margins that were my motivating factors or derivatives; things I wanted to get out at the time, or techniques I was employing to create a certain desired effect or illusion.

“Having just said the word ‘derivative,’” he continues, “my choreography is very musically derivative. I make very strong reference to the music most of the time, unless I make a conscious effort not to. And there are certain moments when I purposefully decide to move against the main melody, because I desire another effect. But in general it’s very musically based. I spend great deals of time listening to the music and visualizing the movement which will best fit the color of the phrasing and emotion. My work is also very emotionally based, because whether apparent or not, onstage I always danced from a place of deep desire and emotion.

“The more I work on this piece the more I see elements of Akaki [the hero of Gogol’s story] in myself, maybe of who I was when I was younger. Maybe I see myself in a more tragic sense in terms of having felt, for a certain time in life, either insignificant, overlooked or passed by, maybe not appreciated artistically, maybe not accepted by others. Noah was someone who excelled at repeating what people gave him to do, delighted in the complexity of overcoming a challenge, was very good at remembering things, but not necessarily adept at getting to the heart of what was in his own soul, or trusting in himself to fully express that vision, for fear of ridicule.

“There is a lot of metaphor in this piece, although I try to refrain from using metaphor which is too easily recognizable. I go for very obscure metaphor, somewhat estranged, almost like the manner in which I choose my words. I like obscure words, I like to employ strange vocabulary, and as a choreographer I try to do the same thing.

“There is a lot of thought that goes into the steps themselves. It’s not just haphazard, ‘do this movement with that arm.’ Usually the process begins with ‘what is it that I’m trying to explain here.’ Then ‘what is the shape of what I’m trying to express.’ I’m using key quotes and statements directly from Gogol’s book much of the time. Using word-association and symbolic reference, I dissect and analyze the shape of a particular thought -- if such a thing can indeed be attempted -- on a physical level. Would a particular thought comprise a flat movement, would it be curved by inclination, would the particular character of a particular person have a particular shape to it? Then I translate this, as best I can, into the movement that I will give to that character. In this way, the movements of each character differ in nature. So it’s strongly based on thought and analytical shape development, representation of personal attributes or thought process in movement. And then, of course, as it comes out, it is changed to suit the dancer, to fit the movement, to initially fit the scene. A lot of stuff gets dropped or excluded along the way. But it’s very much based on pre-existing thought.”

Gelber has remained true to the story line of “The Overcoat” with one exception that may pique audiences’ curiosity. He has added a female to the libretto who dances with Akaki, the story’s protagonist. But as he explains, “She is not a sexual object. I see her as a catalyst. She embodies what the new overcoat represents, a lacking element, in Akaki’s dreams. On a practical level, she brings his attention to the threadbare state of his old overcoat. She shows some empathy for the plight of this awkward, aging man. The new overcoat becomes Akaki’s security, his ticket into the life which always eluded him. But once there, he is faced with new questions: does he really belong there, does he feel at home there? As he leaves the party early, she reaches for his hand and it’s the first time he allows in the sensation of how such a thing feels... it is electric for him, but he somehow cannot allow himself to enter that world, he cannot even look back at her. The overcoat is more important, he tells himself. Or perhaps, this is how I myself might tragically react, were I Akaki” In choosing a female dancer to represent the coat, Gelber highlights the symbolism underlying Akaki’s attachment to his favorite garment – if not sexual, then maternal or emotional, or even on a deeper, more soulful level – thereby increasing the possible interpretations of the choreographic moment.

The music for “The Overcoat” is selections of various Shostakovich scores taken from popular movies “Odna” and “Hypothetically Murdered,” a fitting tribute during this 100th anniversary year of the great composer.

Gelber shares further thoughts on the main character of his ballet. “At first, Akaki has no decisive will of his own. He barely expresses a full, cohesive sentence. He’s an official document copier and loves his work so much that he takes it home, but he is unable to think creatively on his own. As a ballet figure, he is a man riddled with habits. He cannot dance a phrase without ticks, so he scratches and fidgets constantly. It isn’t until later on after deciding for the new overcoat that he is able to dance freely.”

Gelber was born in New York and began to study at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet at the age of 6, where he remained for 11 years. He danced with the New York City Ballet while still at SAB, and was a principal guest artist with the American Ballet Company. At age 17 he relocated to Europe where he became a soloist with the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. Gelber continued to perform as a guest artist with companies in New York and Mexico, and in 1992 William Forsythe invited him to join Frankfurt Ballett. Gelber quickly mastered the company repertoire; he was the first cast in one of the two male roles in Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” and participated in international galas where he performed Forsythe solos. Gelber actively joined in the choreographic process in Frankfurt, which is where his choreographic beginnings took root. By 1997, Forsythe had begun to give him the responsibility for setting his productions on various ballet companies. When Gelber retired from his dancing career in 2000, he was already working as an independent rehearsal coach for Forsythe ballets in major international cities. In 2004, Gelber set “Vertiginous” on the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, and, in 2005, “Approximate Sonata.” This year marks the creation his first full-length ballet commissioned by the Mariinsky Theatre.

Artistry runs in his family. Gelber’s father is a large scale painter who is designing the backdrop for the new ballet. His brother is a writer. Gelber himself has his own line of clothing, draws, writes, cooks, dances and choreographs – he’s the 21st century’s version of a Renaissance man.

“I never was one to take the easy way out of things,” Gelber explains over tea at his office inside the theatre, a large, wood-paneled room where former Artistic Director Oleg Vinogradov used to sit. “I remember working with choreographers who were making a new piece, and my mind would be on fire thinking of all the possibilities of what they could do next with the movement, or how to augment what they had already made. They often would just end their thought, mid choreographic-sentence, never look to take what they had started to another level. I was left disappointed, thinking ‘they could have taken this so much further.’ So much more was possible, and left unexplored. As a dancer I rarely opted for the easy solution, I was always looking for a more interesting route.”

This approach comes through in Gelber’s choreography too, which is a mixture of classical and modern movements influenced by William Forsythe. It was his work setting Forsythe ballets for international ballet companies, though, that brought him to the Mariinsky three years ago to stage “Vertiginous” and then “Approximate Sonata” for the company. Last year he made his debut on the Mariinsky stage – despite having officially retired as a dancer – in a solo created especially for him by William Forsythe years ago.

“Having worked so often here at the Mariinsky, I still can’t say, ‘I know all about the Russian culture’ – it’s impossible to say that as a foreigner,” Noah explains. “But I feel I have begun to understand, begun to fathom the depths of the Russian people. Being half Russian myself helps perhaps, to a certain extent. I’m presently learning to speak Russian. When I can speak fluently, I’ll be a big step closer.

“The first thing I noticed when I began working at the Mariinsky theatre was the unbelievable amount of responsibility the dancers carry in terms of putting on the show each night. It’s very different in character from the responsibility that we as dancers at Frankfurt Ballet with William Forsythe carried, because we were often responsible for making decisions of what we would actually do, for taking bits of choreography or the bits of direction we had and putting them together into something that was feasible. In that respect we were almost ballet masters in our own right.

“The dancers of the Mariinsky Theatre have an unbelievable work schedule, unlike anything I have witnessed before. I have never, in all my years of experience working with 25 international ballet companies, encountered a company that has a more varied repertoire in such a condensed amount of time. It is virtually impossible to rehearse so many ballets simultaneously. And yet they maintain this schedule, and still bring in new repertoire. And in spite of their interminable rehearsal days, they still make the magic happen on stage, every night. They are miracle workers. That is why my heart lies with them. That is why I feel such a strong bond to them. They have taught me, reminded me without any iota of doubt, why we are dancers, and why we do what we do. I understand and I see the amount of work and responsibility that they have, I see the sacrifices they make every single day without pause. It’s an amazing, unflinching dedication which stems directly and genuinely from the depths of their souls, their love of their art, and everything they can bring to their stage performances. They’re onstage, giving all and bringing it forward tirelessly, every single night. That is just phenomenal, in my eyes.

“My primary wish is for the dancers to enjoy this experience with me, to enjoy performing my ballet. I offer this very much as – if I am allowed to say this - a gift to them… if I may dare to assume myself in the position of someone who can give such a legendary institution’s dancers a gift. I don’t claim to be thusly empowered, but I do intend this process as a loving gift to them. I want “The Overcoat” to be something they will appreciate, and remember with fondness. I hope they will have personal satisfaction and pleasure in dancing it. That is truly what means the most to me.”

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