Eagle Q&A: Joan Acocella, dance critic of The New Yorker, NYCB corps member Indiana Woodward
I owe an enormous debt to my parents. From an early age, I was taken to Broadway and off-Broadway theater, the New York Philharmonic Young People’s concerts, exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, foreign language films at the The New Yorker and Thalia Theaters. And to the ballet. More precisely, to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). In 1960, when I was 10, my parents bought tickets for George Balanchine’s “Salute to Italy” series. At that time, NYCB’s home was New York City Center, the wonderful Moorish Revival theater on West 55th Street. Because I still have the program, I know what we saw: “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” “Con Amore” and “Variations from Don Sebastian” (which, the following year, became “Donizetti Variations”).
At first I was a bit fidgety during “Monumentum” (I knew Stravinsky from “The Firebird”; this score was far more austere). But gradually I forgot about the music and focused on Diana Adams. She was breathtaking. Of course, I was completely unaware of her already remarkable life and career: the 1957 groundbreaking pas de deux danced with Arthur Mitchell in the Balanchine-Stravinsky “Agon”; the roles Balanchine created for her: “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Movements for Piano and Orchestra” and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”; the saga of Balanchine’s unrequited love for her. I had not processed any of this when I saw “Monumentum”; I only knew I was hooked.
In addition to her exquisite dancing, I loved the elegance of her given name; growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, I didn’t know any Dianas. I knew Janes and Ellens and Nancys. Even a Shirley. But definitely no Dianas. As I attended more ballets, the dancers’ names resonated as much as the dances themselves: Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Violette Verdy. And since I began to see other companies, other names soon beguiled me: Merrill Ashley, Lynn Seymour. And not only female dancers; David Lichine and Jacques d’Ambroise also were names of distinction. Then, as I began to dip my toe into the history of ballet, other names stood out: Ninette de Valois, Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin.
It was only later, when I dove completely into ballet history, that I found out that, with the exception of Diana Adams (unless Wikipedia didn’t dig deeply enough), these were not, in fact, their given names. To go down the list: Melissa Hayden was born Mildred Herman; Allegra Kent — Iris Margo Cohen; Suzanne Farrell — Roberta Sue Ficker; Violette Verdy — Nelly Guillerm (even the French were doing it!); Merrill Ashley — Linda Michelle Merrill; Lynn Seymour — Berta Lynn Springbett; David Lichine — Deivid Lichtenstein; Jacques d’Ambroise — Joseph Jacque Ahearn; Ninette de Valois — Edris Stannus, from Blessington in County Wicklow, Ireland; Alicia Markova — Lilian Alice Marks; Anthony Tudor — William Cook; and, perhaps most memorably, Anton Dolin — Sydney Francis Patrick Chippendall Healy-Kay. Even a Brooklyn-born, New Utrecht High School alum wasn’t immune: the remarkable dancer-choreographer Michael Kidd was born Milton Greenwald.
But far from disappointing me or detracting in any way from my budding adoration of ballet, the information heartened me, it made me love ballet all the more. After all, the fact that he was born Bernard Schwartz didn’t lessen my regard for Tony Curtis. Similarly, the fact that they were born Virginia Katherine McMath and Fred Austerlitz, didn’t diminish by one iota my love of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. “Red River,” “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo” are still three of my favorite movies, notwithstanding the fact that the star of those films, John Wayne, was born Marion Robert Morrison.
But, of course, ballet is more rarefied and less susceptible to image and PR than the movies. But, wait, is it? For some answers and enlightenment, I spoke by telephone with The New Yorker’s esteemed dance critic, Joan Acocella.
The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eagle: What do you think accounts for the name changes, in particular at New York City Ballet? In light of the fact that Balanchine sought to popularize ballet and make it more accessible, it seems a contradiction.
Joan Acocella: There are three reasons. First, Balanchine didn’t dictate the name changes. It was about exoticism and a belief that ballet was by definition Russian or French. (In the case of Balanchine and NYCB, definitely Russian). Secondly, quite frankly, it was because many of the dancers were Jewish; Nora Koreff, Iris Margo Cohen or Mildred Herman don’t quite have the ring of Nora Kaye (from Brooklyn), Allegra Kent or Melissa Hayden. Now what’s interesting is that before World War II and the Holocaust, many American Jews were changing their names to assimilate. Rosensweig became Ross, Garfinkle became Garfield, Meir became Mayer. It was all about “passing.” But after the Holocaust, the stigma was gone, replaced by pride. The third reason is that often dancers’ and choreographers’ names were hard to pronounce. Balanchine’s last name was shortened from the Georgian Balanchivadze; Jerome Rabinowitz became Jerome Robbins. It’s easier to pronounce Michel Fokine than it is Mikhail Mikhaylovich Fokin. When, in 1909, Diaghilev invited Fokin to become the resident choreographer of the first Paris season of the Ballets Russes, he suggested the name change, diminishing the Russian, emphasizing the French. It made sense. Just as he had the English ballerina Hilda Tansley Munnings become Lydia Sokolova. It was a very strong tradition.
Eagle: But even if it wasn’t at Balanchine’s behest, don’t the name changes seem contrary to Balanchine’s wish to popularize dance for Americans?
JA: Well, Balanchine was the great Americanizer of ballet. In the beginning of NYCB, Balanchine would only hire American dancers. But that didn’t mean he would discourage them if they wanted to glamorize their names. After all, his second wife Vera Zorina was born Eva Brigitta Hartwig.
Eagle: Although the name-changing seems to have become a thing of the past, there are still so many distinct and vivid dancers’ names. Just look at NYCB’s current roster of memorable names (and superb dancers): Ashley Laracey, Savannah Lowery, Unity Phelan, Tiler Peck and, my personal favorite, Indiana Woodward. Even the School of American Ballet students have great names: Caden Santander, Skye Blake, Ava-Willow Riley and, again saving my favorite for last, Brando Speach.
JA: I think that’s more reflective, perhaps, of the parents knowing from birth that they wanted their kids to be dancers. Those names you mention are so distinctive!
Eagle: That’s my take also — the parents knew.
Certainly, NYCB corps member Indiana Woodward’s parents must have known that by giving their daughter such an imposing name, great things would be expected of her. And she has more than fulfilled those expectations: she is a dancer of exceptional breadth and physical elegance. Observe, on NYCB’s website, the delight and command she brings to her solo in “Chaconne,” how confidently and flawlessly she executes her gargouillades (the challenging sideways jumps, where the feet “write rings in the air”). For the Winter season, which began Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 26, she will be dancing in “Sleeping Beauty,” performing the roles of Puss-in-Boots and the “Canary that Sings” (check the “Casting” page at www.nycballet.com for performance dates for Woodward).
In her “screen test” on the NYCB website, among other topics, Woodward has stated that Alfred Hitchcock is her favorite film director and that he is the person she would most like to have dinner with. Interestingly enough, though, the director who would have been most smitten by her was Howard Hawks. He would have cast Woodward just by name. Look at a list of just some of Hawks’ character names: Rick Nelson is Colorado Ryan in “Rio Bravo,” Elsa Martinelli is Dallas D’Alessandro in “Hatari” and James Caan is Mississippi Traherne in “El Dorado.” Hawks would have “lifted” her name for one of his characters. (And no, her parents did not name her after Indiana Jones).
There are a very few other notable “Indianas.” Ethan Hawke and wife Ryan Shawhughes named their second daughter Indiana. In 2004 Casey Affleck and his ex-wife Summer Phoenix named their first son Indiana August, both names a tribute to Summer’s late brother River Phoenix, who, just to bring things full circle, played the young Indy in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Recently, in between rehearsals for “Sleeping Beauty,” Woodward spoke with the Eagle by telephone. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Eagle: So how did your parents decide on such a distinctive name?
Indiana Woodward: My father is French and my mother is South African; I was born in Paris. My mom had been a dancer in South Africa and in Paris. In Paris she danced with Roland Petit and the company called Razor. She’s also a bit of a mystic. One day, while she was pregnant with me, she was in the bathtub and she observed that a ray of light that had fallen on her tummy. She felt this was auspicious and a portent. But as for naming me “Indiana,” I don’t think she had a particular motive.
Eagle: Did you grow up in Paris?
IW: Yes, but then we moved to Philadelphia. And after my parents divorced, my mom and I moved to Los Angeles. When I was 10 I began my classes at the Yuri Grigoriev School of Ballet.
Eagle: When did you begin studying at the School of American Ballet?
IW: During the summer of 2010 and I enrolled as a full-time student that fall.
Eagle: What has been your progression at NYCB?
IW: In August 2012, two years after first enrolling, I became an apprentice and then joined the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in December 2012.
Eagle: Well-done! You don’t waste any time. What are ballets that you haven’t yet danced but that you very much want to?
IW: I’m dying to do Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” and “Who Cares.”
Eagle: What are aspects of being a member of the corps that you really enjoy?
IW: Definitely getting to be a different character every night — I really embrace it. And I’ve made so many friends. Happily, there really isn’t much back-stabbing or conflict.
Eagle: Growing up with such an unusual, distinctive first name, I’m curious, did kids tease you?
IW: (laughs) Oh yes! Of course, I’d get the “Indiana Jones” jokes. But also, kids would come up to me and sing “Gary, Indiana” from “The Music Man.” Nothing mean-spirited. And besides, I love my name!
For performance schedules, casting and ticket information, go to www.nycballet.com.