CYNTHIA GREGORY: WORDS ON DANCE
By: Hal de Becker
The Smith Center (TSC) has been very much in the news lately but a few days ago Nevada Ballet Theatre shared the limelight with it.
The occasion was “Words On Dance” a conversation between former Prima Ballerina, Cynthia Gregory and Donald Williams who was principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem.It was hosted by Nevada Ballet Theatre (NBT) with which Ms. Gregory holds the position of Artistic Coach.
The setting was TSC’s intimate Troesh Studio Theatre which is also NBT’s rehearsal facility when it performs at the venue as the resident dance company. The two guests, seated in arm chairs on a dais, conversed with candor and humor. The experience was edifying, entertaining and inspiring.
On two overhead screens filmed excerpts were shown of performances by Ms. Gregory alone and with some of her celebrated partners, including Mr. Williams, Ivan Nagy and the late Erick Bruhn, Francisco Bujones and Alexander Godunov.
Scenes from Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Nutcracker, Firebird, Dying Swan and an especially exquisite performance of a solo from Sleeping Beauty displayed her exceptional gifts in the classical repertoire.Her versatile transition into the realm of contemporary ballet was seen in Alvin Ailey’s ‘The River”, Brigit Cullberg’s “Miss Julie” and works by Eliot Feld and Dennis Nahat.
Cynthia Gregory in Raymonda. Photo by Martha Swope
Her dancing was distinguished by superb balance, placement and line, port de bras, ease of execution and musicality.It was in the latter that her use of what in music is termed ‘rubato’ was particularly unique. By giving a step or passage a shade more time and then slightly speeding up what followed so as not to distort the flow of the choreography, she gave a personal touch to even the most rigidly abstract pieces.
In Mr. Williams’ filmed solos he seemed to exemplify the union of that perfect classical and contemporary dancer envisioned by James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director, for his own dancers. A film of Ms. Gregory and Mr. Williams dancing a passionate duet to an instrumental version of the song “Stormy Weather” was one of the screenings highlights.
As impressive as the films were, the ballerina’s own description of her life in dance was even more compelling.As she related, her studies on pointe began at age six in her ‘hometown’, Los Angeles, where she took five classes a week.At that time some of the country’s best teachers, many from Europe and Russia, conducted classes at their Hollywood studios.She singled out Michel Panaieff, Robert Rosselatt and CarmelitaMariccias being among her favorites.
At age 13 she came to the attention of Jacques D’Amboise, the then NYCB star, and two years later, with his support, she was accepted as an apprentice by San Francisco Ballet. She was soon elevated to corps de ballet and in the years immediately following began dancing solo and principal roles even though she was still a teenager who, when the company was on tour, did her school work on a bus.
While on tour in New York City she saw performances of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and was so impressed with the drama ballets of Tudor, Loring, de Mille and other choreographers that she auditioned for the company, was accepted and rose through the ranks to become its Prima Ballerina.
She reminisced warmly about working with Rudolf Nureyev whom she described as dynamic on stage and kind and generous off.She spoke of their mutual curiosity about concerts, art and museums and how they’d make separate explorations of the cities in which they were performing and then compare notes on their cultural ‘discoveries’.
She described Mikhail Baryshnikov as a “wonderful dancer” but admitted that working under him when he directed ABT was not a happy time for her. (It wasn’t for many others as well.)
Since retiring from performing, most of her time has been devoted to raising her son, painting and coaching young dancers. In one of the films we saw she was seen coaching a solo from “Sleeping Beauty” and telling the dancers that it should be “shining, charming and beautiful.”
Those same words provide a perfect description of Ms. Gregory: shining, charming and beautiful.