By any measure, ABT principal dancer Marcelo Gomes is a dazzling performer. Elegant and imposing, he is a riveting onstage presence. But cast him in a pas de deux, he insists, and the focus becomes completely different.
"When I come onto the stage, I am presenting my ballerina," says Gomes. "She is the one doing the pirouettes and lifting her legs. She is the most important thing the audience is seeing.
"Of course," he adds, with that disarming smile so familiar to ABT audiences, "as the male dancer you don't want to be forgotten."
That, of course, is the dilemma. How exactly does a man accomplish that? It's not as if the entire balletic repertory is going to morph to make the male dancer the center of attention. In a pas de deux, it is inevitable that a male dancer will play a supporting role, both literally and figuratively.
But there are dancers‹and Gomes is one of them‹who are regarded as magnificent partners, men who manage to be dramatic equals to their female counterparts in every way.
What is it that separates them from their peers? Large hands? Extraordinary upper body strength? Exceptional balance? Attentiveness? Awareness? Or is it something less tangible?
"It's a mind set," says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. "There's an excitement in a good partnership that cannot be replicated alone. As a male dancer you can be a wonderful artist and portray a feeling, but you can't portray a relationship alone."
Flexibility is one of the essentials. Not physical flexibility, but as in any intimate working relationship, you have to listen, pay attention, and find ways to solve problems together.
Early in McKenzie's career, former ABT principal dancer Paul Sutherland gave him several tips about partnering that he still recalls vividly.
The first was the hardest to grasp; that you can't really see a good male partner.
"What he's doing should be invisible," says McKenzie. "It didn't resonate at the time. I was young‹I didn't want to be invisible." It's a hard lesson for a young dancer. After all, he's studied for a decade or more hoping that people will see him. That's why, says Gomes, that personal maturity is another one of the keys to success. "There's a lot more to partnering than people think," says Gomes. "It's an art unto itself. You see these big lifts that look like ice skating moves? It's not really about who's the strongest partner. It's really about coordination with your partner. I've danced with small ladies and taller ladies‹with all shapes. Maybe all you need to do is hold her waist at a different place‹a little lower, a little higher, a little tighter. You have to know your partner's body and how she uses it." A little innate understanding of physics doesn't hurt, either. It's essential for a man to understand how his partner's height alters her center of gravity. Or how grasping her arm at a slightly different place will help‹or hinder‹her balance.
"These aren't things you have time to think about," says Gomes. "You just have to understand them."
And that's where experience becomes so important.
Most male dancers from the Caribbean and South and Central America begin partnering in their pre-teen years. Generally, the boys are too small to work on lifts at that age. But they learn how to promenade, how to support a woman while she pirouettes, how to help her find her balance."I started when I was 10," says former ABT principal Julio Bocca, now artistic director of Ballet Argentino in Buenos Aires. "There were not so many dancers in the school‹maybe 20 girls and 5 boys. So, of course, you have to partner everybody. And every body was different. From when I was very little, I learned to be connected with both short girls and tall girls. I think it helped me to be prepared for any person I might meet on the stage."
Here in the States, very few dance schools offer such classes. Indeed, unless a boy is fortunate enough to study in a professional academy like the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, his first partnering experience may not be until he joins his first company.
Principal Dancer Michele Wiles began dancing with David Hallberg two years ago.
Their first work together? Swan Lake. It's a demanding partnership, both choreographically and dramatically. Both dancers' roles are thick with subtleties that challenge even the most veteran dancers.
And at the beginning, their pairing was a tenuous fit.
"We had never done the ballet before, which was a little daunting," says Wiles. "It was trying and difficult‹there is just so much to work on. David was very young and hadn't partnered that much. And really, I hadn't partnered that much, either."
But McKenzie believes in experimenting to find an ideal partner, even if it might not seem the perfect pairing on paper.
You need only look to McKenzie's own partnering of Natalia Makarova as evidence that unexpected pairings can succeed.
"I was definitely the junior member in that partnership," notes McKenzie. "Not in age. But she was an icon of the 20th Century looking for a partner. And . . . . well, I definitely wasn't an icon. But we worked very well together. And I turned out to be her last steady partner."
Sometimes, though, the chemistry just doesn't work. Sometimes, you put together two people who seem ideally matched and the relationship fizzles.
"I'm not infallible," says McKenzie. "You can only speculate so much before two people actually dance together. But you have to be patient. Just because it's not perfect the first time they dance together doesn't mean it can't be a great partnership."
That's what happened with Wiles and Hallberg.
Their first performances were solid, but understandably tentative. In the meantime, McKenzie also had Wiles performing with much more experienced partners.
"It's different when I dance with Marcelo," says Wiles. "Marcelo is a bit more physical with his dancing than David. He really takes over. He controls everything. And it's fun.
"Carlos Acosta was very much like Marcelo. He's very passionate. Before we danced 'Swan Lake,' he came to me and he looked at me and said breathlessly 'let's pretend that we're in love'."
"Oh, I'm willing to play along. It's fun to play along and be spontaneous."
All the while, she continued to build her relationship with Hallberg. As she got to know him better, she found him to be a soothing influence on her.
"David is extremely responsive and he communicates well, so we can talk things out," says Wiles. "That's really good for me. David tends to calm me, which I need.
"David and I have gone through analyzing things to such an extent that we finally trust ourselves. It's taken us two years. But I feel like we've really made a journey together. And it's been totally worth it. David is really the only person I dance with here."
McKenzie is quick to point out, though, that there are other pairings that haven't worked the way he'd hoped."The whole process is very Zen-like, if you will."
He recalls the three women he was most associated with in his ABT career: Natalia Makarova, Marianna Tcherkassky and Martine van Hamel.
"They could be like the elements. One was like air, another water and the other was like the wind," though he declines to identify which was which. "All those three elements react very differently. You can't expect water to act like wind. For each one, you had to find a different way to interact."
In the end, he says, mastering a partnership on the stage is very much like dealing with one off the stage.
"Partnering is not so much making it happen, but allowing it to happen," says McKenzie. "It's incredible generosity. It's trust. It's chemistry. It's understanding. It's challenging. And, in some ways, it's unteachable."
David Lyman is a freelance arts and arts-marketing writer.