After the Rain is a brilliant duet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who previously appeared on this blog in my post on his recent ballet Alice in Wonderland. I sought out a full-length recording of this dance after watching the homage to the World Trade Center titled New Beginnings, that utilizes a condensed version of the work danced atop 4WTC in upper Manhattan. I advocate watching both in order to fully understand the following discussion of the work.
After the Rain is a dance of raw emotion. The true beauty is in the idiosyncrasies of the partners, Damian Smith of Australia and Yuan Yuan Tan of China, who dance together at the San Francisco Ballet (and will until Smith’s upcoming retirement). Their partnership is electric, deep, and moving. It enables this duet to transcend technique and to live. This element of performance I don’t often find in ballet work, which is the main reason I tend to enjoy modern dance more. It is also absent in New Beginnings, which made me wonder: what is this abstract element between dancers that can so thoroughly make or break a dance? How does the same choreography spark and fly in one instance and fizzle in another?
The secret, as I implied, lies in the little details. In After the Rain, Tan has a weight to her slight frame. She is contoured and imperfect, allowing her feet to sickle and rub the sides of her legs while in a passe, and when falling to the ground in a split she doesn’t quite get all the way there. Her energy ranges from defeated to resilient, and she responds to her partner like he is her breath itself. There is never a moment when she is not reacting to him or at him, never a moment when he loses sight of her. When they look at each other onstage they truly see each other, creating a shared sense of timing that is breathtaking and palpable. Together, they have managed to accomplish a feat I thought impossible: dance a ballet where each movement looks purposeful and full of intent. They even manage to reach the apex of the piece, where Tan balances on Smith’s leg in what might normally be an overly epic arabesque, honestly and without guile, making it a truly moving moment.
As for Smith, the manner in which he relates to Tan is heartfelt and deeply sad. He does most of the heavy lifting (of course this is still a ballet), but he does so in a way that utilizes weight shifts reminiscent of contact improvisation techniques. In a feminist twist, he does not take her anywhere she doesn’t want to go and there are several moments where she dictates his movements. At first the lifts seem borne out of Smith’s tenderness and caring; later they occur because he is simply responding to her lapses, her moments of lashing out. Her nature is contradictory: she is loving and gentle one moment, then spasmodic and hurtful the next. The dance is a journey through her psyche, which appears to be damaged. The final minutes of the ballet repeat the beginning moments, a beautiful choice as it reinforces the gravity of their situation and their commitment to each other. It ends with Smith sliding under Tam and lowering them both gently to the ground, draped upside down over his body. They both release their weight into each other and into the ground, finally relinquishing all semblance of control to the earth and to each other.
Watching them navigate their relationship over the course of the dance, I feel a kinship with them both. Smith is the stoic figure who loves Tam through her bouts of depression, and Tam is fighting for her very life to emerge from the grip of her mental state. She manages to do this from time to time, acknowledging the love and support she receives from Smith with simple gestures and hugs; he gives her a kiss on the forehead and she embraces him as they enter the final moments of the dance. The ending repetition suggests this pattern is what they must deal with as humans: depression, mania, and love for each other, all bound to repeat and evolve over the course of life. We all have a little of both characters in us, to greater or lesser extents, and only by surrendering to our natures and to each other can we start to overcome.
I believe this narrative is why the New York City Ballet chose to use this particular bit of choreography in New Beginnings. It represents hope, despair, anguish, frailty, and resilience so well. However, while lovely, this shorter version is simply too polished and perfect to come close to the simple beauty of Tam and Smith’s performance. Both dancers are much stiffer in their movements and hold back in their interactions with each other. The female dancer is particularly technique-driven, with sharp arabesques and a perfect full split. There is nothing vulnerable about her whatsoever, no weight to her body. This strips the dance of its essence and allows it to become utterly predictable. The ending of the large, balanced arabesque seems contrived instead of inspirational.
There are many reasons for these discrepancies: Tam and Smith have been partners for a long time and implicitly trust each other. They are comfortable being vulnerable with each other, which is a skill you can’t fake as a dancer. It is either there with your partners or it’s not. The director of the shorter version may not have understood or valued the unfinished quality of Tam and Smith’s performance, and may have coached his dancers toward the clarity of movement and finished perfection more typical of ballet. And ultimately, what I’m expressing here is simply my preference, my reading of the dance, that guides my own experience as a dancer and choreographer. Give the dances a look and form your own opinion.