Horizon of Feet
by Philip Dacey
"I hate dancers. Well, I don't really hate them,
but they're not musicians. They just count beats,
oblivious to the music. They wouldn't know a theme
if it bit them. They're arithmetician-athletes."
We're sitting, cooling off, after racquetball,
and I've asked the principal flutist of the New York
City Ballet Orchestra, Paul Dunkel,
to solo in words, to talk about his work.
"Musicians are there to serve the music, not
vice-versa, as with dancers. Think of us
as the composer's lawyers, and our job's to put
forward for our client the best possible case.
"But playing for dancers we're little more than
drummers in a circus, just there to highlight
with sound the dog whose trick it is to run
and jump through a flaming hoop: drumroll, rimshot.
"Likewise, some composers think they're tailors,
writing to order. They make the music fit
the dancing. Four extra steps? Then add two bars.
I call that music-as-Armani-suit.
"The truth is dancers and musicians live in two
different worlds. They're like passengers and pilots
on an airplane, and the conductor's the steward who
talks to them both and connects the dots.
"But Balanchine combined those two worlds with ease.
Russian-trained dancers learn music, and Mr. B.
played both viola and piano, would get ideas
at the keyboard for his choreography.
"My girlfriend used to dance, and when we go
to dance performances we disagree
on everything. She'll say the music's too slow,
I'll say the dancers are too fast; I see
"with my ears, she hears with her eyes. Or I'll say
a female dancer's too thin, and she'll say not.
But one thing we agree on: in his heyday,
Edward Vilella was just right; that is, hot.
"A guy's guy. Tough. I never heard Eddie whine.
He boxed—and learned fast footwork in the ring.
Was always revved, a Harley-Davidson.
Just did his work; let his feet do the talking."
"Vilella could be one of Whitman' s roughs,"
I say, and imagine the poet's ghost, eyes
wide, front row, watching the dancer do his stuff
while partnering Patricia McBride in Rubies.
"Walt leaned and loafed, didn't he? Like the faun.
In fact, we're rehearsing Afternoon today.
Setting the tempo's the catch. The dancers want one,
the musicians want another. They'll win, we'll play.
"Speaking of time ... " He stands to check the clock.
"Those games were long. I'm late. And outta here."
He waves, heads down the hall, then stops, turns back
and adds a coda before he disappears:
'I'm titling my memoir Dancing On My Head.
That sums up playing for dancers in the pit.
Once, I didn't recognize a dancer who said
she knew me. I told her, 'Let me see your feet.'"