What July/October activity in New York takes you on a three-hour sojourn filled with twists and turns, heroes, villains, and colorful minor characters, leading to either triumph or heartbreak?
If you said ABT’s ballets, you’d be correct. And if you guessed a baseball game, you’d be right there, too.
Both serve to take the edge off the doldrums of July, when you feel like a piece of meat on a rotisserie every time you walk down the street. And in October, both add to the delirious high season in New York, depriving us of sleep and pumping up our adrenaline even more.
Both have more similarities than might be apparent at the outset. Each demands of its participants a reflexive command of fundamental moves and positions; dancers and players must hew to a code of behavior created long ago and little changed since.
Both utilize gestures and body language to convey essential information. In ballet, the mime is universal. To indicate beauty, the hand traces a quick circle around the face, sometimes followed by a ‘mwah’ kiss of the fingertips, for example. In baseball, the often comical chain of signals given by a coach is meant to bury the one true sign in a flurry of decoys. But the catcher, calling the pitches, uses a standard set that is not meant to be seen by the batter standing a yard away from him, under an honor system.
In ballet, there is a hierarchy of dancers, starting with the principals, who perform the lead roles and are expected to do it flawlessly and passionately each night. They’re followed by soloists, who perform supporting, yet important, demi-caractere roles, or dance in difficult group sections meant to showcase a company’s technical depth. And finally there is the corps, where nearly everyone begins by paying their dues, learning both humility and the intricacies of the ballets.
Baseball, too, has its everyday lineup of position players, each ideally balanced between offensive and defensive skills, plus a rotation of starting pitchers. The bench includes utility players who can fill in at several positions, or one key position (catcher), and the bullpen, comprised of pitchers suited for specific roles (middle relief, closer, right or left hander). And there are the minor league teams, where young players wait their turn for the majors, or where major leaguers undergoing rehab spend time to get up to speed.
Ballets are filled with ‘tests’ of advanced skills considered essential to mastery. The pas de deux is perhaps the most complete instance, with its traditional structure of woman and man dancing together, then in alternating and accelerating solos, and together again. Studded with bravura moves such as fouettes, partnered pirouettes, grand allegro leaps, and tours en l’air, the audience can judge if a dancer’s physical and mental state approaches the fluid state of perfection, or not.
But, though some critics try, we don’t keep score in ballet, whereas in baseball an error by a player goes down in the books. Baseball tests, the fundamental moves that form the solid basis of a good team, are largely academic: Bunting well, fielding balls correctly, base running, proper positioning in the outfield according to the batter’s tendencies. But there are bigger tests: Driving in runners on base, striking players out in clutch situations, making impossible catches at the outfield walls to save home runs. New York Met David Wright’s ability to get hits with two strikes is as reliable as ABT’s Gillian Murphy triple pirouetting; Carlos Beltran’s elegant wall-climbing centerfield catches more literally parallel David Hallberg’s lofty, perfect split grand jetes. Yet sometimes a cloud of uncertainty â€“ real or perceived – can hover over certain players and dancers, the way Yankee Alex Rodriguez has failed in clutch at-bats, or NYCB’s Nilas Martins seems unable to inspire confidence.
While both ballet and baseball share the ability to unspool a dramatic line, here’s where they also diverge. We know how Romeo & Juliet ends, but the final scene never fails to elicit tears, and the familiar score seems only to gain in poignancy with each listening. The richness is in the telling, the small and large nuances in the interpretation of roles, the impeccable technique, the miraculous assembling of several genres to create an embraceable whole. Here, baseball has an advantage. A game’s story isn’t told until the final out, and its outcome can flip in the space of one at-bat. There is always hope until that last out, which is one reason why winning feels so sweet and losing so abysmal.
Another larger aspect to sports is the collective unconscious of fandom. We all suffer our own ups and downs, but when the Mets finally won the National League East, an undercurrent of joy jolted half of New York. It’s a well that we tap into, be it good times or bad. At least this season, for a Mets fan, it’s a good time. And like all good things New York, there are two to choose from. You’re either a Mets fan or a Yankees fan; an ABT or City Ballet person. The Yankees have earned their nickname, “the Evil Empire,” by spending limitlessly on buying the best players available, and â€“ by the way â€“ winning more World Series than any other team in history. ABT, while certainly not reviled like the Yankees are by many, lures from around the globe top dancers who sometimes appear in NYC shows over the course of just two weeks, and return to their home company, kind of like an all-star game.
On the other hand, NYCB is the company that people love to hate, like the Yankees. They have an embarrassment of riches in the form of repertory and a ‘farm team’ (School of American Ballet). But they also have an artistic director who has been accused of Steinbrenner-like control. And the company emanates what might be termed ‘poor chemistry,’ frequently appearing unsure, dutiful, or overextended in performance.
The Mets, like ABT, are a joy to watch â€“ a mix of wise veterans and exuberant youths, many pushing the definition of superb, or breaking records. We sense that they know how lucky they are, and they share it with us. The Yankees and NYCB bear the burden of legacy, often seeming lifeless and frozen with responsibility, yet very good at what they do. We lucky souls get to choose and for this fan, hands down, it’s the Mets and ABT, at Shea and City Center in October. Sleep can wait.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.