How It's Done: A Haunting Loneliness

Halfway into Polyphonia comes a mysterious, mesmerizing solo.
Published in the April/May 2013 issue.

Ashley Ellis with Bradley Schlagheck in the duet that precedes "Polyphonia"'s poignant solo. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Christopher Wheeldon’s moody, shape-shifting ballet Polyphonia begins and ends with an eight-dancer assembly line of hyperphysical moves. But halfway into the ballet, Wheeldon set a poignant solo, originally created for Alexandra Ansanelli at New York City Ballet, danced to a slow, haunting waltz that forces a hushed audience to lean forward. “The solo comes as a surprise because everything else in the ballet is so different, so high energy,” says Boston Ballet soloist Ashley Ellis, who first danced it in 2011. When performed with articulate sensitivity, this danced soliloquy, a little over two minutes long, can mesmerize audiences, leaving a mysteriously lasting impression.

Context and Mood
Premiered in 2001, Polyphonia has already become such a popular touchstone that the 2010 Prix de Lausanne included this solo as a one of the female candidates’ variations. In his directions to competitors, Wheeldon characterized the solo as having a “calm serenity and sense of loss,” and said it should be “danced as if she can hear the whisperings of a lost love calling her.” Understanding the context is significant: The solo follows a tender pas de deux that ends when the woman’s partner circles around her as she stands still downstage left; then he exits. “When he leaves you, it feels very alone,” says Ellis. As she walks in silence to face front center stage and begin the solo, Ellis says, “I try to get in the most calm place I can. You feel the connection with the audience. ‘Intimate’ is really the best word to describe it.”

The first step—a passé on pointe moving into sous-sus—establishes the mood. The dancer has complete control over when to start. “The music doesn’t play until you do that first passé,” says Ellis. “It’s tricky because everything is so still. You have to be very focused.”

Absorbing the Musicality
The music, György Ligeti’s Hopp ide tisztán, is played twice, once for the preceding pas de deux and then again for the solo, creating a lingering mood. “One of the moments where I feel the most impact is when the first note is played—the piece has started, but you still feel that element of silence hanging in the air,” says Ellis. She begins with bourrées toward stage left with her arms extended spaciously outward. “You just give in to the music, and let it pull you around as you bourrée,” says Ellis.

Throughout the variation, Ellis lets her movement rise from the plainspoken melody: “You don’t want any funny affectations to distract from the simplicity of the music.” Nothing should be jarring, even the final fourth positions on pointe that punctuate the last circling bourrées. Those should be, Wheeldon explained, “sharp but not staccato.”

Technique Behind the Simplicity
One of the solo’s first technical challenges is a series of piqué développé arabesques on a diagonal, where Ellis cautions against stepping under yourself. “Whenever I step out and really go up through my passé, it works much better,” she says. “Think about it as if your leg is being pulled at the end.” 

Toward the middle of the solo, there is a slow manège of piqué turns in passé and attitude that dissolve into chaînés. “Wheeldon told me not to let that manège drag,” says Ellis. “Everything is so slow and soft, but in that moment, give it energy, a bit of an accent. Don’t let it get heavy.” The chaînés are choreographed with the arms upstretched and hands moving downward, palms toward the face, as if the dancer is cleansing her vision. “Keep your center as strong as you can,” says Ellis. “If it gets wobbly, the remedy comes from holding your core.”
As you walk upstage before the piqué manège, feel your weight grounded and be conscious of the port de bras. “You’re not a swan, but feel your back and keep the arms moving in a smooth, calm way,” says Ellis. “They never reach the point where they stop—that’s what makes it beautiful.”

For the final movement, a small développé front from sous-sus on pointe facing stage right, Ellis says, “Roll down from pointe and then walk off, leaning back as if something is pulling you offstage.”

The Strength of Silence

Commanding the stage during such an exposed passage requires both intense concentration and a radiance of energy. “That opening silence is very powerful,” says Ellis. “Take full advantage of the audience’s attention—don’t rush just because it’s quiet.” For each performance, Ellis recalls the first time she stood center stage for the solo. “It’s nice when you feel a little bit vulnerable and a little bit delicate,” she says. “That feeling’s not a bad thing.”

Tip from Alexandra Ansanelli
“The solo has this eloquence, this sadness. There’s an element of you that’s missing, because your partner has left. You move as though in a kind of darkness. The movement is so grounded, and yet it floats. Before trying the variation full-out, I’d suggest just creating that emotion and getting that sensation of seamlessness in your body.” —Alexandra Ansanelli