passages

Albert Evans (1968–2015)

George Balanchine, The Four Temperaments, 1946. Performance view, New York City Ballet, June 20, 2010. Albert Evans. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

“AFTER SPEAKING WITH ALBERT EVANS, a reporter’s transcript is filled with notes like ‘big laugh,’ ‘throws hands up dramatically,’ and ‘mischievous whisper.’ ”

That sentence didn’t make my editor’s cut for the 2006 New York Times profile I did of Evans. But the very three-dimensional idea of his expansive and warm presence always came to my mind when people mentioned him. And it did again when I learned in June that the former New York City Ballet star had died.

It’s a shocking loss, in part because of that big and warm personality, which shone through whether he was performing in one of George Balanchine’s grand ballets or spending an hour in a windowless conference room answering the questions of a young, more-than-somewhat-starstruck writer. And shocking too, because Evans was only forty-six. He was gone a mere five years after retiring from the storied City Ballet stage—a parting that took place in a season full of retirements, as several of the dancers who joined the company in the difficult years after Balanchine’s death in 1983 said their goodbyes.

Evans was a singular presence—artistically and as the lone black principal dancer in either of New York’s two major companies. Before him there had only been Arthur Mitchell, who joined City Ballet in 1955. Evans died just days before Misty Copeland took over the lonely distinction he had once held, becoming the first African American woman promoted to principal rank at American Ballet Theatre.

Evans joined City Ballet in 1988, and his farewell performance in 2010 hinted at the range of repertory he inhabited during his years with the company. He anchored the third variation (“Phlegmatic”) of The Four Temperaments, 1946, a Balanchine masterwork created two years before the Russian-born choreographer cofounded City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein. And, with the inimitable Wendy Whelan, Evans danced William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman (Pas de Deux), 1992, a hard-edged work that is one of the choreographer’s only performed by the company.

Herman Schmerman shows clearly how Forsythe was then expanding and dismantling ballet, pushing the form in ways no one had done since Balanchine, whose explosion of what classical dance could be and do is everywhere evident in The Four Temperaments. And Evans’s dancing showed clearly his ability to be both classical and contemporary—a trait exemplified as well by Whelan and a crucial element for a company whose daunting repertory, supported by a vast wealth of historical works, is fed by a brisk stream of commissions.

George Balanchine, Agon, 1957. Performance view, New York City Ballet, April 24, 2007. Albert Evans and Wendy Whelan. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Evans’s slippery elegance simmered in another Balanchine masterpiece, Agon, 1957, which was radical in its day for both its structure and for Balanchine’s decision to cast Mitchell in an erotically charged duet with a white woman, the great Diana Adams. Watching Evans and Whelan dance Agon in recent years, you felt its combustible history as a deeply alive thing. Evans, a masterful partner, was both austere and sinuous.

As great performers do, he fulfilled the demands of the choreography while also fulfilling his own moment-by-moment drama—this is a dancer’s art, and there is nothing else like it. Watching, you feel time doing funny things—moving differently, or stopping altogether.

And then time moves on. That Sunday afternoon in June 2010 there was the typical retirement hoopla: thunderous applause, showers of confetti and flowers, a long line of colleagues and collaborators walking across stage to hug the man at the center. I remember Evans peeling off his slippers and twirling around with all and sundry. Smiling that smile.

In the last few years, his smile had moved backstage, as he transitioned into his new role as a ballet master. (He had also begun to choreograph, while still performing.) I would see him now and again, when writing about Justin Peck’s skyrocket to prominence. He has worked on all of the dances Peck has choreographed for City Ballet; in this way, dance is passed on, the present and in progress corrupting and being corrupted by history. It’s a marvelously impure understanding of preservation, in which everything can last if only you let it change. It is predicated on loss.

I found out about Evans’s death as one often finds out about such things these days: from cryptic and then unmistakable notes of grief on social media. One such comment by the City Ballet principal Sara Mearns came through my Twitter feed: “The 1 thing that can bring my spirits up & inspire me during this sad time is being in the studio w/Alexei Ratmansky. I am so lucky.”

Evans, who was often sought by guest choreographers, also worked with Ratmansky; he was in the original cast of Russian Seasons, 2006, the ballet that began the Russian choreographer’s intense collaboration with City Ballet. To quote a conversation with Ratmansky from that same 2006 profile of Evans: “‘I was really nervous to start,’ he explained, and then laughingly recalled how Mr. Evans calmed him, telling him that he should ‘take it easy’ on his first day.”

Later on in our interview, Ratmansky talked about an earlier, oblique encounter with Evans. The choreographer was then still a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, which was working on Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements), 1993, by City Ballet’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins:

“And there was a solo, a wild, wildest solo for a man. And that was Albert’s. And everybody around who knew him said ‘This is so Albert.’”

And now we can only say was. This was so Albert. And also: He is missed.

Claudia La Rocco is a poet and critic based in Brooklyn. A collection of her selected writings, The Best Most Useless Dress, was published last year by Badlands Unlimited.

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