March Madness

There were dancers, and there were watchers at the David H. Koch Theater. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

When the curtain goes up on Le Sacre Du Printemps (The Rehearsal), the theater smells suddenly of smoke and bubble gum and talcum powder. Or at least it seems so to seat F 19 Orchestra Left. This may or may not be a sly commentary on the state of modern dance. This was last weekend, last Friday, when the big dance was up at Lincoln Center.

The Paul Taylor company was there to make its wordless argument on behalf of humans doing things instead of humans saying things; on behalf of the vertical and the horizontal; on behalf of mass times acceleration; on behalf of joy. An argument that was also being made the same night in Austin and Dayton, Kansas City and Philadelphia. So America rising and firing and a few degrees off plumb, everyone running and jumping, the language of the body and athleticism everywhere, and folks filling every seat to see it.

The New York Times review is here, but seat F 19 Orchestra Left doesn't always or even often agree with modern dance. Not with its anguished comic book frowns of existential dread, not with its pointed Industrial Age melodrama and its unpointed toes, not with its 60-year-old clich├ęs of "modernism" or even with its youthful smell of talc and Bazooka and Marlboro reds. Tangled in the antique conventions of its long Martha Graham dress, wrapped up only in itself as art sometimes is, it can be insufferable.

But stripped of artifice, all that muscle and grace spent in service of nothing more than muscle and grace can crack you right open. It's us up there after all, all of us earthbound and stuck in our flesh and our imaginations.

Two dozen men and women young and strong and beautiful, spinning sweat, running together and coming apart, athletes in unison and disunion, marking out meaning and unmeaning and keeping time. To see each outdance the traps of gravity -- that's it. That's why we're here.

The same is true in Brooklyn on Saturday.

The circus is in town, smelling of burned sugar and hand sanitizer, and from Section 8, Row 12, Seat 17 almost everything is a blur of pattern and color and noise and spectacle, the ancient business not much different than it was centuries ago. It still sells risk and wonder and a little sex, strong men and pretty women in small costumes, harmless clowns and cornball entertainment and tiger acts and elephant parades. Now it adds four pages of animal training and conservation disclaimers in the printed program.

At the end of the first act, the human cannonball is launched across the arena floor. Her flight is brief and never quite rises as high as its own hype, but as the tentpole act around which spin all these athletes, the Ukrainian trampolinists and the Russian tumblers and the Moroccan tightrope artists, the trapezists and the acrobats and the aerialists, it's a reminder that almost everything here translates our dream of flight. The dream to fly as old as the species, the dream to somehow exceed ourselves.

And the same was true Sunday down in Philadelphia. Florida Gulf Coast University over San Diego State University and Bernard Thompson and Sherwood Brown carrying us all up and down the floor in disbelief. Everyone flying. And another weekend of it still ahead.

And true at the public high school basketball tournament back at the beginning of March.

Carnesecca Arena and the smell of nachos and dogs. This is late in the game, up by 9, defensive rebound and the ball cleared up the left side fast, and there's nobody out there but the best kid on the floor. Hassan Martin pulls the ball down in stride with no one in front of him and as he does you know exactly what he's going to do, you can see it from the last row, see him make the decision when he's still 30 feet from the rim, the way he pulls his head up to measure his distance to the glass, then looks down to shorten his dribble and his stride, then lowers his shoulder to accelerate.

Maybe here we both picture what he'll do next.

How he'll tighten his grip on the ball as he steps that last long step into his jump, timing it, the ball in both hands for a moment before he swings the long right arm out like a pendulum with the basketball at the end, then extends it behind him as he rises, gathering force, the ball and the hand and the arm and Hassan Martin all suspended in time and in space for one weightless instant before the arm rocks down and stuffs the ball through the net, no hand or wrist on the rim, just the clean sound of the ball against the nylon on its way to the floor. He coasts and lands and turns upcourt expressionless. And then the small smile as he runs, he can't help himself, the stride and the leap and the ball will carry him all the way to college, and the smiles and the thunder from the stands follow him up the floor too, and the joy. Maybe this is what we've all come to see. Maybe this is why we're here.

That's how I picture it as he steps into his jump and tightens his grip on the ball.

I see him rising still.