Memphis's "In Dreams", Arizona's "Diversions", Pacific NorthWest's "3 Movements"
Ballet Across America II #2
Opera House, The Kennedy Center
June 17, 2010
by George Jackson
copyright 2010 by George Jackson
Advice attributed to Balanchine is to close your eyes if you don't like the choreography and listen to the music. He was thinking of the sort of music he chose for his ballets - from classical through romantic to neoclassical or, on occasion, baroque and 19th Century ballroom plus, once, electronic. Much harder is closing your ears. Sometimes it can be done mentally and I tried during Ballet Memphis's rendition of Trey McIntyre's "In Dreams" to Roy Orbison and cronies' country rock.The sound just wouldn't let itself be shut out. These songs, unlike The Greasy Beans' bluegrass score on opening night, grated. McIntyre has an aim: he wants to be hip to what's happening now. That, though, is a vain and trite notion. He's best at squeezing sensuality out of duets but tends to be predictably slick in devising ensembles. The cast of three women - Stephanie Mei Hom, Julie Niekrasz, Jane Rehm - and two men - Jonathan Powell and Steven McMahon - was attractive and able. Why, though, did Memphis have to brandish pop entertainment? The company also has nuanced work in its repertory. Arizona's and Pacific Northwest's choices weren't as regionally stereotyped. Or was "In Dreams" the Kennedy Center's decision?
Ballet Arizona's "Diversions", choreographed by artistic director Ib Anderson to a Benjamin Britten concerto for orchestra and piano left-hand, shows off a big number of the company's dancers. There were 20 in all, looking handsome (as well as alluringly lit by Michael Korsch) and also elegantly trained. Often I found myself focusing on background figures or those at the sides of the stage as much as on those dancing front and center. This was because Andersen deploys the 6 women and 6 men of his corps not only as ensemble but also in soloist ways. The movement vocabulary is balletically diverse, probably too much so to furnish the family resemblances one needs to see choreographic connections and follow themes developing. It is as if Andersen had started afresh every time he went back into the studio to continue choreographing. About the Britten music Andersen shows concern, highlighting its dynamic surges and yet often treating the solo instrument as part of the orchestra. At the post-performance discussion, Andersen remarked that he intended "Diversions" to be played and danced faster than at this performance. A fleet approach might likely lessen this ballet's ponderous moments.
Short and named like its music - Steve Reich's "3 Movements" - Benjamin Millepied's fast paced ballet was very efficiently stylized. More than that, the dancing gave Reich's repetitive, perpetually transforming score a humane dimension. Stylization did not violate the dancers' dignity. Torsos were held purposely stiff in partial counterpoint to the limbs which moved more freely yet were kept close to the body - not at all a bad visual match for music in the "minimalist" manner. However, people still were people. The choreographic invention was respectable, as was choreographic development. There wasn't a blemish. Millepied himself designed a variation on the black box set which seems to have become standard for Ballet Across America. He lined his box stage with broad bands of alternating black and silvergray. The simply cut costumes by Isabella Boylston are in black, white and/or various grays. For this ballet, Pacific Northwest fielded a group of 16 strong soloists led by Carla Koerbes and Batkhurel Bold; treating everyone as a soloist isn't quite the same thing Andersen did in "Diversions" with its corps dancers suddenly coming into focus not only for prominent passages but also for ensembles.
At the post-performance discussion, Ib Andersen gave the main reason for why we are seeing so many black box and near black box sets: money. He said that using a simple stage has the benefit of putting the emphasis on choreography, even though really good new ballets are rare things. Memphis's Dorothy Gunther Pugh spoke about good dancing being a language from the heart. Kim Kokich, moderator of the discussion, excused the absence of the evening's third artistic director, Pacific Northwest's Peter Boal. Apparently, Boal had just broken a foot while jogging and couldn't travel.
Two thirds of the way through Ballet Across America II, I wonder why it has to be so dark so often in those black boxes of the stage. Night isn't the only time to dance and most American theaters have splendid lighting capabilities. Other things current American ballets have in common are avoiding music of the romantic era, letting the group look dominate, fearing full plot and character, and failing to develop new movement that is ballet rather than other forms of dance. Modern dance and the character companies did all that already in the past. This is supposed to be ballet.
Photos from top:
(No photo available for "In Dreams")
Ballet Arizona, Ib Andersen’s Diversions, photo by Rosalie O’Connor
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements, Photo © Angela Sterling.