Tulsa Ballet: "Por Vos Muero" (Nacho Duato/Old Spanish Music)
The Joffrey Ballet: "Age of Innocence" (Edwaard Liang/Philip Glass and Thomas Newman)
Ballet Across America, Program III
J.F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 18, 2010
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2010 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The three days of Ballet Across America gave us a chance to see what nine very different companies were dancing in 2010, and the answer seems to be: not much ballet. This has been an issue for some years now. Some artistic directors and choreographers used to say, "But we are doing ballet!" That didn't work, so now one is more likely to hear that ballet is of a former time and this is the dance of our time (nice try) or "It doesn't matter what it's called as long it's good," which could be a point if the works were actually good. But the fact remains that people expect to see what they buy a ticket to see, and, just as when one goes to a modern dance festival or Hip Hop Night one does not expect to see "Agon" or "Lilac Garden", when one goes to something called "ballet" one expects to see ballet. Friday night was mostly contemporary dance night at Ballet Across America, and, from what I overheard as I roamed around at intermission, I was not the only one baffled at how little ballet was on view. What's going on out there across America?
First up was Jorma Elo's 2008 "Red Sweet," a plotless chamber work for eight dancers set to music by Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Biber. As a choreographer, Elo is a good traffic cop. He can move dancers off and on stage, and around it, skillfully and create interesting patterns. Vocabulary is another matter. Steps began to disappear from ballet in the 1980s, and were replaced with Movement. Elo's dancers do a ballet step here or there, but nothing shows off or uses their technique. There's a lot of emphasis on arm movements now, with the dancers' arms waving or quivering or making rolling movements. At times I thought of the old modern dance "airplane wings" beloved by students in composition classes. As for response to the music, Elo's take on Vivaldi was startlingly similar to Stanton Welch's to Mozart in his "Falling." Both match tremulo with head bobbings, or finger wigglings, or arm rolls. This may be fun to dance, and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancers worked like demons, but I would not want to see it twice.
I had been particularly looking forward to seeing Tulsa Ballet as I'd heard how strong its dancers are, but Nacho Duato's "Por Vos Muero" (1886) gave them scant opportunity to show their prowess. It's a work more representative of European dance than American, the kind of costume drama that hints at a story without delivering one and depends on impressive costumes and interesting music, here the poems of Garcilaso de la Vega sung to music of roughly the same time period. It's a handsome work, a ballroom with a red backdrop and blue costumes, loosely based on Renaissance court dress, though very unspecific as to social rank, place or time. (Notes for the ballet include the comment that "In XV and XVI centuries dances formed part of the cultural expression of people, including all social hierarchies," but did the maids really dance with the courtiers? There seemed to be no ladies, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, here, though no point was made of that).
There are hints that something more than court dancing is going on -- dancers holding skulls and hanging them on the walls when they leave is a big clue, but to what?-- and the work opens and closes with dancers in bodystockings (naked tourists? the souls of the bodes we'll see and have seen wandering around looking for their bodies?) One woman is carried around by her partner in a pose that makes her look like a mannequin. A comment on the treatment of women, or fashion models, or something else entirely?
Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence," which The Joffrey Ballet danced, is also set in a ballroom, and was, Liang says in interviews, inspired by the novels of Jane Austen. Reading them, Liang became interested in the social mores of the time and the importance of social dancing in male/female relationships. That could make an interesting ballet but the idea is not developed. Maria Pinto's costumes do not help (see photo). One Chicago writer noted that "the men's dancing costumes fit the Victorian era," and leaving aside the fact that Austen died two years before Queen Victoria was born, the men's short shorts -- white trimmed with gold bric-a-brac -- are about as far from the Victorian era as can be imagined, and the women's long, sleeveless dresses worn in the ballroom scenes, though not nearly as silly, do not set the time and place either, nor support the choreographer's intention to show that women were repressed during this time.
The ballet opens with the dancers, separated by gender, in two lines, bowing to each other before the dancing -- a vague group dance (neither social dance nor a proper ensemble dance), a pas de deux, a quartet for four men, ensemble dancing, a central pas de deux for a very tall man and a very short woman, rather like pair skaters, and back to the ballroom where the couples part, without having accomplished anything (Austen's heroines always got their man). Program notes promised a haunted ballroom, but there are no ghosts here. These are the episodes, but there's no overall structure or clear composition. As often happened this week, we watched a very intimate pas de deux between two dancers whom we had not yet met. During the men's section ("The Men"), where four guys spend a lot of time doing squats and a few Extreme Technique moves -- for there are some of ballet's steps in this piece, if few of its values -- the men dash offstage for no other reason than to return in about three seconds with nothing that would have caused either their exit or re-entrance. The music, selections from Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, including some used in the soundtrack for the film "The Hours," is used like a soundtrack rather than the impetus for movement.
I was surprised that the company brought this ballet, and even more surprised to read Chicago reviews that called it "a newly minted masterpiece." However well-intentioned it is, "Age of Innocence" is as far from being a masterpiece as the costumes are from being Victorian. That the title is of an Edith Wharton novel not one by Austen is puzzling, although perhaps more apt. Wharton's work actually does deal with the social repression of women. Austen's heroines cope with their roles with wit and panache. Her novels are all about interesting characters, male as well as female, and there are no characters in this piece. Anonymity is a problem shared by nearly every work on view this week. We've seen dancers from nine companies, but I have very little idea of company style (except for the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Houston Ballet and Ballet Arizona).
This is especially noticeable in a company that still bears the name "Joffrey," a collection of individuals if ever there was one, and a company with a very specific profile which seems to have disappeared under its current director, Ashley Wheater. The Joffrey was always a controversial company, loved by many, dismissed by others for lapses in taste and judgment, but it was also the repository of a very fine 20th century repertory (works by Massine, Ashton, Kurt Jooss, among others). Will they disappear, too, in this brave new age of Anything But Ballet? If they're replaced, it should be only by works of equal mettle.This issue of style and nomenclature will resolve itself when a new generation of choreographers (and one seems to be bubbling around now, ready to emerge) who believe in ballet revive it with their own ideas, not those borrowed from here, there and yon.
Until then, the Balanchine model is not exhausted and his ballets need to be seen as models so that new choreographers have a measuring stick, and so that the dancers' technique is tested. (There are other possible models, of course, although Fokine, Ashton and Tudor present stylistic difficulties.) Balanchine left many small-scale ballets as gifts to small companies. Next time, if we're going to have evening after evening of new work, perhaps there should be an opening qualifying round where each company dances "Concerto Barocco" so we can see if they can dance.
I still think Ballet Across America is a good idea, but I hope next time the Kennedy Center will go back to the model of the 2008 BAA. Not only were most of the works brought ballets, but there was a wide range of styles and a mix of acknowledged works ("Serenade," "Lilac Garden," "In the Night," and "Nine Sinatra Songs," and "The Still Point") with the newer pieces.
Photos, from top:
Dancers of the Tulsa Ballet in ""Por Vos Muero."
Dancers of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in "Red Sweet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Dancers of the Tulsa Ballet in ""Por Vos Muero."
Joffrey Ballet in "Age of Innocence.:" Photo by Herb Rosenberg.
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels, Victoria Jaiani. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.