"Soiree Musicale,” Judgment of Paris,” “Othello,” “Septet,” and “Game Two”
New York Theatre Ballet
Florence Gould Hall
February 11, 2011
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
New York Theatre Ballet makes a specialty out of revivals of 20th century rarities—works that are either seldom performed or unusual in the choreographer’s oeuvre. Merce Cunningham’s early “Septet,” a suite for six dancers set to Erik Satie’s “Trois morceaux en forme de poire,” is the latest addition to the company’s repertory. It’s a departure in style and technique from the Ashton and Tudor ballets that have been prominent among the company’s recent offerings, but it’s a worthy aspiration. Barely fifteen minutes long, the work is small-scaled but brimming with insights about movement and theatricality. It retains something of the frisson—and glamour—of mid-century avant-garde, but is readily accessible nonetheless.
Cunningham upends dance’s rhetorical devices to sometimes witty, sometimes unsettling effect. Dancers run on to the stage and stand poised as if on the brink of a variation. We wait for something to happen; nothing does, and they depart. The episode isn’t played for laughs, though—it’s as if we’re being tweaked for not finding beauty enough in a moment of stillness. In the central duet, a man makes beautiful shapes with the passive body of a woman who is as oblivious to his presence as she is to her own lack of agency. Convention suggests that a duet is a relationship, but she seems neither to have accepted nor rejected him: it’s as if he has much personal meaning to her as the force of gravity.
Staged by former Cunningham dancer Carol Teitelbaum and coached by Carolyn Brown (who was a member of its first cast), “Septet” both exploits and challenges the company’s ballet technique. There are plenty of bourrées, chaînés, and jetés for them to do, but they’re also asked to hold poses of serene but charged stillness for what feels like eternity. The cast I saw didn’t yet have the deadpan cool—nor the weighted finesse—needed to pull off all of the work’s effects; it may take a few more performances for the style to settle into their bones.
The program opened with “Soiree Musicale” and “Judgment of Paris,” two short works choreographed by Antony Tudor in 1938 that are as different from each other as they are from the roughly contemporaneous “Jardin aux Lilas.” Neither will reward repeated viewing in the way that “Septet” will, but they are worth seeing at least once to get a fuller sense of Tudor’s powers and are enjoyable in their own right.
“Soiree Musicale”—initially made as a “demonstration piece” for a U.K. Cecchetti Society meeting—is a twelve minute primer on early 19th century ballet style. Everything about it—the choreography, the pretty costumes, the music—conspire to make it seem like a page torn out of an illustrated history of dance. But it doesn’t have the faintest whiff of musty textbook about it; the work’s academic steps have been woven into charming little duets and trios, each perfectly aligned with the buoyant music and marked with just the right amount of telling detail.
The score, by Benjamin Britten, is an orchestral suite fashioned from Rossini’s “Soirées Musicales,” an album of salon arias based on popular national dances of the day. (The piano reduction played Mariko Miyazaki sounded much more like Rossini than the orchestrated version does.) There’s a tender canzonetta for a shy maiden and her poet; a jolly tirolese for a carefree village couple; a fiery bolero for three haughty señoritas; and a brisk tarantella that begins as a nimble duet for yet another village pair and ends as a finale for the entire cast.
“Judgment of Paris,” set to selections from Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” isn’t as funny as it pretends to be: the easy jokes barely disguise Tudor’s acid take on what it means to earn one’s bread as a performer. Forget all that Vissi d’arte hooey, folks: it’s a corrupting, soul-crushing grind.
The famous episode from Greek mythology has been updated to the Edwardian equivalent of a dive bar. Three aging music hall danseuses creak their weary, hard-bitten way through their faded routines in the hope of catching the eye of an indifferent and soon to be dead-drunk barfly. Each has her prop and her shtick. Juno (NYTB’s Associate Artistic Director, Christina Paolucci) does a bit of naughty peek-a-boo with a fan. Venus (Elena Zahlmann)—armed with two circus hoops, a blond wig, and a fake smile—bluffs her way through a come-hither juggling routine. Minerva (NYTB Founder and Artistic Director, Diana Byer) threatens to drop into a split, thinks better of it when she gets stuck a third of the way down, and vamps with a mangy boa instead. It all ends as badly for the drunk as it did for Paris: the goddesses roll him for his pocket watch.
The cast wasn’t afraid to let the characters look thoroughly moth-eaten, but avoided overplaying their desperation and depravity: you end up liking these shopworn adventuresses more than you really should.
NYTB’s dancers were admirably conscientious and unmannered throughout the entire evening, but too often danced with a student’s earnestness rather than a professional’s confident élan. Their dancing was honest, but lacked the crisp articulation and fluent musicality needed to make the company’s repertory exciting for reasons other than its provenance. They looked their happiest and most expansive in Matthew Neenan’s “Game Two,” a 2008 company commission for six dancers set to selections from Georges Bizet’s “Jeux d’enfants.”
Performed in soft slippers, color-blocked polo shirts, and bicycle shorts, the work augments traditional ballet vocabulary with a quirky steps and gestures in received contemporary dance style. Neenan chose his gestures carefully, however—most of them evoke child’s play and are well-woven into the work’s overall texture. One delightful turn set a dancer into an off-balance spin while holding onto a foot as if she’d hurt it in play. Neenan’s fluent use of groups allowed him to pack a surprising amount of movement onto Florence Gould Hall’s dinky stage.
Steven Melendez (Othello), Rie Ogura (Desdemona) and Joshua Andino-Nieto (Iago) danced John Butler’s “Othello” with more open-hearted honesty than this pretty 1976 fake deserves. Butler layers tritely literal gestures onto sweeping turns and lifts! lifts! lifts! to give us Martha-lite emblems of emotion in lieu of real drama. If you don’t already know the plot, you won’t have a clue as to why one guy is spinning across the stage with another guy perched on his shoulders or why that nice young lady keeps getting thrown to the floor.
“Othello” was the only piece on the program performed to recorded music (Antonín Dvořák’s “Othello Overture”). The rest were performed to two or four hand piano accompaniment, well-played by Mariko Miyazaki and Michael Scales. The company made a virtue out of necessity: we got to hear Miyazaki and Scales play some lovely excerpts from Ravel’s “Ma mere l’oye” and Debussy’s “Petite Suite” during the costume change breaks. As an added treat, Carolyn Brown discussed “Septet” and its creation during the intermission.
copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by Richard Termine
Top: Joshua Andino-Nieto, Elena Zahlmann, Manuel Barriga, Carmella Imrie, Mitchell Kilby, & Rie Ogura in Merce Cunningham’s “Septet”
Middle: Manuel Barriga and Young Wha Lim in Antony Tudor’s “Soiree Musicale”
Bottom: Steven Melendez in John Butler’s “Othello”