DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Next Friday and Saturday, April 23 and 24, at Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan (55 E. 59th Street), the New York Theatre Ballet will present a program of rarely seen chamber works: Frederick Ashton’s early Capriol Suite (pictured here), George Balanchine’s À la Françaix, Antony Tudor’s Judgment of Paris, and, in homage to the choreographer John Taras, who died in April, Taras’s Designs with Strings, his popular ballet from 1948, which was given its first performance in Edinburgh by the Metropolitan Ballet of London. The program will also contain Solitude, a new work by the young, Italian-born choreographer Marco Pelle.
About the 1930 Capriol Suite—which has been staged for NYTB by Amanda Eyles, notator with the Benesh Institute in London—Ashton’s biographer David Vaughan has written: “With Capriol Suite Ashton took a step forward and began to assert his own individuality and essential Englishness.” Both the score, by Peter Warlock, and much of the choreography are based on Thoinot Arbeau’s 16th-century music and dance treatise Orchésographie; however, Vaughan adds, Ashton “also took some things, such as the use of handkerchiefs, from a display of English folk dancing that he saw at the Albert Hall.”
À la Françaix, from 1951, is set to Jean Françaix’s 1934 "Serenade for Small Orchestra;" its original cast was Janet Reed, Maria Tallchief, André Eglevsky, Roy Tobias, and Frank Hobi. Performance rights to the ballet were left to Eglevsky in Balanchine’s will. It has been staged for NYTW by Eglevsky’s daughter, Marina.
For further information, contact the box office at Florence Gould: 212-355-6160.
Of the two companies at the Joyce, it was Ailey II that offered the happier surprises, beginning with some live music: excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, performed with silky aplomb by Egil Rostad (whose preternatural calm in performance may be connected with the fact that not only is he on the cello faculty of the Third Street Music School Settlement, but he is also a certified instructor of Kundalini Yoga and a student of several forms of meditation). These Bach selections served veteran choreographer Igal Perry—founding artistic director of New York’s Peridance Center—as the score for his abstract dance suite Intimate Voices: a series of solos, duets, and trios, whose individual subtitles (“Yearning,” “Brief Encounter,” “Like an Arrow,” “Embrace”) give a good sense of their tonal range. In every department—choreography, presentation of the dancers, music, velvety black costume design, elegantly engineered costume construction, lighting—this was a highly professional work, representing Perry’s extensive training in and experience with both classical ballet and modern dance. Like the choreography for nearly every dance on the Ailey II program, that for Intimate Voices was more ornate and diffuse than its music. Still, the individual dance monologues and conversations had considerable texture, dignity, and playfulness. The performance I attended also showcased performers of potentially spectacular brilliance—among them, the statuesque Sharron L. Williams, the virtuoso Zach Law Ingram, and the firebrand Khilea Douglass.
In the staging of Talley Beatty’s 1947 solo Mourner’s Bench, to a heartstopping (taped) rendition of a Spiritual, Chris Jackson bore a slight physical resemblance to the choreographer, whose performance on film is contained in the remarkable PBS documentary about African American dance in America, Free to Dance. (You can see a few seconds of Beatty’s powerful, aquiline rendition at www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/timeline/timeline5.html) The title, the choreography’s profoundly sorrowing tone, and the minimal set of a long bench might suggest at first that the dance owes a debt to the Lamentation of Martha Graham—yet further research would seem to quash that idea. It turns out that Mourner’s Bench isn’t actually emblematic of literal mourning. One of five sections from a Beatty suite called Southern Landscape, inspired by the Howard Fast novel Freedom Road, the solo concerns a character’s reflections on how the Ku Klux Klan destroyed the peace of a mixed-race community: the bench of the title refers to the place where a person aspiring to convert would wait to do so. Unlike Graham’s female figure, shrouded from head to toe and more or less nailed to one spot, Beatty’s male soloist, naked to the waist, is moves all over the bench, as well as under and upon it, and he is challenged by arduous feats of balance which represent his thoughts taking wing. There was no note in the program to explain Beatty’s precise dramatic intentions, however, and the best that someone who hadn’t seen Free to Dance or researched the solo could observe would be that the work seems to have been choreographed in sections. The largest challenge for the dancer is to weld them into an emotional whole without losing stamina. Beatty on film does that. Jackson—who makes the dance look a little more balletic than it is probably meant to be—almost did, and the moment at the end, where, balled up, he suspended himself from the edge of the bench on the sung word “heal” was deeply affecting. (Ailey company chronicler Robert Tracy kindly rooted out the information for this Letter that the Ailey II staging of Mourner’s Bench was by Michael Joy, also unlisted in the program, who had apparently danced a revival of it in the late 1980’s.)
Khilea Douglass, a dancer of phenomenal stamina, was featured in two subsequent pieces. One was a group nocturne called Prayer in Discord, by U.S. Navy veteran Nathan Trice, to a collage score by Ryuichi Sakamoto of talking, instrumentation, and inexorably tolling chimes. In every way, the dance grew increasingly dark as it went; the cast, in fluffy translations of camouflage uniforms, seemed to be revisiting a foreign war and, finding themselves trapped in its discordance, finally couldn’t outrun the darkness that swallowed them. Half the dance was taken up with false endings; even so, it had a persuasive authenticity in its portrait of decentered and isolating terrors and the communal pleas for them to stop. Douglass then went on to perform yet another solo of alternating resistance and submission from Judith Jamison’s Divining. By this point, she looked a little tired from all she had been assigned over the program’s two and a-half hours, yet she still caught the big, stop-time, head-high extension with photoflash accuracy. What a dancer.
Two recesses from this bouquet of holiday lilies were the duet Point of Departure—about a couple meeting, coupling, and breaking up—by Ailey II’s resident choreographer Troy Powell, and Robert Battle’s The Hunt, a spectacle for six guys in long skirts, hitting on one another in various ways, to ear-splitting percussion, provided (on tape) by Les Tambours du Bronx. The Powell duet lost its dramatic logic halfway through. However, from its sly use of classical positions and partnering to its joke at the end about giving the woman the last gestural “word,” it was a wickedly ironic parse on classical pas de deux in general and on the choreography of Alvin Ailey in particular, with its alternating reliance on the vocabularies of ballet and jazz as well as on expressionistic contractions. Marimba Gold-Watts and Ingram made a gallant effort to put over this melodrama in a room defined by a freestanding door in a frame—a concession to the fact that the choreography didn’t establish time and place on its own. Battle’s choreography, which New York has seen presented for some years at the David Parsons company, with which Battle once performed, is brutally clear, iconic in its imagery, and aerobically DANCE from beginning to end.
ABT’s Studio Company offered a program with three chamber masterpieces of the mid-1960’s—Frederick Ashton’s solar and lunar trios, Monotones I and Monotones II; and George Balanchine’s pas de deux Tarantella—and two world premières, Milk Pool by Los Angeles choreographer Laura Gorenstein Miller and Staged Fright, by former A.B.T. dancer and mime Brian Reeder.
The Monotones ballets, which were staged by Lynn Wallis (currently the Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Dance and whose experience in staging these works goes back to the late 1970’s) looked uncomfortable sometimes for these dancers. Coolly formal, fastidious in their display of Cecchetti technique, highly exposing in their moments of stillness and balance, they were made for casts whose command of Cecchetti and familiarity with Ashton’s sensibility could be taken for granted. Nevertheless, the anxious accounts of the Ashton at the Studio Company were welcome, if only for the fact that the company even attempted them. And the choreography, at least, could be clearly understood and appreciated. I am both sorry and extremely perplexed that the same can’t be reported about Tarantella, which had been staged for the Studio Company by Susan Pilarre, who has been responsible for such lively and vivid Balanchine productions at the School of American Ballet. Jacquelyn Reyes and Arron Scott, the cast I saw, articulated the steps to the letter (a diamond-shaped leap by Scott remains etched in memory, especially) yet discovered little of its teasing élan. As the couple dutifully and joylessly negotiated one technical challenge after another, I found myself longing for a performance of Tarantella staged a few years ago by Suki Schorer for Eliot Feld’s now-disbanded company of rough-‘n-ready teenagers: on that occasion, the young man, who was dancing with his glasses on, got so carried away with the joy of his part that he missed spotting some turns and fell off the Joyce stage into the first row of seats. The music carried on, though, and so did his disconcerted partner, and in a moment or two he had popped up, unscathed, scrambled back onto the stage, and completed the dance without further alarming incident. That’s what I mean by spirit: one wanted to bottle it.
Staged Fright is the most recent in a series of ballets that Reeder has fashioned for the Studio Company. This one, to excerpts of Bernard Herrmann scores for several Alfred Hitchcock movies of the 1950’s and 60’s, demonstrated Reeder’s characteristic love of Edward Gorey’s visual compositions and raised-eyebrow ironies, and his generally stolid way with actual dance movement. Reeder’s works are anchored in styles of specific periods, and they are punctiliously costumed: the black evening dresses that Dennis Ballard designed for Staged Fright, with their sleeveless, veiled bodices and acres of skirt spraying forth from nipped-in waists, could have stepped right out of Vertigo. (In actuality, they emerged from Douglas Earl Costumes, which realized Ballard’s designs.) Having seen Reeder’s Lost Language of the Flight Attendant, Tea & Temptation, and, now, Staged Fright, I can recognize his charm and his wry picture-making yet am still at sea with respect to his abilities as a dancemaker. Part of the problem is his insider references to other choreographers and, in the case of Staged Fright, to the movies: when Herrmann’s violins in the score from Psycho are squealing at full throttle, Terpsichore, herself, couldn’t expunge the audience’s mental image of Anthony Perkins in a dress, hiking up a hatchet, or whatever the character wielded. Reeder’s choice for that music was to have several women swoon backwards to the floor, their partners and their crinolines working in concert to break their fall. The discrepancy of tone and emotion between their placid action and the music’s aggressive vitality cannot be explained away by irony: the movement and the music were simply on two different planets. Instead of refreshing our ears to Herrmann’s excellence as a craftsman and his gifts for creating memorable sound, Staged Fright kept challenging Hitchcock’s place in memory, and Hitchcock won every time. The strings lushly swell up: oh, that’s where Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. . . . That is, the physical imagery was irrelevant to this music, whose emotional associations have already been exhausted by a master. What would have resulted, I wonder, if Reeder had used other, less familiar music by Herrmann and simply followed his own intuitions about it?
Miller’s Milk Pool also stimulated intense applause and intermission blessings. My experience of it was so different, though, that I considered not commenting on it at all, since an outsider’s views are more or less irrelevant when a work has found its audience, as Milk Pool certainly did at the performance I attended. However, in thinking back to the Studio Company’s December concert in New York, at the Skirball Center, and remembering another world première there—The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Scott Rink, which also distressed me for related reasons—I’d like to try to articulate my objections for the record.
In the case of both ballets, the scores consisted of pieces from very famous and beloved music, which, in the case of Milk Pool, were interpolated with other music that was radically different in its procedures, aims, and effects, and, in the case of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was interrupted with sounds that not only contrasted radically with the score by Paul Dukas but were so harsh as well that they undermined the Dukas as a listening experience. This is a big step beyond Igal Perry’s extraction of individual sections from the Bach cello suites—which are already related on many levels of structure and sound—to make his own anthology. Of course, deconstruction of music is business as usual in the CD and music video industries now, and, sometimes, the introduction of alien sound into a dance score has a dramatic justification and a visceral logic, as in Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom and Sunset. Whatever logic operates here, alas, has nothing to do with art.
In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, whose imagery is based on the Disney setting of the full Dukas score in the 1940 Fantasia, the apprentice engages in a pas de deux with a broom, played by a danseuse whose limbs have been constricted by the costume. Eventually, the pas de deux turns bitter, and the apprentice takes a hatchet and “murders” the broom, on stage. The splinters then multiply into a corps de ballet of female brooms, their limbs similarly constricted, who exact their watery revenge on the apprentice. This is an idea that may have seemed amusing on paper; however, to see the murder grotesquely and relentlessly staged, and the ballet’s only women cast as inhuman props, all without any kind of moral dimension, were—for me and perhaps for others in the audience—sickening. Would it have been palatable if the choreography were better? It’s a good question; however, since I can’t even abide The Cage, an NYCB repertory staple with a similar plotline and amoral perspective, which has lasted over half a century, I’m not the person to answer it.
Now, Milk Pool seems to be an attempt on the part of the Studio Company to redress the balance in this battle of the sexes. Its choreographer, Laura Gorenstein Miller, well-known in Los Angeles, has set a work of sensually suggestive movements for a group of women wearing, well, deluxe slutwear—shiny, luridly colored one-piece bathing suits, decorated with cutouts and glitter. There is also a section for a female soloist, and a man and a woman in a coupling duet of athletic intimacy. I might have liked the duet, which is set to “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” the Caetano Velosa song featured in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. However, to get there, we had to watch the group of women lock their knees and perform grindingly slow rotations of their pelvises, first facing the audience and then, again, with their backs to us, all to the “Quando Corpus” section of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater—a score some readers may remember from the severe, devotional staging in its entirety by Mark Morris in the 1990’s. As for the sung text, the Stabat Mater is an anonymous Medieval poem about the Virgin Mary’s ordeal of standing to watch the Crucifixion of Jesus. The “Quando Corpus” verse concludes the poem with the Virgin’s prayer, “When my body dies/ may my soul be given/ the glory of Paradise. Amen.” Miller also used another, equally piercing section of the Pergolesi for the soloist.
I realize that words have little meaning to dance audiences, that the difference between sacred and secular music is considered trivial in the culture at large, and that the choreographer may not have thought she was putting a burlesque on stage. In his WQXR review of Milk Pool last weekend (“the best ballet I’ve seen in many a moon”), Francis Mason reported that he asked Miller what she was thinking of when she made her ballet. “Having a baby, and what that’s like,” she told him. Indeed, when she came out for a bow at the Joyce, the audience could see that she was in a state of advanced pregnancy herself. Still, couldn’t someone at the Studio Company could have gently observed to Miller that it might be considered inappropriate to use the Pergolesi for this work, costumed in this fashion, regardless of how innocent her intentions for it were? The fact that it was programmed the week prior to Easter doesn’t add to its luster.
What I find more upsetting than either of these two works individually is their sequential programming within six months.
What is one to make of a ballet company that pushes the toleration of its audience this way, regardless of its acquisition of Monotones, Tarantella, or, in previous seasons, Antony Tudor’s Continuo (which it dances beautifully)? In December, the Studio Company featured another world première, Springscape, by the promising, musical, and very young choreographer Peter Quanz. This gives one hope; nevertheless, Quanz’s ballets (at least what I’ve seen by him) are earnest and storyless; they don’t fill the need for funny ballets with plots and believable characters that, in ABT’s early days, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille once provided. This year, the dance world laments the losses while celebrating the careers of Ashton and Balanchine; yet, for purposes of company programming, could it be that ABT’s truly irreplaceable choreographers are Robbins and de Mille? At the Skirball Center, a sizable proportion of the audience never saw Springscape because they walked out on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which preceded it.
Correction: In the last Letter from New York, posted
on March 22nd, the section on the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s new
production of Apollo identified its performance at “Wall-to-Wall
Balanchine” as a world première. In fact, it was a New York
première. Thanks are due for this correction to Allan Ulrich, who
wrote that he was among audiences in the Mondavi Center in Davis, California,
on January 23 and 24 for the company’s first performances. The Apollos
at that time were Rasta Thomas and Duncan Cooper.
Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company
Pool (world première)
Fright (world première)
of Departure (2003)
Bench (1947, 2003 Ailey II première)
in Discord (2003)
last updated on March 22, 2004