writers on dancing


Letter from New York

Paul Taylor Dance Company
Ute Lemper, Carl St. Clair, and the
Hudson Shad with the Brooklyn Philharmonic:
“The Seven Deadly Sins” (Brecht-Weill)
Stephen Petronio Company
Mattew Bourne’s “Play Without Words”

Readers of The Dance View Times (and of other New York critics) know from the glowing reviews that the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s season at City Center over the past three weeks—in this, the company’s 50th anniversary year—has been spectacular and joyous, a feast of great choreography and glorious dancing. One of the miraculous aspects of the season, too—especially given the physical risks that the dancers were taking—is that, apparently, there was not a single injury during the three weeks. The pristine condition of the repertory is largely owing to the Herculean efforts of the company’s rehearsal director and, over its history, prime female dancer, Bettie de Jong. Her meticulous memory for what Taylor does in creative rehearsals and what he asks for in maintenance sessions, as well as her ability to translate those details to young dancers in a way that permits them to absorb the corrections as things that free one’s stage energy rather than dampen it, bespeak a selfless devotion to his genius that, to my knowledge, is certainly unsurpassed and may also be unmatched by any other rehearsal director in theatrical dance today.

Although the Paul Taylor company, touring each of the 50 states for its golden anniversary, belongs to the entire U.S., its origins and home are in New York City, which is also the home of Local 802 of the Musicians’ Union, whom we can all thank for Taylor’s having to perform, mostly, with taped rather than live music. The union’s picketing and protests in the early 1990’s over the company’s attempts to employ affordable nonunion and student musicians have, in the past 15 years, led Taylor—a choreographer of profound musical instincts—to seek out recorded scores that are unique to tape, such as the Tin Pan Alley songs for “Black Tuesday” and the Astor Piazzolla recordings for “Piazzolla Caldera.” These are hit dances all and exemplary instances of Taylor’s fluency with the suite form. Despite the fact that one can trace their legacy back to the landmark Taylor masterpiece “Three Epitaphs” of 1956, which is set to early jazz tunes performed, inimitably, by the Laneville-Johnson Union Brass Band, I doubt that we would have seen so many Taylor dances to recordings in recent years had he not sought to maintain his integrity as an artist by finding ways to offer unique musical experiences without the assistance of live musicians, along with the unique choreographic and performance experiences his company purveys.

Last week, DVT posted an account exact and true, by Susan Reiter, of the company’s last City Center performance on Sunday, 20 March—which was also the last performance with the Taylor company of longtime leading dancer Patrick Corbin. All three works on the program—“Black Tuesday,” “Klezmerbluegrass,” and “Esplanade”—were given astounding performances, in the case of the first, unquestionably the very best I’ve ever seen of it (with Lisa Viola’s comic turn and Corbin’s WWI veteran the best of the best), and in the case of the last, a performance so fraught with feeling that one can hardly evaluate it. As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking of previous casts as well; and in juggling them I was forcefully reminded that Taylor, despite his public disparagement of classical ballet, has been deeply committed to the highly conservative ballet casting practice of “emploi”—the casting of dancers according to their physical characteristics (height, bone structure) and stage temperaments. Indeed, typecasting is built into the choreography: the pimp in “Black Tuesday” (a comically degraded Apollo figure) must be a tall man in order to perform the partnering maneuvers with his three girls; the “watcher” girl in “Esplanade” must be tiny, in order to communicate the sense of the child intrinsic to the figure.

Stereotyping helps greatly when dancers need to be replaced, yet, in the cases of some individual dancers, it also seems to go deeper than logistics. Over the past several New York seasons of the company, for example, Annmaria Mazzini has regularly been cast as a tough yet tragic outsider, Julie Tice has been the bright-as-a-new-penny ingénue, Richard Chen See is frequently put in a ringmaster or dictator’s position. This isn’t offered as a criticism. Most of us in Taylor’s audience typify much of the world we encounter: it’s part of the way we filter experience in order to make sense of it or to feel safe. Martha Graham, with whom Taylor once performed, could look at dancers that way, too.

Still, there were a few marvelous exceptions in casting this season. Do they augur a new perspective? One was Heather Berest in “Eventide,” where she made her local debut, with Corbin, in the central, Tudoresque duets, taking on the part originated by Francie Huber. Berest, a tall woman with a long, flexible back and a face that seems to combine the features of Audrey Hepburn and Cynthia Gregory, is very different in physical type and personality from her predecessor; her introspective account of the role gave this beautiful suite a cooler temperature yet also another layer of depth. In “Klezmerbluegrass,” a dance new to New York, we saw an unfamiliar, sensual facet in the dancing of Silvia Nevjinsky—so often a standard-bearer of brute strength and classical bearing. The City Center performances by relative Taylor newcomers Michelle Fleet, Parisa Khobdeh, and Sean Mahoney in various works were also of such a high—and unclassifiable—order that one looks hopefully to see if Taylor will explore their gifts as well as exploit their achievements in future choreographies. “Dante Variations,” like “Klezmerbluegrass” a dance new to New York, also seems to be an unusually open-minded presentation of its cast among Taylor’s dances of recent years; it’s a showcase for dancers, yet it doesn’t limit them according to their body types or characteristic stage personae. I missed Corbin’s precedent-setting performance in drag as Big Bertha; however, that unusual casting suggests as well that perhaps some rethinking of categories is taking place in a larger way.

Of all the glorious passages in the Taylor repertory we saw this time, I’d like to single out a moment during the last performance for Lisa Viola and Patrick Corbin, about three quarters into “Esplanade”. Viola and Corbin have often been paired—most spectacularly in “Promethean Fire,” where he was required to make a fireman’s catch of her as she took a daredevil plunge toward him from a far corner of the stage. In this “Esplanade,” Viola jumped playfully into Corbin’s arms and then, as he began to turn in place, her arms locked around his neck, he swung her with tremendous force into space, so that her body sailed and fell in steadily larger arcs, as if he were a piece of playground equipment and she were an exultant child. This maneuver is part of the choreography; the intensity was local to those dancers that afternoon. I’ve never seen it performed with such unbuttoned, “hold me tight once more before I go” passion. The swings wound down, and Corbin passed Viola’s drowsy figure to another man—in this case, the virtuoso Michael Trusnovec (in fact, Corbin’s replacement in the duet with Viola in “Promethean Fire”)—who, as the choreography plots it, just happens to come along and, in the course of his walking, carries her off. These were, I believe, the instants when (as Taylor company manager, John Tomlinson, put it) Corbin went from being a Taylor dancer to a Taylor alumnus. In a larger context, they also represent how dancing, under optimum conditions, is handed over to the next generation. Bravi! only begins to cover one’s appreciation for the gallantry and magnificence of everyone involved in the transmission: Taylor; the dancers; de Jong; Taylor’s peerless lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton; Taylor’s late costume designer for “Esplanade,” John Rawlings; the Paul Taylor Repertory Preservation Project and its funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts; the Taylor company staff; and the audience that afternoon, whose wholehearted adoration for what they knew was a once-in-a-lifetime performance stimulated the dancers to feats beyond the beyond.

Although some of this dancing will surely be available on the road, it’s much more difficult for dancers to pull such rabbits out of their hats while touring. Still, one standard set by that golden company of the 1970’s was the ability to give a first-rate account of Taylor’s work during a one-night stand for an audience of 200 people, huddled together in center orchestra of a 3,000-seat theater. In 1975 or ’76, I was one of those people in Portland, Oregon, where I first saw “Esplanade.”


In the exhibition of George Balanchine’s papers at the Harvard Theatre Collection last summer, one could read a letter to the choreographer from Bette Midler, from the late 1960’s or early 70’s, turning down Balanchine’s invitation for her to sing Anna I in the revival he was planning of his Weimar-era work of dance-theater, “The Seven Deadly Sins.” The production, which would have been the work’s second revivial, sadly never happened. Anna II, the “dancing Anna” in Balanchine’s version, would have been Allegra Kent, who became an audience and media star in 1958 for her Dancing Anna in Balanchine’s first U.S. revival, with Lotte Lenya, at the New York City Ballet. Lenya, the wife and foremost singing interpreter for Kurt Weill, the composer of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” performed it the first time around, too—in 1933, when Balanchine, who had commissioned the café-cantata from Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht, staged it in Paris and London for the Dancing Anna of Tilly Losch, the wife of the foremost patron of Balanchine’s short-lived yet fecund little company, Les Ballets 1933. Alas, “Sins” had few performances then and also few in 1958; nor was it ever filmed in its entirety (or, at least, no film has been found). When NYCB mounted its “Balanchine Celebration” in 1993, there was some hope that “Sins” could be reconstructed; but the word was that only Kent fully remembered her part. Lenya’s stage movements and those for a supporting male quartet, not to speak of the choreography for a corps of 31 danced “Characters,” had dropped away, apparently, into the neverland of lost ballets. At this point, the most we have of Balanchine’s 1933 and 1958 stagings—and it is rather a lot, actually—is contained in the section on “The Seven Deadly Sins” in Nancy Reynolds’s “Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet.” (Published in 1977, “Repertory in Review,” itself, remains in the limbo of lost masterpieces. Unquestionably the most useful book about Balanchine ever published, it is unfortunately not only out of print but also difficult to obtain used.)

The cantata, however—debatably the greatest of those on which Weill and Brecht collaborated—lives on, blisteringly, and, infused by popular dance rhythms, aching to be fully staged. The bitter fights between the collaborators over the primacy of words or music are still alive in “Sins,” contributing to its vibrancy as a work in which each element continually pushes to the edge of the other’s territory. The featured chanteuse (Annas I & II), receiving the benefit of both forces, makes off like a bandit, and the supporting male quartet who represent her family (with the bass as the mother!) are also given juicy assignments, including, for the Gluttony segment—which takes place in Philadelphia—their incarnation as a barbershop quartet. The story of “Sins” is that the sister Annas, one a practical impresario who commands and relates, one a beautiful innocent who obligingly performs, travel to cities around America—a continent that Weill and Brecht knew about, it seems, primarily from hearsay—in order to make enough money to build their family “a little house on the Mississippi in Louisiana.” Each city in which the largely silent Anna II performs offers the opportunity for a different Sin, which Anna I and the Family quartet take turns describing in various genres of song. Introducing each description is a formal overture for the orchestra. Weill’s music is drenched in dance rhythms—foxtrots, waltzes—and Brecht’s acidulous lyrics invite the singers to exercise their gifts as actors, shifting tone and characterization over the length of a vowel.

In Brecht’s libretto, the story has a “happy ending”: the sisters, who are really two sides of the same persona, make money by selling Anna II’s body in a variety of ways, and they build the house. Balanchine, a much less cynical sensibility, added the staging detail, however, that the mute and exploited Anna II jumps, suicidally, through silver foil. (In 1958, Bob Fosse was working in New York and attending the New York City Ballet. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was thinking of “Sins” when he later worked on “Chicago.”)

This past Saturday, in a single performance as Annas I & II with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Ute Lemper, the remarkable German dancer and singer who is a specialist in the songs of Kurt Weill, seized every opportunity for drama through vocal color, painting the BAM opera house with long-fused rolled “r”s and Delta blue gutturals and luminous whispers that thickened into full-throated, primary-color incantations. The Hudson Shad, a virtuoso quartet of male singers from the New York area, supplied the sweet to her bitter, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by guest Carl St. Clair, offered them all fastidiously phrased musical support. Lemper also performed two songs associated with Edith Piaf, as well as Jacques Brel’s heartsore “Ne me quitte pas” and the rousing “J’attends un naivre” [“I wait for a boat”] of Weill, a song from a German show (as Lemper explained from the stage), which was later broadcast by the Resistance during World War II as a covert expression of hope, around the time that Weill, himself—an endangered Jew—was waiting for a literal ship to take him to the real America from Cherbourg. As an encore, Lemper sat down next the nimble accordionist, Wil Holshouser, and, to the joy of the audience, purred through “La vie en rose.” When asked during a question period after the performance why, given her firmly centered voice and the marvelous acoustics of the opera house, she insisted on singing with a microphone, she said (perhaps to the smirking satisfaction of Brecht as Weill churned in his grave) that she wanted to “enunciate every syllable,” comparing the mic to a close-up in the movies.

The entire program, put together by the Brooklyn Phil, turned out to be something of a covert salute to Balanchine’s European tastes. The evening opened with a crisp rendering by St. Clair and 12 instrumentalists of Paul Hindemith’s vivid and virile little “Kammermusik. No. 1” from 1921, also infused with dance rhythms (which, as the excellent program notes observe, is understandable, since Hindemith was making a living at the time playing in dance bands and musical pit orchestras). And, following intermission, St. Clair led the Philharmonic in a keenly paced yet also tender account of Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” with a “Menuet” so delicate it bordered on a berceuse.

When Balanchine revived “The Seven Deadly Sins” in 1958, the translation he used of the Brecht libretto was by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. At BAM, in the question session, one member of the audience was a little scornful of the English translation in the program. I couldn’t find whose English the Brooklyn Philharmonic had used, but whoever deserves the credit, I thought it was pretty good. From “Pride”:
“Then she wished to be an artist
and wished to create a cabaret,
in Memphis, the second
City of our Journey.
And that was not
what the people there wanted,
Whatever the people there wanted,
that wasn’t it.”


Stephen Petronio, whose company just performed at the Joyce, has a strong following in both New York and Europe. The audience at the performance I attended was reliably enthusiastic, too, although one man announced at intermission, to no one in particular, that the relentlessly pounding David Linton score for Petronio’s 1995 ensemble work, “Lareigne,” “made the dance seem a little long.” He added, though, that when he mentioned that to his girlfriend, she said that she didn’t notice the music. The man had grey hair; his girlfriend was twentysomething. When I went back into the theater, I looked around at the house: to my surprise, apart from a few old, grey mares of my vintage, it was filled with greyhaired guys and twentysomething women, some of them couples, some not. Petronio himself, of course, has no hair on his head at all. Still, I began to wonder about the demographics of the audience. Why would they pay to hear a David Linton score? How on earth can they train themselves to ignore it?

Every dance company, especially modern dance companies that perform the work of a single choreographer, is putting forward a pattern of fantasies as well as flesh-and-blood dancers who are often asked to perform amazing feats. Most people who attend dance do not, like me, ruminate on such questions as why Petronio’s women—lovely, lithe, and very young—who are rarely, if ever, costumed in corsets, move as stiffly in their upper bodies as his corseted men? Or why his dancers, so fleet and obviously dedicated to his work, tend to lock their elbows when performing a gesture, or bunch up their hands, or tense their shoulders so that their necks look retracted? Or why his choreography, which contains many inventive tableaux, doesn’t seem to contain phrasing, to shape time, so that one can actually see and remember the inventiveness? People who go to watch theatrical dancing only occasionally tend to enter it through the fantasies it stages and dramatizes, rather than through the reality of performance and construction of stage effects, and it’s very much part of the Petronio experience that the sound be intensely physical, that it compete—or even take over—the experience of the dance. This is the case even in the excerpt from “bud,” his work-in-progress: a contact-improv-looking guy duet (and a fascinating one, at that) for Thang Dao and Gino Grenek, set to a melancholy and quite listenable song by Rufus Wainwright, whose attractive singing voice and clearly enunciated lyrics were, for me, even more absorbing than the dancers. I only see Petronio’s work intermittently; however, this is the first time I can remember when he used something lyrical as a score and also had two dancers continuously engaged for more than a few minutes. His costume designer here is Tara Subkoff of the fashion firm Imitation of Christ, who has provided each dancer with half a black shirt (attached to the body with crisscrossing black straps) and ruby-red trunks.

Subkoff was also the costume designer for the 2000 ensemble work, “Prelude.” I only remember that her costumes, all black, didn’t get in the way of a rather pretty dance in the form of a kind of breathing wall of eight performers, which this or that dancer would occasionally deconstruct in order to fling an arm around a neighbor or curl downstage in a deep second-position plié (a favorite Petronio step, especially for women). At one moment early on, just to show that the choreographer hadn’t lost his cheeky sense of transgression, the entire wall spit droplets of water, I guess, into the air above their heads, like so many spouting whales. “Prelude,” set to a score by Placebo with David Bowie, was the opener on the Joyce program, which the choreographer had devised to show highlights from his career over the past 15 years. In a note, he explains that the dance’s “restriction” was “the result of an injury that prevented me from moving through space.” As a dance critic, I wonder why an audience would need—or want—to know this. However, it was an interesting essay in stasis and destabilization, brief and formally ingenious, and no one clapping required any explanations by either the choreographer or a critic. On the other hand, the maintenance man who, afterwards, had to mop up the water in two stage crossings, in full sight of the audience, is one of those luxuries only cheekily transgressive postmoderns seem able to afford now.


Last week in this space I hung a paragraph out to dry from an advance piece about Matthew Bourne’s “Play Without Words,” which Bourne’s company just performed for three weeks in March at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. I’ve reviewed the production elsewhere; however, I don’t want to leave the wrong impression: Bourne’s ballet-bashing fans notwithstanding, I liked “Play Without Words,” itself, quite a lot. For one thing, it had nothing to do with ballet, which, it seems to me, locks Bourne into libretti and music that are inimical to his sensibility. He seems to feel trapped by classicism, and he takes out that claustrophobia on the works his fancy feeds upon. His hit version of “Swan Lake,” especially, has exerted an unfortunate influence on subsequent productions of the Petipa-Ivanov ballet by ballet companies: the problem, for me, isn’t so much that Bourne turned the swans into men as that he reinvented the female characters, without exception, as fools and whores. Aggressive perversity in the theater is always seductive, and younger stagers of “Swan Lake” for ballet dancers, seeing that Bourne struck a nerve among general audiences, have lost interest in lakeside scenes where ballerinas are paramount. Today, in “Swan Lake,” it’s the third act that has become the reason for new productions, which, to anyone who loves the Tchaikovsky score and the Ivanov choreography of Act II, is a painful distortion.

In “Play Without Words” though, Bourne’s subject is a movie, the Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter 1963 film, “The Servant,” which, regardless of how it is altered or elaborated by Bourne and his team, won’t lose its identity the next time you see it on the screen or in a monitor. Furthermore, Bourne’s score here, by Terry Davies, was written to order, to follow the action, which lets Bourne and his collaborators breathe. Indeed, the first ten minutes of staging, a cat’s cradle of perambulating entrances and exits by all the characters, is a stunning piece of choreography. The performers (who also contributed choreography: Bourne’s credit is “directed and devised by”) displayed both physical charm and crackerjack timing, Lez Brotherston’s costumes are exquisitely retro, and his surrounding set—a rainy corner of a London that still offers enclosed, fire engine-red phone booths, seen from a myriad of cockeyed perspectives—is, for me, utterly absorbing. Good work.—Mindy Aloff

Volume 3, No. 13
March 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Mindy Aloffl


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