Walking the line

Here is my Newsday review of the two world premieres at American Ballet Theatre this season, by Benjamin Millepied and Jorma Elo. I didn’t like the ballets very much; neither did I hate them.
Writing in short form with little time doesn’t lend itself to that mezzo-mezzo state of mind, a brain stewing after it’s been stewed. I’ve noticed that my colleagues and I tend to list to one side or the other–say we liked a show more or less than we did. The challenge I set myself for this review was to stay right there in the middle: ambivalent. I got tangled up. It was all I could do to straighten myself out by deadline.
Sometimes with a review, there’s a context for your reaction, which you don’t have room to go into. In this case, it was the New York debut of the Ballet du Grande Theatre de Geneve at the Joyce, which I attended (with Tonya a.k.a .Swan Lake Samba Girl!) just after the ABT premieres. The dances–by Saburo Teshigawara, Andonis Foniadakis and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, choreographers based in Europe and not much seen here–made clear what was missing from Elo and Millepied.
As with many European companies with “ballet” lingering in their name, the Geneva Ballet isn’t: the women aren’t on pointe, there’s no preponderance of partnering, and the vocabulary is not remotely balletic. Yet the pieces were true to their own odd selves.
The title of Teshigawara’s dance, “Para-Dice,” may be unnecessarily French–if it’s a pun, could you please clue me in on the joke?–but the dance really does evoke a paradise.
When it started, with a line of women signaling with their arms, I thought, “Oh, no! Not more noodling arms!” (Elo and Millepied feature lots of noodling arms.) But the arms quickly became part of a whole: a quiet whole of imploding softness. One example: the women were dragged backwards very gently by the men at irregular intervals like a record you want to have skip because it repeats the most beautiful part.
Foniadakis’ “Selon Desir” (According to Desire) could have been terrible. Dances about desire are often unctuous and self-proclaiming in a way that passion isn’t. But this dance didn’t layer on any such sheen.
It was rough and humble. All 15 dancers, men and women, were clad in silky, mid-thigh skirts and loose T-shirts–all different colors so the dancers resembled the multitude of voices in the St. Matthew Passion, the score. The dancers moved in big low steps and got thrown up in the air so forcefully, one person against another, that you could hear the smack of their bodies.
They kept rushing on stage. They danced even with their hair, thrashing their heads. But the dance wasn’t mainly about being wild–you know, wild and groovy. Instead, like Mark Morris’s “Gloria,” it had a reverence for this oratorio of Jesus’s ordeal and a desire to find a contemporary idiom for that passion.
“Selon Desir” goes on too long. Not just phrases but whole patterns begin to repeat, pulling you out of your overwhelmedness. With some cutting, though, the dance could be a masterpiece.
The Cherkaoui piece, “Loin” (Far), was why I’d gone. I’d seen pieces by the other two before and not been all that impressed. I was worried that, like so much European contemporary dance, the show would be portentous and empty, or cute and empty. Something and empty. But I’d heard about this wunderkind Cherkaoui and never seen anything by him.
The Cherkaoui was my least favorite. He threw in too many ideas, with the conceptual framework undercutting the dancing. The dancers intimated in their staged “confessions” that the dancing wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was the cockroach-infested theaters they encountered on tour, or what mattered was their own incapacity to notice anything about the far-flung cultures they toured beyond those theater conditions. In any case, you began to feel foolish getting into the movement, and stopped. But at the very end, the dancing and the talking coalesced.
The rangiest dancer partnered two men at once. He twirled them from the end of his arms; they resembled protesters gone limp to avoid being charged with resisting arrest or men beaten unconscious or dead. In the end, he threw them on a pile made of all the other dancers and climbed on top.
“Loin” was a variation on the show’s theme of a collapsing body. Each choreographer used that helpless torso in his own way, but never simply as a look. The choices they made were urgent.
That was how they were different from Elo and Millepied.
NOTE: If you are reading this on Sunday November 4 and you live in or around New York, treat yourself to Gillian Murphy as The Accused in Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” this afternoon at City Center in ABT’s last show of the fall season. Murphy gives an astounding dramatic performance in an amazing work of mid-century dance theatre. (It’s about the repressed, of course, like Tudor’s ballets, like Graham.)

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  1. says

    At the risk of stating the the unhelpfully too obvious, and without knowing anything about the work except what I’ve just read in your post, “Para-dice” could mean something like “for he or she speaks” or it could be a pun on “pair of dice” although in neither case could I suggest why.
    I sometimes feel as if contemporary choreographers have been infected with a contagious virus that compels them to employ overly cute titles that are spelled and punctuated so as to let us know that their authors possess a sense of irony but in fact communicate simply that their authors have something in common with Prince or teen-aged text message addicts. :)
    Apollinaire responds: hehe! I thought of the dice thing, too. Maybe “beyond dice,” though I like “pair o’ dice” better. Or for the Latinesque dice, perhaps “beyond speaking.” And yes. Call out to choreographers: Ditch the cutesy titles, please!
    Thanks for writing, Chris.

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