I've seen many exciting ballets in the last few weeks--and I knew if I didn't write about them soon (all of them), I'd forget what I was thinking. So this roundup is altogether too long. In order not to fall into a stupor, perhaps you should read it in installments. The photos serve to separate the parts.
About Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," my friend Elaine exclaimed, "It's so real!"
Of course, it's not real, it's ballet. But Ratmansky's eye for what people do together--become voyeurs, perpetrators, flirts, attention-hoggers, rivals, accidental lovers--is so wise and funny that he seems to have lifted scene after scene from life and translated it more perfectly than possible with translation into ballet. It's like when Marge and Homer Simpson become pilgrims--exactly as they've always been except now they're on the Mayflower.
At one point late in the ballet--the score is Shostakovich's urbanely witty, then brooding, then buoyant Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major--a horde of dancers bursts onto the stage with little flat-footed hops, and everyone laughs, not only because the boing in the step is funny but because, performed en masse, it answers the drama that the dancers have just intruded on. You feel glee --and relief--to find aspects of humanity so instantly recognizable, no matter the language they're spoken in.
It's tempting to compare Ratmansky to all the other choreographers I admire, not because he's derivative--not at all--but because he ratifies ballet's history by extending it. The choreographer whom he most reminds me of, though, is Jerome Robbins. (I swear, I had this thought before the Robbins festival at New York City Ballet began. Specifically, it was Ratmansky's "Bizet Variations," with its shades of the three rival sailors in "Fancy Free," that clinched the connection for me. That was during the BAM run this winter of Nina Ananiashvili's State Ballet of Georgia, which commissioned the ballet.)
Ratmansky also makes a real place of the stage. He also is preoccupied with the psychology of the group and of the individual in the group; he also understands the corps not as a corps proper but as a bunch of people, whose relation to one another is constantly in flux. He also recognizes the punctuating power of exits and entrances (like the last word in a sentence or in a line of poetry). Most of all, he succeeds where Robbins desperately wanted to, but only sometimes did: he develops a language that jettisons conventional signs (for Robbins, the "cool" finger-snapping, the maidenly curtsying, the folksy jigs) for what those signs originally conveyed, before they became commonplace. Too often, Robbins got stuck in the middle, retaining the gestures while lifting them from their social context, so they quickly devolved into shtick. Ratmansky saves himself by inventing his own gestures. (He loves inventing steps as only perhaps Balanchine did, and he's got a keen sense of their evocative oomph.) Because the moves are never exactly what you'd see in the world, they offer it with wit and insight.
On the same program-- it's called Here and Now--is "Rococo Variations," Christopher Wheeldon's last ballet as the company's resident choreographer. I dismissed it at its premiere this winter as even more frou-frou than its Tchaikovsky score, but now, on a third viewing, it seems to have deepened, grown full of mood. Of course I want to think Wheeldon went to work on it, fixing the transitions so that it now feels of a piece, but probably I'm the one who's changed.
It's embarrassing to be so inconsistent. If I love a piece at first sight, I rarely love it less on a second go, but the other way around happens too often--especially, for some reason, with Wheeldon and Mark Morris.
It took two visits before I could stand Morris's "Sylvia" and "Mozart Dances." Five for "V." (Believe me, I would have given up by then if the dance hadn't appeared on mixed bills.) Two for Wheeldon's "American in Paris." But I'm not sliding from admiration to adoration here, I'm leaping from impatient dislike to swoony love--a vast distance.
Maybe it's a musical thing. Both Wheeldon and Morris respond in detail to their scores, and when their interpretations depart radically from my own dreamy visualizations, I spend the first visit or two simply adjusting--reading the words but not grasping the sentences. I'm glad to have the luxury (the free tickets!) to come again.
Last chance for "Rococo Variations" and "Concerto DSCH" this season: Thursday, 8 pm, State Theater, Lincoln Center. Orchestra, 3rd and 4th ring seats still available. Nycballet.com. (The program consists of four ballets; the ones in the middle are bad, in my humble opinion. You could take a break for dinner and come back for the Ratmansky.)
Speaking of being quickly dismissed--and of music revisited--British choreographer Michael Clark didn't get many reviews for his two programs to Stravinsky scores, presented last week at the Rose Theater as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. So it's nice that the trusty old Times sent a reviewer to both programs--except they sent the same reviewer, Claudia La Rocco, and she didn't like either show! (Once it was clear that Clark irritated her, it was nuts to subject her--and us--to a second drubbing. The Times should have sent someone else.)
Where La Rocco saw meagerness, sterility, and stale, '80s outrageousness, I found a lot to be intrigued by. (I only saw the second program, which featured "Mmm..." to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and "I Do"--pictured above--to "Les Noces.") But that's neither here nor there: we're entitled to our different views. I do take issue, though, with the bind La Rocco puts an artist in who wants to respond to dance history or even just the music of dance history.
She concludes her review of "I Do" and "Mmm..." with,
There are neat touches throughout the two works. But Mr. Clark is going up against history here, and neat doesn't quite do the trick.
If Clark had followed the usual plot line of the ballets, the result would likely be derivative, if not hokey (see: Robbins' "Les Noces"). Instead, he acknowledges the scores' canonical status by assuming we know the story and allowing himself to take a more oblique approach, and he's accused of skirting the issue ("neat touches"). What, then, is there for him to do? This music cries out, as it always has, to be danced to, and we critics should be careful not to muffle that cry.
For what it's worth, "Mmm..." and "I Do" seemed to me mainly modest and serious (albeit with kinky embroidery), intent on approaching the music in both highly conceptual and highly kinetic and spatial terms (these last two deliciously bound): a difficult approach, which does indeed make success unlikely, but a worthwhile one for its being so unusual.
While the conventional response to the rhythmic bombast of "Rite" and "Noces" is to meet it beat for beat with percussive steps, Clark translates rhythm into an angularity of the body. The dancers move in flat, Cunninghamesque tilts with right-angled arms. The pieces' necessary texture comes by way of flurries of steps, turns that go against sense, torsos softly abandoning their clear lines to gyre and implode, entrances and exits that materialize unexpectedly (half the time through rotating mirrored panels at the back, which open onto a cement back wall and spotlights beaming directly into our eyes. Ingeniously creepy.).
The penchant for the planar is very British contemporary-dance-- Richard Alston and Russell Maliphant have it, too--and Americans tend to find it a bit bland. Our strict angles--our Cunningham--is Cunningham, who is more explosive, more suddenly still, whose palette is both larger and more detailed. But the love that the Brits have for the most basic of Cunningham shapes--as if it were a miracle to flatten the body into an X or a Y, how much juice even in that!--is touching and contagious.
I found the attention the Clark pieces invited was very like that of Cunningham dances, which have no narrative or dramatic arc, either. You get absorbed in the details and are not waiting for anything in particular. But with Clark, anyway, the devastatingly dramatic just may occur. "I Do" ends with the dancers in a tangle on the floor under sickly yellow light, as if they had been downed by poison gas and curled their limbs in to die. (Ah, the spectacle of forever after!) The bride, bedecked in what looks like a tea cozy cum dildo, stands above the wreckage. Trauma and drama presented as incident may be at odds with Stravinsky's "Rite" and "Noces"--all about anticipation, both of them--but so much the better.
Here's a one-minute clip from "Mmm..." No more Michael Clark for Americans this year, but the company will be touring the Stravinsky fare to Luxembourg, Marseille, Suffolk, and Belfast this summer and fall. Click here for itinerary.
Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue" for American Ballet Theatre is all anticipation. You keep waiting for the cartoon roustabouts Rabbit and Rogue and the Balanchinean corps slipping along behind them to either more fully converge or more completely diverge--rather than this semi-demi relationship.
The premiere last week polarized critics, with more hating it than loving it. I fell somewhere in between, struck when it was over (and it is long) by what a feat it is to make a ballet--a real ballet, which this is, yes--without being struck by wonder at the ballet itself. I was never bored (though I did give way to exhaustion by the very end, having been in a state of anticipation for nearly an hour). But finally it seemed less than the sum of its parts.
And parts "Rabbit and Rogue" certainly has. The corps is liquid and evanescent, very much in the mode of Tharp's last ballet for American Ballet Theatre, "The Brahms-Hayden Variations," with whatever meaning one derives arriving via the senses. The rapscallions Rabbit and Rogue, on the other hand, belong to the kind of cartoon world that needs a plot. I couldn't find one, but my Artsjournal colleague Tobi Tobias could (hers is my favorite among the reviews I read):
The pair [Rabbit (Herman Cornejo) and Rogue (Ethan Steifel)] sets out to see the world, accompanied by a colorful mix of music by the film composer Danny Elfman. Well, a postmodern idea of the world: They visit Hell, where Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, alternately quarreling and making love, are the central patrons of a with-it nightclub where the required dress is black, skimpy and spangled. (Outfits by Norma Kamali.)Next stop is Heaven, a peaceable kingdom, all white gowns and silver trousers, reigned over by Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev. In this place, one might find serene compatibility, even true love, perhaps bliss. Then the worlds commingle, as in real life.
I did have the idea that our heroes existed in a different zone from everyone else, though primary colors for R and R, with the black and white for the rest, would have helped. But even this might not have been enough, because for the corps to tell a story, Rabbit and Rogue need one as well, and nothing really happens to them. (Have you ever met a cartoon character who wasn't defined by action? After all, what else do they have?) Rabbit and Rogue, endearingly danced by Cornejo and Steifel, end up seeming like filler in the neoclassical ballet Tharp actually wanted to make.
Their antics might have at least employed cartoon rhythm. Film composer Danny Elfman's score has been disparaged for "lacking distinction," and it is a hodgepodge. But it starts out with a color and chug--one rhythmic pattern overlapping the next--that demands to be adhered to: Elfman is as dictatorial at the start as his hero Prokofiev. And still Tharp doesn't listen. Given how many of her early works depend on comic timing, it's surprising to find her deaf to it here. Perhaps she had to make the bulk of the dance before the score was finished.
Besides the corps moving as silkily as a school of fish, the other unalloyed
pleasure is Gillian Murphy as half of a "Rag" couple with the
acclaimed David Hallberg. Tharp brings out Murphy's silent-movie-star charm;
the ballerina returns the favor by inspiring Tharp's most interesting steps.
After roving across Japan and Korea, "Rabbit and Rogue" hops into Orange County in August. Click here for details.
Photos in order of appearance: "Concerto DSCH" by Paul Kolnik for the New York City Ballet; Michael Clark Company in "I Do" to Stravinsky's "Les Noces" for Lincoln Center Great Performers, photo by Stephanie Berger; and "Rabbit and Rogue" by Rosalie O'Connor for American Ballet Theatre.
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