Cranky New Yorkers (scroll down to asterisks for part two: the so-called ballroom scene)

That’s what we proved to be–we critics–when Tulsa Ballet hit town, with the governor, Tulsa mayor, secretary of state and members of the Ballet board in tow.

I, at least, was hoping to love them–wouldn’t it have been neat to find, far away from any of our dance capitols, that something great was stirring? It happens all the time in the other arts; take, for example, the Flaming Lips, from Norman, OK, not far from Tulsa. (Their fantastically beautiful “Do You Realize?” is now Oklahoma’s official rock song! Don’t you think The Flaming Lips songs would lend themselves gorgeously to choreography?) But the pieces Tulsa Ballet showcased suffered from the usual problem of mediocre art–that it doesn’t join the general to the particular in any exciting or meaningful way. Everything was in outline. The dancers did well, though, as long as they didn’t have to go up on point (where they got stuck).

Here’s a couple of paragraphs from my Financial Times review:

At first glance, the Tulsa Ballet is not what you’d expect from Oklahoma–for one, because its 27 dancers are all from somewhere else. Directed by Italian Marcello Angelini since 1995, the troupe consists of émigrés from a handful of other states plus South Korea, Colombia, Jamaica, Sweden, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Brazil, Russia, Italy, China, and Japan. “How New York!” I think, impressed to find that the reddest state’s governor has flown out–with TV cameras on his tail–for this largely foreign crew.

But then the show begins, and though the dancing is fine and sometimes even beautiful, the dances seem as distant from extraordinary as Tulsa is from New York.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, to Joplin rags, belongs to the seedy-bar genre of Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue or Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. But Tudor and Balanchine endow their guns- and bodies-for-hire with a level of detail that wrings pathos out of the world-weary scene; Macmillan merely comments on the category, as if completing a school essay test: “If ragtime were ballet, what would it look like? 30 minutes.” Nevertheless, Kate Oderkirk and company star Karina Gonzalez pour themselves into the steps for a very sexy slitheriness.

Soon Young Hue’s This is Your Life, created on the Tulsa dancers last year, is still more disappointing, because the South Korean choreographer’s New York debut actually starts from a promising conceit…..

For the whole piece, click here.


 For more “elitist” crankiness, read Alastair Macaulay’s heartfelt belly-aching (as my farmer grandfather would put it) about the So You Think You Can Dance/Dancing with the Stars phenomenon, here. I’ve been wanting to write this piece forever, and probably because I knew it would seem hopelessly snobby–I can’t tell you how many people whose only exposure to dance are these shows ask me eagerly what I think of them–somehow haven’t. I just say I haven’t watched them much, which is true enough, but the reason is that they give me a stomachache.

Macaulay says, in short, that they strip all the forms they steal from of their dance. I agree, and it makes me sad that we couldn’t see some real mambos and rumbas and waltzes, with their breath and ecstasy. I think viewers would love them even more. I have to believe that, of course.

Fast forward to about the one minute mark on this trailer for Henry Chalfant’s great movie Mambo to Hip Hop, and you’ll see what we’re missing. Look at the spell this couple are putting on each other–that’s what the man’s body wave is about, not just a move–and the pace at which they do it lets you feel it, too. I love the way they start by touching foreheads: it’s so intimate.

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  1. Nicholas says

    Thanks for contextualizing Macmillian “Elite Syncopations.” The chatterboxy “Syncopations” was done at San Francisco Ballet a couple of seasons ago where it seemed to eclipse the lovely Ashtons they were also doing.
    “They’ve taken away your happiness– steal it back,” they used to say in sixties (at least they do in Bertolucci’s “Partner”) and somehow they–the networks–have stolen, “stripped way,” or egged people away from their natural “musicality and phrasing.” And as Macaulay points out there’s more than a little misogyny around the edges. I wonder if that’s because there are no fresh models of being tender, or because there is so much resentment smoldering everywhere.
    Thanks for the Chalfant Mambo clip.
    Dear Nicholas,
    Yes–the misogyny. The dancing looks so forced and hard, that even just in that respect it’s tipping toward brutality.
    “Chatterboxy” for “Elite Syncopations” seems just right to me.
    Thanks so much for your interesting thoughts,

  2. dianne says

    I SO related to your cringing when asked about your thoughts of So You Think…It’s just the latest mass market version of the Riverdance phenomena, don’t you think? Going for the flash and not understanding or appreciating the artistry. We must be brave enough to call it like it is, even at the risk of sounding snobby!
    Kudos, and thanks for sharing.
    Dear Dianne,
    Thank you–and thanks for writing!

  3. says

    [the letter writer is the artistic director of the Tulsa Ballet]
    Dear Apollinaire,
    In life everything is a matter of opinions. I find so interesting that some, if not most of the classics of the 19th and 20th century that have survived the test of time, were crucified by the critics when they first premiered. In the mean time, the critics are forgotten. The works will never be.
    This is the case, for example, of Sir Kenneth’s “Elite.” You missed the point altogether. This is a fun work, meant to show “cranky New Yorkers” as you call yourself (notice the “s” missing from the end of the word), that even this master of deeply emotional works had a lighter side. Enjoy it for what it is, just an opener meant to get everybody in good spirit after a day at the office. By the way, the choreography ain’t all that bad either… The work will leave on. Audiences are enjoyng it all over the world, including in New York…
    Same applies for Nacho. You liked his work but you found that his balelts suffer from allusions. And yet, you say that in “This Is Your Life” we should have said less and left some of the plot… allusive. [Editor’s note: I think you’re confusing the words “allusive,” which means referring outside itself for its meaning, with “elusive,” which means hard to pin down.] Interesting… The exquisite physicality, dynamics, shapes and organic flow of Nacho’s choreography sets the standards for the next generation of choreographers. You might not have understood the allusions, but the people that attended the shows at The Joyce did. [Ed. Note: Right, because I’m a critic, and as you point out in your opening salvo, therefore the least trustworthy…] We heard all their comments on the way out the theater.
    As for the last work, I knew that people would either love it or… not. But that’s okay. It was the perfect vehicle to show off the quality and dept of our dancers. By the way, the same dancers I hire by auditioning all over the world in order to provide a great company to our city. The dancers I train and coach in the studio day in day out. The dancers I build a season for so that they can grow and get better. This Is Your Life is a mix of dance, theater and Broadway. For sure not as sophisticated as Por Vos, but still a work that an audience can enjoy. Had we been at City Center, the work would not have been in the program. But it’s a good work for The Joyce.
    Which brings me to another point. Are we supposed to put together programs for the nonpaying critics or for the audience who keep us vibrant? Answer: the audience. The proof? In spite of some of the critics, we sold out five out of seven shows. Five out of seven shows had standing ovations. Two shows sold “standing room only” tickets. That all happened after the first two shows. We had sold very little when we opened for the rest of the shows. I guess word of mouth. And I guess not many people pay attention to consistently negative reviewers in New York.
    We are flooded with letters from New Yorkers asking us to go back. If three people didn’t get it, so be it. I know that everything about the evening had the outmost artistic integrity, from the dancers to the dances.
    Was there a mention in the review of the quality of the company? What is quality of the company? Quality of the individual dancers and quality of how they dance as a whole, stylistical quality, ability to project on stage in different works, versatility, cohesiveness and technical skills? Of course not.
    We failed to impress you. Well, let’s think about this concept. Actually, New York is the one that has to impress us and not the other way around. Just your two main companies have combined budgets in excess of $100 million. That’s 20 times our budget. That’s pretty much the combined budgets of the next 15 companies on the totem pole and probabily one third of the combined budgets of the largerst 50 ballet companies in the country. Are we “émigrés” impressed? Gosh no! And talking about emigrees, I think that Balanchine, Tudor, Wheeldon, Ratmansky, Martins, Liang and many others that shaped dance in America, and are shaping it now, are emigrees. [Ed. note: My point exactly.]
    Yes, some New Yorkers are cranky. But they are the minority. Most New Yorkers can distinguish a good dance company and a good performance from an “interesting” one. Most New Yorkers are able to open their minds to be touched by the art of dance, by the power of MacMillan and Duato. And they are willing to be entertained by works like This Is Your Life. Most New Yorkers understand a good company from a fake, pretentious one. Most New Yorkers understand that not everybody is equally versed in dance in an audience. A show has to reach out to all of them, the more sophisticated ones (Por Vos), the lighter spirited ones (Elite) and the novice ones (This Is…). Most New Yorkers are willing to buy “standing room only” tickets to see Tulsa Ballet. Some, the ones that get the free ticket and should stand, don’t get it. And that’s okay. As you say, some New Yorkers are cranky!
    Dear Mr. Angelini,
    Your comment is a perfect specimen of defensiveness and philistinism–i.e., critics can’t be trusted, and why should they be, since they don’t even pay?
    And of course you think your company works are great–you picked them! Ditto with the dancers and the choice to go to New York.
    As for my own position on the works and the dancers, you misrepresent it so consistently that I’ll just refer readers to my review: they can see for themselves what I said and didn’t say.

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