John Rockwell: June 2008 Archives
The New York City Ballet's quite extraordinay Jerome Robbins Celebration, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, has given great pleasure and evoked mostly admiring critical commentary. As for the pleasure, I and most others who love dance have written about him at length. His fascinating blend of American simplicity and generosity and entertainment with the loving strictures of classical ballet created something unique, and most of what he created still looks fresh today. The richness of the repertory and the level of performance, along with the lovely visual exhibitions of his life and work in the New York State Theater lobby and the New York Public Library, have all contributed to the sense of occasion.
The City Ballet's current crop of dancers have, by and large, done him proud, even if some of the big guns have been largely missing in action, injured. But that makes room for a younger generation, which in turn assures a continuance of the Robbins tradition as cultivated at the School of American Ballet and City Ballet itself. More and more companies worldwide dance this repertory, in ever greater depth past the big hits, aided by a devoted cadre of coaches fanning out, by and large, from City Ballet.
I'd like to single out four ballets. "Ives, Songs" has been the highlight of the programs I've seen. Robbins's wonderful ability to blend the purity of ballet abstraction with gestures that hint at narrative drama is never more evident here. "Opus 19/The Dreamer" found Wendy Whelan and Gonzalo Garcia at their romantic best. "Dances at a Gathering," even with a weaker set of dancers than in the recent or more distant past, is such a grand, glowing masterpiece that it still shone.
For me, the most intriguing revival was of "Watermill." It didn't really work, its hypnotic revery undercut by an overlaod of busy incident. For many critics of the piece, then and now, it failed because it wasn't sufficiently balletic. For me, it failed becaus it wasn't sufficiently Robert Wilsonian.
"Watemill" was made in 1972, after Robbins had worked closely with Wilson, not least out in the Hamptons, at Water Mill. (Wilson's Watermill Center flourishes there now.) This was the apex of Wilson's great early period, what with "Deafman Glance," "The King of Spain" and "The Life and times of Sigmund Freud" (Robbins played Freud in at least one performance), all of which fed into the epochal "Life and Times of Joseph Stalin." Robbins sought to emulate the dreamy rapture of those works, but he fell nervously short. Not much happens in "Watermill," but enough happens to disrupt the flow.
In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella argued that in general, Robbins "always seemed torn between ballet's abstraction and what was his own fundamental realism -- his attachment to stories, feelings, current events." I would argue that the real tension lies not so much in his ballets in general as in "Watermll" in particular, and that the tension is between an instinct for lively action against the courage to remain minimalistically pure.
Most of our leading ballet critics today, at least in the United States and Britain, value Balanchine over Robbins, and perhaps rightly so. Even in their ostensible admiration there is something more or less overtly condescending in their attitude toward the upstart Robbins, too brash, too ambitious, too American. One wonders how the Robbins Celebartion will alter those feelings. Not much, I suspect.
Un, oh -- here I go again, courting charges of sexism. But bear with me. The other night Maria Kowroski stepped back onto the New York State Theater stage, dancing with her usual sovereign command in Mauro Bigonzetti's underrated new ballet "Oltremare." Kowroski, who a couple of seasons ago had missed a big chunk of her inevitably short time as a New York Ciity Ballet prinicpal (given the limited career spans of all ballet dancers) with mononucleosis, has been injured of late. Exactly what the injury is, I know not. But she was the poster girl for this season's Jerome Robbins Celebration, smiling in all the ads, and she wasn't dancing. An unusual number of dancers at both City Ballet and American Ballet Theater seem to be suffering of late, men and women, but maybe more women than men.
Injuries are part of a dancer's life, and probably this has just been unlucky coincidence. Nursing injuries is an intergral part of the ethos and camaraderie of any ballet troupe. But then I recalled a front page story in the New York Times recently in which educators worried about the plethora of injuries to high-school women athletes, especially soccer players, in beefed-up female sports programs. And then there was the Kentucky Derby, in which the only filly in the field of 20, Eight Belles, heroically finished second and then collapsed with two broken front legs and had to "euthanized" on the track, as they say in horse-racing euphemism.
That in turn prompted a spate of hand wringing from PETA and others arguing that horse racing was a cruel sport in which big, heavy animals are bred for speed, with bones too slender and fragile to support all that weight. And then one thinks of ballet training, which is properly muscular and athletic but also puts female dancers at risk with toe shoes, one step up from Chinese foot-binding, and constant pressure to lose weight. Ballet dancers today look different from photos of dancers from decades ago or the 19th century; they're thinner.
A ballet dancer, or a female athlete in most any sport (me, I'm partial to women's tennis, but the same thing holds true for basketball or sprinting or any sport that doesn't put a premium on brute strength, like steroid-pumped Soviet female shot-putters of yore). The Women's Tennis Association has been plagued with injuries to its top players the last few seasons, commonly attributed to its incessant tour schedule.
Slim, strong women can be marvelous exemplars of skill and speed and aesthetic refinement. Male athletes get injured, too, since they are subject to the same pressures to excel. Though they may have more muscled bodies, they also subject them to often more strenuous demands. But at least they don't have to dance on toe or epitomize the lightness of air. We won't even broach the possibility, vigorously denied by dancers and companies, that some may use performance-enhancing drugs of whatever kind.
One would hardly want high schools to drop female sports programs or horse racing to ban fillies or ballet to become the exclusive territory of Ted Shawn or Eliot Feld and his Mandance project, which in any event cheats to include some females. "Ballet is woman," said George Balanchine. But competitive or careerist pressure, for all the greatness it may inspire, can also push bodies past the point of common sense. One wonders if that point hasn't been reached on our ballet stages today.
Karen Allen was a beautiul woman and a fine actress, most notably in the first "Indiana Jones" movie and "Starman." But to judge from her bio on imdb.com, she's always been dubious about movie stardom. Every time she had a hit, she'd retreat into indie obscurity, or motherhood, or her fabric store in Great Barrington, Mass. So it was great to see her back in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." She looks her age, 56, and women who look their age don't get the same leading parts that men who look their age do. Like Harrison Ford.
Still, it was good of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to cast Allen, and to work her into the story in such an integral way. What they lost in stereotypical va-va-voom sex appeal, they gained in dramatic crediblity, political correctness (strirking a blow for the older actress, especially one who doesn't seem to have subjected herself to Botox or plastic surgery) and simple nostalgia. And they got that megawatt Allen smile, undimmed.
The movie itself has its ups and downs. Cate Blanchett, or more accurately the Cate Blanchett cartoon character, is rididulous. Shia LaBoeuf doesn't have much of a part, either. But the movie is worth watching for Ford and Allen, at least one chase scene and the special effects (the nuclear explosion!). Not all of us have a taste for big, noisy pop summer spectacles. But as far as they go, this one goes far enough.
And then, you can go out and rent "Starman." It has a terrific srory, a wonderful performance from Jeff Bridges, and Allen at her radiant youthful peak.