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GOING FOR BROKE


Dance Theatre of Harlem / New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, NYC / July 8-13, 2003



Ballet companies operate on the verge of insolvency. That’s a given. They depend on government support (generous abroad, but traditionally meager here in the States) and private generosity—from corporations and well-heeled, arts-minded individuals. They also depend on box office receipts, though to a lesser degree, because you could regularly sell out at a mega-venue like the New York State Theater (capacity 2700) or the Metropolitan Opera House (over 4000) and still not break even. Nevertheless, playing to a half-empty house doesn’t help any, economically.



So how do you fill those seats night after night? One way is by serving up what you imagine your target audience really wants to see. The notion that a ballet company exists in the service of art, its profile shaped by a leader with vision and/or a choreographer of genius, has given way to administration on a business model controlled by a board of directors operating in close cooperation with marketing pros. Not unexpectedly, these bottom liners assume that no sizeable paying public exists for what ballet does best—create a profoundly poetic imaginary universe through human bodies, exquisitely trained in a highly refined code, moving to music . No, the hard-headed managers argue, to remain viable, ballet must become less highbrow, more with-it. It must descend from Mt. Olympus into the street. It must cater to popular taste, co-opting the devices of show biz.



The result? The companies relegate masterworks from the classical dance canon to a secondary position in their repertory, neglect to coach them with the requisite care and understanding, or—as with landmark nineteenth-century story ballets like Swan Lake—jazz them up beyond recognition. Our major troupes pour a large part of their resources—time, money, attention, creative impulse—into new productions that are exorbitantly expensive and aesthetically disastrous. Ironically, they’re often theatrically inept as well, since classical ballet operatives rarely possess Broadway or Hollywood savvy.



Thus we got, last season, the New York City Ballet’s Thou Swell (choreography by Peter Martins) and American Ballet Theatre’s HereAfter (from Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch), ventures that are—you name it: all outside, no inside; wrongheaded; utterly lacking in enchantment; insincere; glitzy. If that weren’t enough, both—this is typical of hollow blockbuster shows—are long enough to induce catatonia in their unfortunate viewers.



And now, just this week, Dance Theatre of Harlem made one of its regrettably infrequent midtown Manhattan appearances (at the New York State Theater, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival) featuring a 70-minute concoction called St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet. Based on the 1946 musical by Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen, which had a couple of swell songs, it tells a trite story of romance, betrayal, and homicide in a sleazily glamorous forties club setting. Awkwardly attached to the main scene are an excursion to the thoroughbred racetrack and an interlude with Death (who may have a sideline as pimp to a handful of female “acolytes”). Inflated by garish, vulgar decor (Tony Walton) and gaudy, ill-tailored costumes (Willa Kim), the scene sears your eyeballs. Worse yet, the show parades out so many tired clichés about blacks and blacks-in-entertainment, it’s surprising the pc police didn’t raid the theater.



Michael Smuin, the choreographer of this unfortunate extravaganza, specializes in over-the-top theatricality, but on this occasion his results are flaccid. The melodramatic narrative line goes limp; the intervening group dances look like filler; and the duets for the principals resonate only in occasional phrases—as when, in a dance of grief, anger, and regret, the antihero manipulates his lady love so that she appears to float up and down his body, like a ship in troubled waters. Bafflingly, Smuin uses the academic ballet vocabulary where jazz would be far more suitable; the scene at the club, for instance, which cries out for stilettos, has the women walking flatfooted in their point shoes. He also pushes magpie larceny to the limit, filching from the unlikeliest bedfellows: Kurt Jooss, the Nicholas Brothers, and Bronislava Nijinska.



Arthur Mitchell, the heroic founder of DTH, has long insisted that his company provide “accessibility” along with artistic excellence. Excellence was evident in the troupe’s spirited renditions of Balanchine’s Serenade and Robbins’s Fancy Free. Still, Smuin’s so-called entertainment goes too far in the quest for the popular vote. Its ineptitude and tastelessness exploit the company’s dancers—famous for their elegance of body and soul—even more than its viewers. Two thirds of the way through the proceedings, my long-suffering companion drawled, “I think they’ve lost their way.” Her remark has wide—and dire—implications.



© 2003 Tobi Tobias


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