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Lustful Boys Taunt Death in `Venice’; Armitage Honors Ligeti

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on February 9, 2007.

Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) — At the edge of the sea, a middle-aged man, taut with repression, watches a group of boys carelessly tossing a beach ball. He singles out a blond youth, godlike among them. They dance an ingeniously constructed duet full of deep shifting feelings, made furtive by the incursions of the carefree adolescent gang.

This is the most affecting scene in John Neumeier’s “Death in Venice,” based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella and set to chunks of Wagner and Bach. For his version — created in 2003 and being danced by the Hamburg Ballet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — Neumeier has transformed Mann’s protagonist, Aschenbach, a venerated aging writer, into a renowned choreographer.

Weary of the ascetic life he felt his career required and doubting the authenticity of his writing, Aschenbach embarks on a beach vacation to discover Dionysian pleasures. In Venice, where everything solid is transmuted into its fugitive watery reflection, he conceives an illicit passion for a ravishing 14- year-old boy and dies, an object of ridicule, his obsessive desire unconsummated.

Neumeier’s choreographer has the advantage of his workplace, a ballet studio rife with gorgeous, self-aware bodies. He hankers after a sympathetic, sandy-haired fellow who, teamed with his dark sidekick, sometimes taunts the older man.

Pangs of Creation

Many minutes of rehearsal go by, however, without offering a hint of narrative. It’s all dry, classroom-classical stuff. We learn only that the temperamental choreographer is suffering the pangs of creation (hand to bowed head). He storms out of the studio, succumbs to reverie and fantasizes a pair of tough male lovers who morph into gondoliers floating their prey along the canals.

Once the scene switches to Venice, the ballet perks up, fueled by erotic visions both delectable and violent and glimpses of an elegant society at leisure, unaware of an encroaching epidemic of cholera. The fair boy and the dark one from the studio (now clearly Mann’s Tadzio and Jaschu) are reincarnated here, humiliating the choreographer with the energy and arrogance of youth, but no more than he degrades himself, trying vainly to appear young.

Finally, though we don’t see how or why, Tadzio becomes interested in Aschenbach. Still, the youth eludes an actual embrace with his pursuer until the final scene, back in the rehearsal room, where the physical climax occurs and the choreographer dies.

Boys on the Beach

Despite commendable performances from Lloyd Riggins, Edvin Revazov and Thiago Bordin as Aschenbach, Tadzio and Jaschu, respectively, the ballet is scuttled by Neumeier’s insistence on accounting for every strand in Mann’s deftly woven tissue.

Aschenbach’s dignifying his longings with parallels from ancient Greece is well handled by having the boys on the beach launch into fragments of Greek folk dancing, but elsewhere Neumeier is obtusely literal. He compounds that fault by adding some Freudian musings of his own invention. Like much of his work, “Death in Venice” is long on ideas but short on dancing that’s meaningful in and of itself.

The Hamburg Ballet continues at BAM, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, through Feb. 10. Information: +1-718-636-4100 or http://www.BAM.org.

Karole Armitage

By her own declaration, Karole Armitage has been out to revolutionize classical dancing. She earned the moniker “punk ballerina” in New York in the 1980s, avidly and successfully sought fame abroad, then returned here to stay in 2004. Over time, her work, still willfully inscrutable, has grown tamer.

Armitage Gone! Dance opened Feb. 6 at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea with the world premiere of “Ligeti Essays.” A succession of 23 small dances to works by the late composer, it aims for haiku-like concision and delicacy of perception. But it’s almost impossible to follow after the first handful of vignettes. Armitage, as is her fatal habit, strings one movement after another without taking any responsibility for their physical logic or emotional coherence.

The proceedings, far too dependent on extravagant leg extensions, were redeemed by three terrific dancers: William Isaac, a gentle fellow with a magisterial build; Theresa Ruth Howard, a vivid presence who is very much her own woman; and Frances Chiaverini, whose blend of power and fluidity evokes memories of Mark Morris’s Tina Fehland and Balanchine’s Suzanne Farrell.

The program was fleshed out with “Pig,” a bagatelle involving a porcine inflatable (by Jeff Koons) and a very pregnant sylph, and the Bartok section, reworked, of Armitage’s 2004 “Time is the echo of an axe within a wood.” Think calm, alternating with raging disorder — predictably and at great length.

Many people find Armitage’s work brainy, iconoclastic, even beautiful. For my part, I can only quote my companion who tried and failed to appreciate another much-touted artist: “There is a secret here to which I am not privy.”

Armitage Gone! Dance is at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., at 19th Street, through Feb. 11. Information: +1- 212-242-0800 or http://www.joyce.org.

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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