Is he an Englishman?
Full length comic ballets are rare. It is even worth debating how truly hilarious the small repertoire of them with which we are familiar actually are: La Fill Mal Gardee, Coppelia, Cinderella, and The Bright Stream. Last month when I saw Paul Taylor Dance Company perform Troilus and Cressida (REDUCED), I wondered, “Does the audience really think this is funny? Or is this just funny for dance?” But last night at the Dicapo Opera Theater on the upper east side, the laughter of the audience during Dances Patrelle’s Gilbert & Sullivan, The Ballet! seemed to be the genuine article.
I did not read the program before the curtain opened on this tribute to the famous 19th century composer-librettist partnership of Arthur Sullivan and William S. Gilbert. Once the singers descended cheekily into the pit, I had no idea what was happening on the stage. Why were some dancers in formal Victorian dress and others in their dressing gowns? In this first scene, sans verse, I found myself wishing for a Reid Anderson style narration (which he did exquisitely during excerpts of Cranko’s Eugene Onegin at Works and Process this past Monday at the Guggenheim) to enlighten me as to what all of this frantic, and apparently witty according to my fellow the gut-busting viewers, mime meant. But once the singers began, their voices served to fill in the gaps and add to the high production level, including elaborate, crisp costumes and skillful set painting, of the evening. Some of the dancers exhibited pristine moments of technical bravura and sharp petit allegro to complement their silly physical hijinx and generally adept comedic timing. However, as with most freelance classical ballet, there was a broad range of artistry and proficiency on stage, particularly in the articulation of pointe shoes.
It was clear through Patrelle’s choreographic mastery of small moments and details, how much he loves his subjects: ballet, music, and theater. This is a well worn path for him, one he has tread for over twenty years, and it suits him to lean into his anachronistic tendencies. They carry the audience away on a surprisingly refreshing wave of laughter, the stresses of modern city life left outside the theater doors. One does not need to be a fan of the musical duo, the movie Topsy Turvy, or of the show Downtown Abbey to enjoy this ballet, but it is a work made of the paving stones up any anglophile’s cobblestone alley.
Francis Patrelle just might be an Englishman. At the very least, his rollicking spirit should be knighted.
Four more shows, through Sunday May 6th. Click here for tickets.