What's a Ballet Dancer To Do? (With Modern Choreography)
I had forgotten what it’s like to go to the ballet. My voyage to New York City Center on Wednesday, October 17th was a reminder of applause during dances (something I hadn’t heard in some time!) and the flowers presented to the female dancers after each piece. Both are a nod to the visible virtuosity of the dancing, the latter a hint at traditional practices not usually seen at performances at New York Live Arts and other downtown venues.
I received an excellent press packet upon my entrance, with information about the choreographer, composer, lighting designer, and costume designer for each piece, along with a brief history of each one. I had a wonderful seat in the orchestra, from whence I watched Mark Morris’s Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (1988), José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane (1949), and Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room (1986).
This seemed to be American Ballet Theatre’s “modern program.” Only Morris’s piece had been created for the company, so I was surprised to find that I didn’t think it a particularly flattering work for the dancers. Drink To Me is a dance for six men and six women to several songs by composer Virgil Thomson, performed live by a pianist (off-stage, for this performance.) Morris’s work is generally music-inspired and structured according to his music selection, which is why I found it to be about the music, and not really about the dancers. By which I mean that it looked uncomfortably quick, and even awkward at parts. I do attribute the awkwardness mostly to Morris’s style—which seems to me to want a kind of awkwardness—and not to any technical deficiency on the part of the dancers. I also wonder if Morris didn’t know what to do with the pointe shoe. I already ranted about the unnecessary use of the pointe shoe in my post about Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s last season at the Joyce. For American Ballet Theatre, the pointe shoe makes sense. I still think that it makes the women into something else, though—a different kind of dancing being from men. It is simply more difficult to dance with pointe shoes—there is an extra inch or so at the end of one’s foot to contend with, and this changes everything from running to more technically-complex steps like pirouettes and arabesques (which must be performed with a smaller area on which to balance).
The most interesting part of the piece was a trio for three men, beginning with one performing a double pirouette into a promenade with the leg en l’air à la seconde. This impressive step was repeated a few times by each man, along with a short passage of floor-work.
The next piece was The Moor’s Pavane, performed by Marcelo Gomes, Cory Stearns, Veronika Part, and Julie Kent. The dance is a sort of abstraction of Shakespeare’s Othello; the performers move through a pavane and other Renaissance dances to Henry Purcell’s beautiful music. I had only ever seen it before on video, and seeing as it is one of Limón’s best-known works, it seemed important to see it in performance. The dancers acted and danced the piece wonderfully, although it was hard to see their bodies with all the draping and poofiness of their Renaissance costumes.
Tharp’s In The Upper Room begins with fairly voluminous costumes, but the dancers (some in sneakers, and the other half in ballet shoes or pointe shoes) gradually remove layers during the piece. In The Upper Room was adopted by American Ballet Theatre just two years after its creation, and it was the only one of the three dances performed that night in current repertory, rather than a revival.
Here’s some nice writing from Wendy Perron, editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, on why In The Upper Room works.
The piece is jazzy and feisty, and I think it must be the postmodern juxtaposition of styles that keeps it fresh and not dated. Well, I guess there is something rather 1980s about it, but how could one ever get tired of moving quickly and having fun, as it looks like these dancers are? Nice to see some good old dancing.