Edward Villella is obsessed, we might say with little hyperbole.
In March, Miami City Ballet staged its world premiere of the second act of a work in progress, The Quick Step: Unspeakable Jazz Must Go, from the incomplete, four-act ballet, The Neighborhood Ballroom, destined to premiere in its entirety, Spring 2003. This stylish romp is grounded only loosely in story – an exploration of the jazz movement in American social dance during Prohibition as it appears in a single, New York City dance hall. The ballroom from Act I has become a speakeasy. Its clientele are the rebellious youth who defy convention and threaten established values with intimate body-to-body dancing. The stock characters are predictably jocose, and the central conflict is an old one. The female principal, Kiki, danced by Mary Carmen Catoya, arrives on the scene, strikes some attitudes, seduces the Poet, Yann Trividic – it is a confrontational, Latinesque seduction – and departs with her suitor, her regular beau, as the Poet returns to his real occupation: the manuscript.
What this ballet does new is to present a serious argument about the cliché of female supremacy in dancing. It is a witty, thoroughly supported challenge (both in the quality of the choreography and of the dancing) to Balanchine’s much-publicized claim, “Ballet is woman,” a sentiment that seems to have stoked Villella’s continuing ire with some persistence. For like the character in Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Hand,” “[a]fter so many years he still keeps finding/ Good arguments he sees he might have used.” Unspeakable Jazz Must Go is such an argument.
Villella’s choreography for men is fresh, rapid, frequently waggish, and requires a mastery of dance forms from male ballet dancers who defy facile classifications. By casting female dancers in support parts, as male dancers traditionally serve as backdrops to female, he is resetting the limits of our expectations. Even when women occupy traditional central placement, they frequently do so as props. In one comic sequence, for example, the principal is lifted and supported by four lunch-pail aesthetes who bandy her about like a piece of lumber. The ballerina is dead wood, Villella’s comment seems to be. Her beauty is sham, her attraction negligible, and her engagement mere sport. Finally, she is simply not important. Real men would rather be working.
Two sets of characters that delight are the cross dressers, Two Young Women, danced by Marc Spielberger and Evan Unks, and Three Gentlemen, danced by Arnold Quintane, Michelle Merrell, and Callie Manning in the first cast and Kenneth Easter, Claudia Bailetti and Jessica Shults in the second. One is not misled by the travesty, nor by the cigars, the drop-waist chiffon dresses, doll make up and fetching caps. This is a mockery that is intended to entertain rather than to deceive. Spielberger and Unks posture like characters in a Greek frieze, while Quintane’s sharp terre a terre jazz style conveys the elegance of Astaire, with the sure placement and solid return that speak to Quintane’s Paris Opera training.
The music for this piece is a compilation of mostly familiar tunes composed by Duke Ellington, Cecil Mack, Gus Kahn and Jack Yellen, including The Charleston, Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby and Ain’t She Sweet?
Unspeakable Jazz Must Go premiered sandwiched between a flawless performance of Balanchine’s Square Dance, and a sadly – and I felt deliberately – tedious Paquita, the Grand Pas, Marius Petipa’s reconstruction of the 1846 Mazilier choreography. The sense in Miami is that ballet companies can’t sell tickets unless classical ballet is in the program. Paquita, here, presented beside Unspeakable Jazz, is a shaming finger. It admonishes us for this seeming preference, and presses us to admit to what we really enjoy.