About the time a work of art – any art – begins the self-congratulatory business of considering itself to be momentous is also about the time its audience (while running for the door) deems it merely foolish. American writer J.D. Salinger, in his novella Franny and Zooey, describes the genre of poetry that has little but itself to talk about – metapoetry – as “terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings.” Natalie Weir’s and Stanton Welch’s metaballet, HereAfter, a puzzling partnership of independently realized but thematically mated pieces premiering May 16, 2003, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, by American Ballet Theatre, may well be described in the same terms.
In spite of an attempt in the program to explain the non-alliance between the choreographers, the final impression is that director Kevin McKenzie found it impossible to choose among the proposals before him, and so hired two choreographers, who worked without any sort of collaboration. The result is a contemporary dual narrative ballet in two acts, not only titled separately, Heaven and Earth, but destined to be performed – after this premiere – separately.
Weir’s Heaven is set to John Adams’s Harmonium and concerns the life review that some people experience at the moment of their deaths. The chorus performing the music, the New York Choral Society, is arranged around the exterior of a kind of block-weave net, and the mood is futuristic, a knock-off from the gulag scene in the Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A bower descends transporting the Man, and the corps, in the role of. Humanity, pours downstage. Humanity represents mankind, of course, but it is also the quality of humanness, and includes our commonalties, and our sense of self.
The Man relives two experiences of love, the first erotic, the second romantic/idealistic. The dancing provides a narrative framework for Adams’ lyrics, and seems to describe a spiritual journey. The style of movement is sequential and dramatic rather than rhythm-governed, although it is tied to music in terms of pace. The end is a sort of summary – the beginning in reverse – the Man returns to the bower and to somnolence.
The choreography for Welch’s Earth, set to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, is more conventional than that of Heaven. Sequences are repeated – to the left, and then the right. The corps mirrors the leads. Dancing in late sections reflects upon earlier sections – that is, steps in new contexts cause us to rethink them, reconsidering what is achieved and how meaning is conveyed. It is rhythm-based movement, in contrast to the loose-thread straggle of Weir’s piece. But the corps is not fully used. Dancers in isolated groups of twos and threes perform various combinations while the rest of the corps stands around, an approach that grossly underserves the grandeur of the music. Orff’s opus has become backdrop – setting, but not theme. Also, there are simply too many pauses – so many that the lack of dynamics begins to seem academic: this is choreographers’ choreography, so repetitive and predictable that in the last several minutes we seem to “hear” the dancing ahead of the music. Welch has forgotten his audience, allowing the piece to carry on and on like a drunk on a five-hour flight, talking about itself.
A second difficulty with this production was the casting. Overall, the first cast was strong, with Ethan Steiffel in a more earth-bound, mercurial role than we have seen previously, a soaring Julio Boca, and Julie Kent whose idol-like stance manages to persuade us that we are lost in some primitive tribunal. But the second cast, in spite of strong performances by Paloma Herrera and tiny dynamo Herman Corenjo, who makes a convincing Everyman – urban, youthful and contemporary – was painful to watch. One distraction was principal Xiomara Reyes’s poor posture and worse technique. She has lovely legs and feet, but no control of her arms. Her shoulders are in her ears, while her head juts forward from her slumped back. Most terrible of all was David Hallberg in the role of Death. His unsure, wavering stance and hesitance in the choreography, as if he were asking himself whether it was time to go right or left, and obvious self-consciousness were almost unwatchable. With its fairly elaborate costumes and sets, tremendous music and highly effective lighting, HereAfter must have cost a good deal to mount. But I found myself feeling sorry for the elderly ladies in the seats next to mine, who paid out their little money to see this mess.
The final question for audiences may be: Why mate Acts I & II?
Well, there is a structural similarity between the two. Both return to their openings at the end, a comment on the cyclical nature of individual experience as well as the similarity between all human lives. Both are somewhat pedantically Eastern in vision. If these answers seem too much of a stretch, viewers may turn to the program notes, which seem to gasp in wonder that both choreographers have managed, all on their own, to hit upon these trite themes. Perhaps here is the message: that choreography can convince itself, if not its audience, that the line between trendy and truth is not very important.