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“Groovy Roomies,” Dancer Magazine, December 2005

December 2006

December 2006

GROOVY ROOMIES

 

School of the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Conservatory Program

It is a crisp fall morning in Charlotte, North Carolina, and fourteen year old roommates, Lindsay Woodall and Jane Yoon, are getting dressed – not for a day at school, but for ballet class.  Charlotte, once a sleepy southern town, is fast becoming an arts mecca and mini metropolis, with the Balanchine-inspired dance company, the North Carolina Dance Theatre, co-directed by retired New York City Ballet dancers Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride at its center.  It is here the two girls, among the youngest ever admitted to NCDT’s Conservatory Program, are headed for a day of big sweat and small glory, as they work their bodies and brains to the limit to achieve their mutual dream of a professional dance career.

“Only three months ago,” says Yoon, “my future seemed to be up in the air.”  She was a student at North Atlanta Dance Academy, in Georgia, attending three different summer programs in widely dispersed areas of the country.  She was a favorite with her teachers, dancing the only solo in her class at the Universal Ballet Academy Summer Session II demonstration.  But she was becoming more and more dissatisfied with her work at NADA.  “My teachers in Georgia were awesome, but I was too comfortable there. No matter how hard I tried, I always felt like I was slacking.”  It was time for a change.  But Yoon was also plagued by a worry that at just under 5’ 10”she was too tall to dance ballet.  She would tower over her partners, she feared, and would end up scrunching down in the back row of any professional company that accepted her.  So NCDT’s standard that welcomed tall dancers was the opposite of what she expected.

“Have you seen our company?” Darleen Callaghan, retired company principal and director of the school, asks.  “More than half the women are in the 5’7” to 5’9” height range.  Jane and Lindsay (Woodall is 5”7”) fit right in.”  And NCDT is not the only prominent American dance company that looks for taller female artists.  “San Francisco, New York City Ballet, Houston, Seattle, Canada’s National Ballet, all have lots of tall girls on their company rosters.”

Woodall, too, who started dancing at age nine and has been en pointe for only a year, was surprised by the sudden change in her life.  “I danced at a tiny school in Arizona,” she says. “It was just for fun.  Then we moved here, and I started taking classes at NCDT, and all of a sudden I had a big problem: homework.”

Any serious dancer who attends a public school knows what she means. “You come home from school and you have to rush to make the carpool on time.  Then you take three hours of dance class.  By the time you get back it’s nine or ten o’clock, and you still haven’t started your homework.  Some nights you’re up till midnight or later.”

“I never seemed to get enough sleep,” Yoon agrees, remembering the juggling of her schedule that was so much a part of her life only a short time ago.  “On Sundays, I’d stay in bed till 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I was so tired.  That is, if I didn’t have rehearsal.”

Acceptance with NCDT’s Conservatory has put an end to this dilemma, for both girls.   Now, instead of waking up at 6:30AM to get ready to catch a school bus, they can sleep until 7:30 or 8:00. Technique class begins at 9:30, followed by courses in pedagogy, Pilates, floor barre, composition, or dance history.  Frequently they are joined in these classes with company trainees, apprentices, and, occasionally, full-fledged company members.  Afterwards, they shower, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon completing their high school credits through Indiana University High School’s Independent Study Program.

“It’s an excellent choice for any serious dancer,” says Callaghan, who helped in getting the two programs – the NCDT Conservatory and Indiana University – together. Students work at their own pace, completing assignments, essays and tests either through the web-based option, where students to work on line and submit assignments via the internet, or the more traditional, paper-based option, where they send finished work to their instructors by mail.  If they have to stop working on assignments to get ready for a performance, there is no penalty and no catch up.

“You just pick up where you left off,” says Yoon.

A further benefit of completing a high school diploma through Indiana University is that for many courses students can take advantage of dual enrollment.  This means the credits they earn count for both high school and college.  It is possible, therefore, for IU students to finish a diploma with a year of college under their belts – a great leg-up whatever future they opt for.

In the evenings, Woodall and Yoon return to the NCDT studios for their classes in ballet, pointe, modern, partnering, variations and jazz.  It’s a full day of dancing, and that’s not including rehearsals. Casting assignments and performance practices are posted on the bulletin board, usually with only a few days’ advance notice before rehearsals begin.

Being able to work with choreographers like Dwight Rhodens, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Michael Pink, Mark Diamond, Jeanene Russell and Heather Ferranti-Ferguson is a second important benefit of the program.  “When I began studying at the School of American Ballet,” Associate Artistic Director Patricia McBride explains, “I was fourteen years old, the same age Jane and Lindsay are now, but I didn’t have the advantage of working with a company.  All we had was class – which is great for developing technique – but for discovering yourself as an artist, developing artistry, working with choreographers on new pieces can’t be compared with any other way of studying dance.  It’s simply the best.”

It’s also a good way to find out if a career in dance is what you really want.  “Our students live and breathe dance all day long,” Darleen Callaghan says, “and are fully prepared for employment in this profession – as performers and teachers, choreographers, program directors – they’ve even been exposed to the advertising and marketing and fund-raising aspects of a dance organization.  They understand what’s involved.  Of course there are no guarantees.  But there is a significant value in training at a school that is affiliated with a company, and an advantage in seeing dancers every day in rehearsal and performance.  It’s a whole different exposure.”

Woodall and Yoon are discovering exactly what it’s like to work with a professional choreographer. “I love being with the professionals, having them as fellow students in my classes, and being able to learn from them, as my teachers,” says Woodall.  Currently Mark Diamond is rehearsing the girls for a revival of his dynamic and trend-setting Allegro con molto, Yoon as an understudy and Woodall in the cast. Both young women are also performing in Ferranti-Ferguson’s and Russell’s new pieces, which will premiere at one of several dance events in the upcoming year: the Winter Festival of Dance, in Gastonia, North Carolina, The North Carolina Dance Festival in Winston-Salem, The North Carolina Choreography Showcase, and SERBA (the South Eastern Regional Ballet Association) in Raleigh. “It’s exciting to be chosen,” says Woodall, and the work is so interesting you forget how hard it is.”

Yoon shares a page of her diary, written on the day she found out she had gotten the part:

Mr. Diamond’s class went well this morning, apart from my knee pain.  He has decided that he would like Pauline [Huron], Alyssa [Botelho], and me to understudy his piece, Allegro, and Lindsay has the opportunity to perform it.  I feel incredibly privileged, and see it as a sign of his interest in us.

Diamond’s choice reveals NCDT’s confidence in the commitment these young people demonstrate. “Our mission is to offer serious dance students the opportunity to incorporate college-preparatory academics with excellent dance training,” Callaghan maintains. “So we look for kids who are not only motivated to pursue a career in dance, but who have the focus and the discipline to do the work.”

Right now, there are eleven students in the Conservatory, and another six in the University of North Carolina Charlotte Dance Certificate Program, a course of study that allows them to obtain a certificate in dance while earning a college degree.  “There’s a historical advantage in training in North Carolina,” says Callaghan. “It’s been just great for dancers.  We perform Balanchine repertory, and we’ve also worked with a large number of upcoming and established of choreographers. With generous state funding and all the NEA touring grants – in the eighties NCDT was the number one touring company in the U.S.  – we’ve always been financially secure, and consequently the company is very stable.  We don’t see a lot of turnover among the professionals.”

What does this stability mean for trainees who dream of a dance future with NCDT?  “We encourage the Conservatory students to take advantage of opportunities to prepare for employment with a dance company,” Callaghan affirms.  “Maybe it will be North Carolina, but often not.  Conservatory students attend every summer program audition that’s held in our studios. We believe that such exposure can only benefit the dancer.

“When you work with a variety of teachers and directors, you broaden your horizons, and the more you’re seen, the more opportunities you’ll have to do just that. We never hold students back.  What would be the point of that?  When a school or company shows interest in one of our students, it’s an affirmation for us.  We know we’re doing good work.  And we take part in the student’s decision to move on.  Are this student and this company a good match?  We counsel, we recommend, and we work with the dancer’s family.  People want to know how to get into big companies.  This is the way it’s done.”

This past year, several NCDT students distinguished themselves with substantial moves.  One accepted a contract with Houston Ballet’s second company.  Another was offered a full scholarship to Miami City Ballet School.  A third, only twelve years old, has moved to the year-round program at Canada’s National Ballet School.  “These are the success stories that tell us how well we’re doing,” says Callaghan.

As for the immediate future, NCDT is looking to start construction of a new building with state-of-the-art studios, classrooms, a student center, comfortable dressing rooms, and possibly, dormitories.  Currently, there is another plan afoot to establish dorm arrangements with a nearby community college.  Yoon, an out-of-stater, lives with a host family, the Woodalls, which is a clear advantage for her and Lindsay, since they attend the same classes, and even study the same courses together through IU.  But many people prefer the convenience of living in a dorm, an alternative that will soon become a viable choice for students at NCDT.

For more information about NCDT’s Conservatory Program and Indiana University High School’s Independent study Program, please contact Darleen Callaghan at (704) 372-0101.

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Balanchine in Books: Teachout and Gottlieb,” Ballet-tanz Magazine, January 2005

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2005

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2005

Two new books about master choreographer and dance teacher George Balanchine were published in November 2004.  They are Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout’s All in the Dances A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and New York City Ballet board member and New Yorker Magazine editor Robert Gottlieb’s George Balanchine the Ballet Maker, for Harper Collins’s Eminent Lives series. We might wonder how these additions to the growing Balanchine library can really be useful. Good biographies are available already, Bernard Taper’s Balanchine, for example. Then there are the catalogues, critical collections, and memoirs of dancers Toni Bentley, Suzanne Farrell, Tamara Geva, Allegra Kent, Peter Martins, Maria Tallchief and Edward Villella.

All, including Teachout’s and Gottleib’s new books, tell variations of the same story.  The child that would become the greatest choreographer of the 20th century is  abandoned by his family at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. After suffering years of privation caused by the Revolution, he escapes to the west, is hired by Diaghilev as a composer of opera ballets, and at 21, is made ballet master of the world’s finest, most innovative company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Diaghilev’s theatre became a sort of training ground, where Balanchine developed neoclassicism, dance that is grand in manner, inventive, lucid, witty, sometimes poignant, but never pompous or

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sentimental. He composes ballets that differ radically from one another in scope, style and theme, and makes them one following another, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

At NYCB, Balanchine shared artistic directorship for 20 years with Broadway giant Jerome Robbins, and gave him tremendous support during the composition of his ballets, offering not only the raw materials – dancers and space – but educated interest and encouragement. Greg Lawrence, in his Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins (2001) quotes Balanchine’s longtime administrative partner. “Here I was, just a young choreographer, and there was the master of our age bringing in props to help me, as if he were some fourth assistant to the stage manager,” Robbins reported with amazement.  But he learned from Balanchine the key to satisfaction in the creative life. “He made me see that the work was more important than the success, that work in progress was what mattered most.”

What confliVillellacts occurred seem to have been spawned by differences in values between dancers who cared for themselves first, and Balanchine who was interested primarily in work.  In Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (1998), Edward Villella illustrates this friction. Villella was rehearsing Donizetti Variations, frustrated with the part, with the time he had to learn it, all compounded with his chronic hip pain.  In fact, the only aspect of the piece he felt happy about was his handsome costume. One afternoon, Balanchine summoned Villella to the basement of the State Theater, and began to dig through the wardrobe. At last he resurrected a bright orange tunic and a pair of yellow tights, “the color of baby vomit.”

“Put these on,”

Balanchine commanded.

Villella, already slight of stature, appeared to be cut in half by this outfit.  He looked as though he were dancing on his knees.

“Perfect!” Balanchine announced with a flourishGottlieb, and strode away, leaving the humiliated Villella to absorb the lesson: If you’re going to play the fool, why not dress like one?

Villella saw the episode as an exercise in domination, Balanchine beating his chest and demonstrating his power.

But we see at the heart of their conflict a debate about what is most important.  For Balanchine, the answer was always, even during the well-publicized debacle with Suzanne Farrell, dance.  Dancers who threatened to quit were told some version of: “I’m glad you’ve decided.  Go in peace.” As Peter Martins relates from his own surprised experience, in Far From Denmark (1982), those who failed to appear in company class or rehearsal simply were not cast. Balanchine’s “do-it-now” attitude and rhetorical, “What are you saving yourself for?” were a revelation to Martins.  But all the dancers who have published memoirs, and this is a failing that most strongly marks their descriptions of Balanchine, saw him through the necessary prism of their self-absorption.  All can tell what happened, their side of the story, but they can’t tell why, not convincingly for readers, because each of their accounts is filtered in personality: Villella’s macho insecurity, Martins’s European-bred expectations (which he slowly un-learned), Farrell’s naïve imperviousness, Tallchief’s brass-tax practicality.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Balanchine’s most important relationship was with someone he could communicate with on another level – through music – Igor Stravinsky. Their dynamic repartee and shared vision overflowed into the composition process. For example, Taper relates, during the creation of Orpheus, in 1948, Stravinsky asked Balanchine about the length of the pas de deux.

“Oh,” Balanchine replied, “about two and a half minutes.”

“Don’t say ‘about,’” Stravinsky corrected, reprovingly. “There is no such thing as ‘about’. Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between?”

Balanchine’s understanding of music freed him from what Stravinsky called, “the tyranny of the beat.” He was able to demonstrate, without dancing a part full out, the essence of a movement, so that dancers would mourn their inability to reproduce the elegance, the gusto, the earthiness – whatever the part required – that Balanchine showed in the studio.  He believed that if ballet is any good, it doesn’t need program notes or other explanation. “The curtain should just go up and if the spectators understand what’s going on it’s good, and if not, not.”

So what can Teachout’s and Gottleib’s books add to all this?

Gottleib’s work as part of a series of biographies aims for authority. It winnows out gossip, scandal and drama, presents conflicting accounts evenly, and adds to the story in two previously unexplored dimensions. One, he talks about Balanchine’s relationship with his family and with Russia.  Tallchief, Villella and Farrell all remember the 1962 NYCB tour to the Soviet Union with approbation.

They talk about the shabby accommodations, the lousy food, the sense of being trapped.  Especially they remember their dismay when Balanchine suddenly abandoned them, took off for New York and was gone for a week, right in the middle of the tour.  Gottlieb tells this story from Balanchine’s point of view.  We see the pain and discomfort Balanchine felt dealing with family and friends from the past, with loss, with the high-pressure Soviets who seemed to be using the tour to prove something. So he went home and ironed shirts, tended Tanaquil LeClerq, spent an evening telling baudy stories and singing songs, a full one hundred of them that had been listed in the Times as the most popular of popular songs.  It was a necessary and healthy break.

Second, Go

ttlieb unlike other biographers, presents Lincoln Kirstein as more than moneybags, more than a tool that moved Balanchine from Europe to the States. He writes compellingly of Kirstein’s frightening mental illness and misguided belief that he was superfluous to Balanchine and to the company.  The truth is, Kirstein made tangible differences: in developing the repertory, attracting funding and creating liaisons with artists working outside of NYCB.

Teachout’s new book is important, too. It stands over and above the others, first, for the quality of the writing. We believe what he has to say because he tells us how he knows.  His speculation is careful, and he has an instinct for development – he knows what details to leave in, what to throw out.  All in the

Martins

Dances is the only published biography that separates awed understanding of Balanchine’s artistic achievement from a clear-eyed, sometimes unflattering view of the man.  Teachout tells frankly about Balanchine’s womanizing and affairs.  He condemns his pursuit of Suzanne Farrell as “inappropriate,” and presents a dismaying account of Balanchine’s treatment of LeClerq.  Most shocking for those of us who have been weaned on our perception of Balanchine’s all-embracing multiculturalism, coming as it did before there was a word for it, is the great choreographer’s unworthy stoop to conquer: he calls Jerome Robbins “Jerry the Fairy.”

Both Gottlieb and Teachout explore the question of the future. With Balanchine and someday even his students no longer around to set and exceed the standard, how will his choreography survive? But Balanchine, who lived his life very much in the present moment, may have sniffed, “Who cares?” Certainly he claimed to have little concern for the fate of either his choreography or for NYCB after his demise. “Apres moi, the board,” he said, characteristically.

But anyone who observes the offspring companies – Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, among many – sees his influence as so profound that it is difficult to conceive of American dance, indeed the dance world without it. He offered loving tribute to the past (as in the Nutcracker and Swan Lake) while at the same time translating American culture to a performance milieu that shows us a broadened vision of humanity

“Review of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Theatre’s ‘Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger’ at American Dance Festival,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, September 2004

Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane Dance Company "Reading, virtue and 'The Artificial Nigger'"

Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane Dance Company “Reading, Mercy and ‘The Artificial Nigger'”

READING, MERCY and THE ARTIFICIAL NIGGER

Set to live music with the cast costumed in business suits and ties, calling attention to the business of the piece, choreographer Bill T. Jones in the world premiere, July 18, of “Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger,” commissioned for the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, has once again used the medium of dance to make a social statement. The piece is based upon American writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Artificial Nigger.” The author’s use of a word that has such a painful resonance in this country is deliberately intended to shock and to sear, for the story demonstrates the subtle psychology if how bigotry is taught. Readers on stage recite aloud sections from the story, beginning with the first paragraph, which connects the universal message concerning the survival of racism with the cyclical rhythms of the moon.  What follows is a recitation of the names of products that take their appellations from icons of the American South: Dixie Chemical Company, Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup, and Southern Belle Cotton.  In the story, these brand names are the billboards two characters view from a train as they journey toward the city of Atlanta from the Georgia countryside. Like much else of Jones’s work, “The Artificial Nigger” is a multimedia production with a projected set and a text that at times so thoroughly dominates dancing, that to call this piece a dance, only, is to exaggerate the significance of a single medium in a work that is made up of movement, rhythm, poetry, film, mime, music, photography and theatre.  Dance is not always the central element.

Jones claims in the program notes that this choreography is not a visualization of the story, but in some senses it is – primarily in rhythmic ways, for literature, the spoken word, contains rhythms as surely as does dance, and the dancers move to them as much as they do to the music. And, as the characters experience, we see elements of their story: the train, a streetcar, pedestrians on the street, spigots and running water, hands, even the heat of the Atlanta summer. When the child stops and stares for sixty seconds, we get a sixty-second pause. Although no one dancer consistently portrays any of the main characters, we see them straggling along, one behind the other, the former the advancing shadow of the latter.

There is also psychological visualization.  For example, when expectation is reversed, the dancers stand upon their necks. When the character Mr. Head instructs his grandson in the qualities one can look for in Negroes, the dancers’ movements parody African-American rhythmic dancing, and we see, briefly, the jungle bunnies that populate Mr. Head’s ignorance. When he struggles for anonymity, the dancers cover their heads with their jackets, a visualization which also appears to be a pun upon the character’s name. Near the end of the story, when the characters confront the miserable-looking artificial Negro itself, a decayed lawn ornament, we, in one moment, see the misery in their ignorance, and their likeness, in it, to the image they have both created and despised. Finally, when Mr. Head denies his child – there seems to be some connection here with St. Peter’s denial of Christ – Flannery O’Connor was devoutly Roman Catholic – the dancers slip to the floor in despair. Indeed, both the music and the choreography are heavily text-tured. Above it all are the readers’ tonally faceted and emphatic voices, Southern, patrician, and didactic.

What Jones’ piece does, in addition to reviving an important O’Connor story for a new generation of audiences and readers is to show us how as human beings, guilty of the sins of all humankind, we are quietly accused.  Mr. Head, at the last, is revealed to himself as a sinner with no comprehension of his real and terrible sins, against African Americans, against humanity and against his grandson.

Several of the dancers delivered outstanding performances. Shaneeka Harrell distinguished herself early in the evening as first dancer in Jones’s 2002 work, “Power/Full,” which illustrates the isolation of the human spirit from religion and prayer. Again here, we have a text, though in this case it is simple and brief: “When God says something, He can’t take it back.” Another strong performance came from Malcolm Low, who has acquired command since I last had the opportunity to see him dance, two years ago.

Also performed this evening was “Duet X 2” (1982). Together the three pieces, all thematically complex, deeply ironic and emotionally involving works, comprised an important statement about the human condition.

“In The Company of Robert Altman,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Robert Altman’s new movie, simply and very effectively titled The Company may be the best dance feature film ever made.

This is a sweeping statement, but I make it with care. Audiences have never seen the dance world rendered on stage and off, via the film medium, with such objectivity and grace. Altman shows us how real companies behave, as organizations and as collected and fallible human beings, all the while maintaining a tender regard, even adoration for the art form. Nearly entire ballets, filmed correctly so that we can see whole bodies and staging rather than subtitled snippets of movement, are woven through a relatively plot-less tale. Thus Altman shows us more clearly than any dramatic dialogue or character development might, why it is that people choose to dance, why artists embrace this way of working, why administration and fund-raisers devote themselves to mounting these projects.

No one has to tell the audience this work is beautiful: they can see it. The film contains no history lesson: we either recognize the included ballets or we don’t, proving the point that we need not be scholars to understand dancing. Nor in this film is dance choreography made up of frail, effeminate variations on the ballet-blanc theme. This is an important point for American viewers who tend to that prejudice. “Don’t look so pretty! You know I hate pretty!” company director Mr. A., (Malcolm McDowell), enjoins the dancers in rehearsal. There is one classical variation, danced brilliantly by both Julie Kepley and Suzanne Lopez; the rest of the film’s repertory is contemporary.

Altman’s signature style has been since his early films, notably Mash (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), to blur the distinctions between major and minor characters, knocking out the notion of hero. In the beginning of his career, he achieved this goal with sound, covering conversations between high profile actors with the noise of other characters talking. For this film, really about a company, and not a hero, Altman fogs our focus upon the lead character with limited screen time and a reluctance to center the camera on her. Several other dancers are developed as well as is Ry (Neve Campbell), and she often dances on the periphery of the frame. For those who enjoy digging in the dirt, the film offers a brief nod to some of the work-a-day tragedies of life in dance. These include poverty (a dozen or more of the dancers shack together in a single apartment – some sleep on the floor – while Ry is able to maintain a studio apartment solo (under Chicago’s el tracks) only by virtue of a second job; injuries (twice we see a principal forced by injury to sacrifice a part to a corps dancer, and a consequent status change); AIDS (“Such a terrible disease! So many losses!” Mr. A exclaims); grueling rehearsal hours (some dancers try an “energy” pill; one dancer is cut two days before performance); eccentric choreographers (hilariously spoofed at the Christmas roast); and the plight of aging dancers – it’s more than just physical –who have developed artistry over time, and are beyond meekly taking direction from ballet masters. Mr. A as a character is company director stuff and not much more: authoritarian, whimsical, headstrong, opinionated, brusque, evasive but vastly appreciative of dance and dancers.

Still, such diversions have really nothing to do with ballet. For some audiences, unfortunately not those most likely to be attracted to this film, the discovery may be an education. All of these virtues, Altman’s visionary directorship, formally integrated cinematography, innovative plotting and characterization would nevertheless collapse without a good cast. Unlike most ballet films – one winces at the memory of Ann Bancroft taking class with Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point (1977) – this one is peopled with real dancers. Neve Campbell is a retired corps member of Canada’s National Ballet, and the supporting characters are drawn from the ranks of The Joffrey (Maia Wilkins, Domingo Rubio, John Gluckman, for example) with whose full cooperation this film was made. Choreographer Lars Lubovich plays himself, as does Robert Desrosiers.

If one element of the movie puzzles, it is the inclusion of the absurd, over- conceived prop piece, Blue Snake, now in its second incarnation in film. If you are curious – and I strongly encourage you not to be – check out the 1989 documentary, Blue Snake, that gushingly follows choreographer Desrosiers through the creation and staging of this acrobatic farce. Perhaps the fact that there are two films of such a innane piece demonstrates that only a movie maker has the budget to waste on dancing dinosaurs. One hates to think that Altman is pandering to the popcorn-munching crowd here, but I find myself almost forced to think it. Poor as it is, audiences and critics may applaud it anyway, and maybe that’s the joke: that neither critics, nor audiences, nor dance practitioners can often see the difference between what should be saved, what scrapped. Sad to say, it is a joke that Altman himself may not be in on. That Blue Snake should be a failure, however, is really no surprise. The truth is: the vast majority of new choreographies fail within a few years of their inception, if not on the same night. Failure is an occupational and artistic hazard of working in the dance field. We accept it because the opportunities for true achievement are real, as we see in this film.

“Weir/Welch ‘Here/After’ American Ballet Theatre,” Ballet-tanz Magazine, October 2003

OAbout 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.

“Funny Fiddler: Boris Eifmann’s ‘Who’s Who,’ Eifmann Ballet of St. Petersburg, Wang Theatre for Performing Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, March 14, 2003,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, July 2003

OThe Wang Theatre in Boston’s Chinatown was a singularly appropriate venue for the world premiere of Boris Eifmann’s Who’s Who, a broadway-esque ballet about the adventures of Russian immigrants to the U.S. during the 1920s. A broadly played dance pantomime and costume piece, the atmosphere is reminiscent of recent Broadway production works as Ragtime or Titanic, punctuated with the burlesque humor of Funny Girl or Victor/Victoria underscored by the shrugging soberness and concern with the phenomenon of change of Fiddler on the Roof.

Although the ballet had the general style and staging of a music theatre piece, the dancing defied the conventions of the genre.  Ever inventive, the choreography had a surprising newness, appropriate to the setting and theme of the story, a pathos and wackiness that never grew tame or tired, and a resigned finish, with the gaudily clad dancers and faded god hanging over them that mirrors life, if not the conventions of art.

Precise and fluent in technique, formally tight and masterful, principal dancers Alexey Turko and Igor Siadzko demonstrated well what partnering between two males can be.  In sequences alternately comic and moving, the two men’s strength in maintaining off-centered balances, and in supporting one another through them, in lifts and in conveying intimacy – along with their gifted clowning – matched point for point ballerina Vera Arbuzova potency and gender-bending technique.  In fact, gender differences throughout the piece are deliberately blurred, adding to the continuing choreographic surprises.

Set an amalgam of jazz pieces by American artists such as Scott Joplin (“The Entertainer”), Duke Ellington (“It Don’t Mean a Thing, If it Ain’t Got that Swing”), Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and others, with theatre-style sets and lighting, the story revolves around the adventures of a pair of dancers from Russia trying their chances in America.  It is in many ways the story of crushed expectations and of making do with less, of the inevitable brushes with the American underworld and of struggles in establishing and maintaining personal integrity and identity.

In creating this piece Eifmann continues to fulfill the promise shown in his previous choreography.  It is a ballet audiences will want to see again.

“Chicago: Cranko’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” Dance International Magazine, Spring 2003

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John Cranko’s 1969 evening-length classic, The Taming of the Shrew, was brought to vivid life once again by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, October 16-20, 2002 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Revisiting masterworks of this stature presents audiences with opportunities for discovery in several areas. It gives them the chance to see the choreography performed by different bodies, perhaps offering nuances of characterization and meaning not suggested in other interpretations. It advances an occasion to view repertory in the context of time. This second item takes on special significance when the libretto is based in classic literature, as Taming is. Literary texts are subject to reinterpretation, and changes in the field of criticism open ways to seeing them from new points of view. In the case of Taming the effects of these changes are quite clear. When Cranko was working, Richard Burton in the only readily available filmed version of the play portrayed Petruchio as a drunken lout who wins the game by offering Kate a homeopathic remedy: a taste of her own medicine.  Only two years after the Stuttgart premiere of the ballet, Raul Julio in the famed Shakespeare in the Park series that still goes on in New York every summer, showed audiences a deeply confident Petruchio who offers Katherine a lesson in self control as well as the secret to true self esteem, instruction that allows her to become master rather than victim of her life. Critics currently argue in favor of this interpretation.

Nevertheless, Taming of the Shrew is successful as a story ballet in part because it is shaped, like many ballets in the genre, upon the eighteenth and nineteenth century comic opera model. Its opening with an overture is a bit of showmanship that prepares the audience to expect an opera-theatrical structure. Its melodic and episodic score contains airs for each of the main characters, a few bars of which repeat to introduce them in later scenes. The expense of the production, with its elaborate costumes and changing sets, its use of comedic foils to the main characters in the persons of Bianca and her three suitors, its background of clowns – especially in the final scenes – and their slapstick humor (their dousing with the contents of a chamber pot, Petruchio’s “stripping” by whores), the use of subplot to create dance opportunities along with the extended finale: all contribute to the impression. Likewise the weaving of ensemble pieces between solos and pas de deux imitates the comic opera pattern of balancing arias with choral works. The characters reflect and repeat dance phrases like repetitions in the lyric of a duet, so that even the dancing demonstrates the ballet’s relation to opera.

On opening night, Maia Wilkins, the Joffrey’s principal ballerina, played Kate with spitfire ferocity, demonstrating her strength as technician as well as mastery of gesture. Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss noted her “ready-for-battle pitch of the shoulders, the little suggestions of pain behind the rage, [and] nightmarish exhaustion during the wacky honeymoon ordeal.”

In the second cast, surprising newcomer Julie Kepley, recently hired from the Atlanta Ballet, appeared to upstage even this tremendous performance. Paired with Joffrey veteran Willy Shives–whose low-comedy portrayal of Petruchio transformed by an unexpected meeting with his equal and match –Katherine – inspired laughter, tears and a standing ovation.

Kepley approached the part with real daring, flying with flexed feet at the head of her suitor, and sustaining her role as sister, schlmozzel, lover, and, finally, adoring wife with the same energy and joy. In their final pas de deux, Kepley and Shives, re-costumed in the pale green of new birth, an echo of Shakespeare’s identification of Katherine as “another daughter,” the audience is privileged to witness the development of a relationship that is at once both romantic and original. Through sustained opposition of pulling and accord, we see that as partners Kate and Petruchio will retain their lovable independence as well as their eagerness to play. It is a necessary moment, satisfying the audience’s need for closure.

Other notable performances include those of the delightful technician Heather Aagard, and her three frolicking suitors, Calvin Kitten, Michael Levine and Matthew Roy Prescott, who seem to have stepped in from the stage of the commedia dell’arte. Bianca’s sweet pas de deux with Kitten’s Lucentiuo is a fine foil in its revealed falseness to the authenticity of Kate and Petruchio’s encounter. The servants schooled by Petruchio to portray themselves as gothic clowns, each with his own macabre handicap, add greatly to the fun. Even the orchestra participates in the storytelling when it suggests – musically – that the suitors in the guise of tutors have no ability to dance or sing. The weaknesses in the performance, clumsy male corps dancers who follow the choreography a beat or two behind, is effectively hidden by the busy-ness and lack of a single focal point during crowd scenes when dancing and interaction between characters is going on all over the stage.

Cranko’s ability to convey Shakespearean reversals through movement – nice girls are revealed as shrews, whores as managerial wives and spoiled brats as loving spouses – has found apt interpretation in this contribution from artistic director Gerald Arpino and in Georgette Tsinguirides (who worked with Cranko on the original production). They have demonstrated a faculty for revealing hidden talents of the dancers in choreography that remains, for all the gags, inspired, emotionally effective, and convincing.