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Flash Review 3, 1-24: Back to Diapers with Damian
ABC's with Feld at NYCB

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

This ballet is what is known as a Major Statement. In 1988, in his first work for New York City Ballet, Eliot Feld took on "The Unanswered Question." This time around, in a similar style (heavy on the props and allegory, light on the steps), he takes on the questioner himself. The new ballet is called "Organon," and it premiered last night at the State Theater as part of this year's "New Combinations Evening," an annual commemoration of George Balanchine's birth (January 9, 1904).

Feld has envisioned Mr. B's giant stage as a church of sorts, complete with processions and resurrections and celebrants -- even Bach. There's something to the theater-as-church metaphor, of course, just as there's generally something worth saying about Man, his present condition, the journey of his life, his dream of transcendence. But that sort of talk turns vague and over-earnest faster than any other; it needs either a new depth-charge of wisdom or a very light touch. In this new Feld ballet, the grand becomes the grandiose quicker than you can say "Damian's dance belt." (Context provided belowâ. )

No one can say Feld hasn't made the most of his resources. The ballet uses 63 dancers (half of them from the School of American Ballet), the entire arena of the State Theater stage plus an extra yard or two provided by special extensions into the orchestra pit, and a surround-sound speaker system that fills the house with Bach organ music like kids used to fill their rooms with Twisted Sister. The music, however, isn't coming from a real organ; it's from two pianists, Elaine Chelton and Alan Moverman, facing each other at the back of the stage, tiny and in silhouette at spidery keyboards. (The amazingly realistic organ effect, made by filtering keyboard sound through samplers, was produced by the Walker Technical Company.) Between them is Damian Woetzel, standing at the ready in his requisite gray Everyman unitard. The opening of the ballet is busy with stuff on the stage, all designed by Feld, in alternately brash and shadowy lighting by Allen Lee Hughes. You see one-fifth of a second curtain rising behind the main one, then behind that an ascending horizontal row of speakers, then still further back, just above eye level, a big rust-colored horizontal rectangle covered with twisted metal, and in the center of the stage a giant piece of white fabric that's gradually lifted into the air by wires (the veil of the tabernacle, perhaps? The Holy Ghost?). And finally, lots and lots of black-clad dancers coming onstage from the front of the house: "this great machine of dancing," as Feld has called NYCB.

It's a set-up for a pretty wise joke. There's the play on organism/organ/organon (the program gives a definition: "1. An instrument of thought or knowledge. 2. Philos. A system of rules or principles of demonstration or investigation"); the hugeness of the stage picture vs. the smallness of Woetzel and the musicians; the technological gizmos vs. 18th-century Bach; the glitter of metal vs. the flesh-and-blood amplitude of human bodies vs. the "machinery" of City Ballet. From his recent interviews, that seems to be the idea-matrix Feld was going for, in addition to the rite and rebirth themes we get later on. But this comes out looking like Serious Thinking by Earnest Freshmen (no offense to any freshmen out there).

Woetzel opens the ballet with a jerky, dry, momentum-less solo full of tortured swirls, multiple turns in the air from which he lands all over the place, chest-to-the-Heavens lifts, and the first of several modified mazurka steps Feld sticks in the middle of phrases, a sort of open-armed chug-in-a-circle after which I expected to see Woetzel do a Moiseyev deep-knee kick. Around him the corps moves relentlessly, like so many fingers inside a child's handmade church and steeple. (At one point they put palms together and raise their arms, Balinese-dancer-style.) They grab one leg and lift it croise front with the opposite hand, flashing into space in two directions. A sharp image, and almost the only instance of Feld finding the pulse in the music -- counterpoint, of course.

Along with the keyboards and the metal business and the speakers, there are also two sets of bleachers on the stage, on which some of the corps dancers sit like the junior high school choir (another church image?). Some of the most beautiful things in the ballet happen back there: dancers in the front and back rows lean in one direction, those in the middle in another; there are handstands, lovely arm-flowers as in "Serenade," a row of pointes edging out diagonally. Later, a group of men shoot themselves forward into the air on a diagonal, tilted like ski-jumpers, in one of the most forceful passages in the piece. But none of these choreographic ingenuities is integrated into any sort of larger, clearer rhythm. (Is there an existential point there?) The corps is everywhere, all the time, now strung out, now grouped together, now spiky, now languid. It all just keeps on roiling around: black-clad ants and Everyman Woetzel.

Who, by the way, has in the meantime gotten himself rigged up in the metal at the back of the stage. This is up at eye level, remember, so that when Woetzel starts making his way ever-so-slowly through the maze of wires, upside down and on his back and so on, it looks exactly like "Mending," that other Feld ballet in which a near-naked man weaves slowly through a series of metal bars. (Woetzel performed "Mending" with Feld's company, Ballet Tech, last year.) While this familiar trek goes on above, Charles Askegard in a black unitard brings in Maria Kowroski in a white unitard for a duet made up of two things: Askegard balancing Kowroski on his back, and Kowroski, beautiful in slow-motion, doing hyperextensions (later she has a "gotta pee" solo, turned in and pounding). Their pas de deux is beguiling at first, then too much of the same. (The repetitive nature of ritual?) They move from one position to another in interesting ways, however uninteresting it might be to see Kowroski holding her leg in front of her nose again and again.

The cringe that began to form the third time she had to do that came on full-force when I saw what was happening up in the maze: Woetzel was shedding the unitard. And in case we didn't get the point, when he finally makes it back down to floor-level, clad only in his dance belt, he does a little baby dance, hopping with his legs slack and his arms in the air, padding around and skipping (the dance belt, naturally, starts to look a little like a diaper). I kept thinking of Feld's character in "West Side Story": maybe we're all Baby John in the endâ.

By the end of this piece I did not think there could be a more literal way than what had gone before of saying "Here we all are, together, small creatures in a big world, participating in this ritual that is theater/life/the search for transcendence, and each of us has to go through a very personal journey, and when we come to the end of our journey we will be renewed, cleansed, vulnerable but pure like a little child, ready to greet whatever awaits us." (What about those index fingers the corps points into the sky? Are they accusing or just acknowledging? And what does that one vertical move mean in the midst of unremittingly horizontal action? Am I back in college with these questions?!) But then, at the end of the ballet, the giant white cloth from the beginning descends on Woetzel's head (for an eerie moment the cloth looks like a mushroom cloud), and he wraps himself up in it like a mummy, and then unwraps himself like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, and the music swells to a finish. After all that, as the old song says, they'd gone about as far as they could go.

"Organon" came at the end of a program commemorating Balanchine's birth this month; the two other ballets were his. Four out of five of the soloists in last night's "The Four Temperaments" got only one shot at the ballet this season. This is absurd. How will they ever really learn these parts without more time in them on stage? The three "Theme" couples (Rachel Rutherford and Robert Lyon, Aesha Ash and Stuart Capps, Jennifer Tinsley and Jason Fowler) were occasionally so emphatic that it sent them off-balance, but they brought a welcome burst of energy. Alexander Ritter was more paranoid than pensive in "Melancholic," in general too crisp and careful. They had a quiet start, but ultra-sharp Jennie Somogyi and Philip Neal picked up in "Sanguinic" after their respective solos, in which both of them did powerhouse pirouettes. Arch Higgins put his chest and shoulders to work as he sank into himself in "Phlegmatic." But his footwork lacked the sense of delay that distinguishes this variation. In general, there was a problem with staying "in character." Again, with more performances these dancers might have had a chance to dig deeper into their parts. As for Kathleen Tracey in "Choleric," this seems like a case of miscasting. Her jump is not strong and neither are her feet; arms and ankles were flopping in gargouillades and elsewhere. More than that: there wasn't any pride in her dancing.

Jenifer Ringer and Abi Stafford modified their performances in "La Source" for the better over the course of the season -- the former by scaling down her attack and making her whole approach quieter, the latter by enjoying herself a little more. There were enthusiastic corps girls going this way and that, all disheveled once again. Peter Boal was a vivid cavalier, his head sharp and turns controlled in his solos. And Hugo Fiorato conducted the Delibes score with particular sensitivity.

"Organon" repeats Thursday at 8 p.m.

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