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Flash Review, 4-3: LIfeless 'Portrait'
Feld's Life of Lincoln Stillborn Art

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- With the creation of the Ballet Tech school, the New York City Public School for Dance, Kids Dance, and the Ballet Tech company itself, Eliot Feld has opened his arms to the young people of New York over the past twenty years and given them the chance to learn to dance. His Ballet Tech Foundation renovated the Joyce Theater and helped to save the Lawrence A. Wein Center for Dance and Theater. The man is a populist, heart and soul, and New York is the better for it. Born in Brooklyn, reared on Balanchine and Broadway, Feld seems to find great inspiration in the dream and the reality of America; that inspiration is reflected both in his admirable work in the community and in much of his choreographic output. "Lincoln Portrait," which premiered last night at the gala opening of Ballet Tech's season at the Joyce, is Feld's own dream of America -- an emphatically populist vision of who we are -- set to Aaron Copland's score of the same name and to his "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Copland, of course, was more Communist than populist, and these pieces were composed at the height of his infatuation with the idea that "communism is 20th-century Americanism." There's a whiff of propaganda about them, or at least of kitsch. Feld's new work is more or less apolitical but no less kitschy, in the way that only something very heartfelt can be. He cast his dance with 13 dancers from Ballet Tech, then recruited 45 people -- from his part-time housekeeper to former members of his company to elevator operators -- to represent "who we are." "The People" (as they're called in the program) were dressed in costumes from across the centuries of American history: cowboy hats, hard hats, flapper dresses, Jackie Kennedy suits, leather pants, tie-dyed shirts, this year's suede skirts. There was a rabbi and a sailor, a woman with a baby, two little girls in Catholic school uniforms. These folks, all 45 of them, crossed the stage in parallel lines that weaved around and around, turned to look at the audience, then climbed onto risers at the back as "The Dancers," dressed in identical pale blue mini unitards, came forward to clasp hands gravely and skip in circles and tilt their heads to the horizon. You perhaps won't be surprised to learn that one dancer grand-jeted into the mass of hand-holders holding a huge American flag.

Sam Waterston gave a mercifully unsentimental reading -- sober, slightly clipped, with no quavering bass tones -- of the text of "Lincoln Portrait," which is made up of Lincoln's own words and (to me, always slightly weird) descriptions of his height and personality. (The text was also composed by Copland.) The words of the Gettysburg Address -- "that these dead shall not have died in vain, and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" -- cannot but bring tears to your eyes, especially these days, when they have a new and vivid relevance. I wish, though, that Feld hadn't had Waterston deliver them from a raised platform at the back of the stage, surrounded by the upturned faces of the members of the cast; it made him too much the sainted prophet.

In brief remarks before the performance, Feld said his new piece was a metaphor of the nation's motto, "e pluribus, unum" -- out of many, one. Hence the historical costumes, hence the moving lines of people (representing our immigrant heritage, one might speculate), hence the crowd into which they gathered. I don't know what the identically-dressed dancers were supposed to represent, apart from a sort of abstract dream of American oneness. They jumped and jumped in static motion, forever shuttled into formations that seemed meant to look "united," but only looked hemmed in. Although Feld has said he wanted to explore questions like "What does America look like?" and "What does it mean to be an American?", I didn't learn anything from this piece about those things -- not even the obvious. True, it gave a stock definition of what America is: we come from many backgrounds, and we live together proudly and in relative harmony, in continuity with the ideals set forth by those who founded the nation. I did wonder why, when the real America is so enlivened by its variety, the stage picture looked -- despite the varied costumes, colors, shapes, and sizes -- so homogenous and inert. (It takes a subtle hand to use non-dancers well onstage; often their individuality is diminished rather than amplified, and even more so when they are asked to be "the people.") As a dance, "Lincoln Portrait" has almost nothing to recommend it; a dance is not what it was intended to be. It is Feld's own answer to Feld's own question, framed in Feld's own univocal, sentimental, and somewhat overconceptualized terms. It's a populist fanfare, utterly innocent, but more or less lifeless as art.

The gala program also included three recent pieces, "Yo Johann," "Pacific Dances," and "Apple Pie." The first featured Jason Jordan and Jassen Virolas doing broad arching leaps and round-the-stage lifts to Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major. The main pleasure of the piece, I do not blush to say, was seeing two such great-looking young guys filling the air with energy. That said, the choreography's repetitiveness didn't give them room to really move. As for "Pacific Dances," well, it does go on. The nine women in the cast were as lovely as a flock of sea birds, and I loved the way the light changed as the white cloth backdrop floated over the stage, but there were just a few too many Hawaiian songs, waving arms, and swiveling hips. "Apple Pie" was a Kids Dance production last night, and the kids (most of them in junior high, I'd guess) were amazing -- such stage presence! The girls were confident and smiling, and a few turned up the heat; the boys eyed each other, good-natured and competitive. But the piece, set to music by Bela Fleck and Joe McCracken, is full of old-timey shuffles and some steps that look bizarrely like "shuckin' and jivin'." The choreography has an "ain't that cute?" insouciance, but on the bodies of these 21st-century New York kids it made me cringe a little. Sometimes (several works by Paul Taylor come to mind) Americana reveals Americanness. Sometimes, at Ballet Tech, it obscures it.

Ballet Tech's spring season at the Joyce continues through May 5, with six different programs.

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