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Flash Review 1, 4-18: Joffrey's Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up
"Astarte" Returns After 26 Years

By Jessica Swoyer
Copyright 2002 Jessica Swoyer

CHICAGO -- "Astarte," the sleeping beauty of 26 years, finally awoke from her deep slumber to not only a new generation, but to a new millennium last night. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago opened its spring season at the Auditorium Theater with "Multimedia Magic" a mixed bill consisting of artistic director Gerald Arpino's "Birthday Variations," David Parsons's "Caught," the premiere of principal dancer Davis Robertson's "Strange Prisoners," and the revival of Robert Joffrey's 1967 multi-media sensation "Astarte," in its first performance since 1976.

With its then-new film and music enhancements that tapped into the counter-culture zeitgeist, "Astarte" was right up there with Nureyev and Fonteyne as an agitator of the '60s ballet boom. For this new production, as reported by Sid Smith in the Chicago Tribune, Joffrey Ballet mistress and "Astarte" stager Charthel Arthur brought in original dancer Trinette Singleton and Dermot Burke, who also danced in the ballet. She also tracked down Gardner Comptom, who shot the original film, and had him re-shoot it with the current interpreters.

As musical prelude hearkening back to the period of this "Astarte"'s genesis, at intermission the Chicago-based band Platinum Lynx warmed up with Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Who was surprised to see people bobbing heads and even a few dancing in the aisles? Tame no doubt compared to 1967 airings of this ballet, when a post-show jam and boogie session was commonplace.

Technically "Astarte" is an erotic pas de deux that takes its name from the moon goddess of love and fertility, borrowed from the Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar by the Greeks. Astarte gave herself to all men but was owned by none.

A plethora of readings of this ballet can take you anywhere from women's lib themes, to religious mysticism, to a tripped-out journey through a man's sexual fantasy in the "Age of Aquarius." But multi-media it is, including rock music in the style of that originally commissioned for and composed by the Seattle-based Chrome Syrcus, as well as Compton's re-shot video montage, modelled after the original 1967 structure and design. It is a completely integrated work in which the dancers move with the video and the video dances as much as the dancers. "Astarte" would not exist without all of its parts.

As the work opens, the video shows swirling paisley psychedelic shapes in the familiar warm tones of that era: oranges, browns, pinks and reds. Musically, the bass guitar sets the tone while green spots search the audience. In time as faces begin to appear on the curtain, it rises to reveal a huge white cloth that breathes and moves with the projection, itself a living organism.

Bringing the stage into the audience, Joffrey introduces his male character (last night, Davis Robertson) as he walks down the aisle of the theater and up onto the stage. Absolutely mesmerized by this goddess (danced last night by Maia Wilkins), he seems to be pondering: Is she a figment of his imagination, his reality eclipsed? While she stands in the corner of the stage cold as ice in confidence, exuding power in her gaze, he is diminished to undressing; as he disrobes, every article of clothing is used in a worshipping gesture, such as kneeling to place a shoe or a sock on the floor.

Joffrey takes us from there to focusing on the closing distance between the two. She is untouchable as he waves his hands over her body, unmoved until he kisses her. From then on we watch the ice queen melt, become liquid and even boil. They fold in and out of each other in clear sexual references. Invigorating movement such as the bourrees on pointe or hands shaking quickly constantly reappear, and if you've ever paid attention to the discourse on the ballerina as phallic, this movement abets that impression.

One can imagine that in 1967 the synergy of the different arts in one coherent work would've been utterly amazing as the combination of ballet, rock, music, lights, and film had yet to be combined in this manner. Yet with this revival we need to keep in mind that "Astarte" will now be seen by virgin eyes again -- by people not even born the last time it was performed. The video techniques may appear outdated, and if presented anew today would be considered "retro." But the blatant sexual overtones, the sheer fervor with which a woman can consume a man or vice versa through the intensity of a gaze is still startling. The raw physical openness that the pas de deux explores is sobering compared to the dizzying and hypnotic rhythms the music and video create. This is where "Astarte"'s longevity resides.

Innocently enough, this program opens with Arpino's neo-romantic, sugar and spice, pastel chiffon filled "Birthday Variations," in which the taste buds of the balletomane are quickly satisfied. Here cast as Willie Shives's partner, Wilkins dances more like Leisel from the "Sound of Music" than the moon goddess of love and fertility she steamily portrays later in "Astarte." Stacey Joy Keller sticks everything from arabesques, to developpes a la seconde, making it a choice to come off pointe -- not a necessity, and Heather Aagard dancing for Jennifer Goodman, beautifully executed fouette pirouettes with a traveling spot.

Although at first this classic ballet piece seemed out of place within the program, the conservative beginning acted as a spoon full of sugar creating a coating for its extreme opposite to be received as the climax of the evening.

Sandwiched between "Birthday Variations" and "Astarte" was Davis Robertson's "Strange Prisoners," inspired by Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The title echoes the Greek philosopher's words. Literally playing with shadows using a white screen and specially placed lights, Robertson created a two-dimensional appearance similar to that of fixed movement found in architectural reliefs. Cupped hands and angular arms also evoked the style of Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun," while the reoccurrence of the pelvic contraction and the contact partnering between Taryn Kaschock and Patrick Simonello in which she is a constant extension of him makes slight reference to the pas de deux in "Astarte."

Also drawing on the role of the chorus in Greek plays, Robertson created a relationship between the ensemble of ten dancers and the three principles danced by Kaschock, Simonello and Brian McSween, while gestural movement such as cradling the head, or pointing with three fingers kept the work from becoming too abstract.

Genuinely embracing Robertson's work, after a short pause in the program, the audience was eager to see him dance. The timing could not have been better for Parsons's "Caught," a six-minute solo using strobe lights to create an illusion of being suspended in mid-air. In white loosely- fitted pants and no top Robertson was all man, playing off his male beauty. With agile movement he flowed fluidly in and out streams of spotlights, using body waves from the arms to the torso to create his path. As though his movement commanded light, the strobe effect began continuously picking up speed. Eventually Robertson was all we saw floating through the air, walking, hovering, and upside-down making it appear as though, if he wanted to, he could do anything.

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