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Flash Review 1, 4-28: Miami Slice
Villella & Co. Illuminate Mr. B -- and the Pitfalls of Jazz Ballets

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEWARK -- Miami City Ballet flew within New York City's orbit in a one-night stand Friday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Prudential Hall. The program, heavy with big band/jazz age crowd pleasers -- artistic director Edward Villella's "The Fox-Trot: Dancing in the Dark," and Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" -- also included Mr. B's classic, "The Four Temperaments." The evening acted as a lens to clarify the Balanchine technique in some ways, but also made apparent some distinctive qualities of New York City Ballet that can be taken for granted by State Theater regulars.

MCB is known for doing justice to Balanchine's style, which demands pure traditional technique as well as the ability to abandon it when necessary. Balanchine choreographed "The Four Temperaments" in 1947, in his early years of experimentation, to a score he commissioned by Paul Hindemith intended not to support a dance, but for its own pleasures. It is one of Balanchine's ballets that feels at once particularly modern yet unambiguously grounded in sensible form-follows-function movement, such as partnering based less on lifting than on leveraging weight.

MCB danced it with refreshing directness -- perfectly level arms, sharply pointed feet by both women and men, a disciplined musicality, and a general sense of high finish. The dancers' hands are kept neatly arranged, in contrast to NYCB's extremely splayed hand, which to my eye distorts the line. There are some technical oddities in "Four Temperaments" -- pivoting an extended leg in the hip socket in a very unnatural way, or whipping the body's orientation in a tour jete landing -- and the dancers looked comfortable with these demands. Michelle Merrell (the "choleric" temperament), in a big violent final movement entrance, stormed the stage. Confident and strong, she reminded me of Porsche, especially the way she could brake from full-speed-ahead charges.

The other two works on the program, while different enough from one another, both used popular dance idioms and unfortunately wound up feeling redundant. The night began with 'Fox-Trot,' just one act of a longer work called The Neighborhood Ballroom, to big band songs by Carmichael, Ellington, and others. It is clearly an appealing idea for ballet companies to add such a ballroom ballet to the repertory -- the elegant costumes and social dance premise are good enough excuses alone, besides adding variety to a pure ballet roster. But bottom line, ballet dancers are not generally adept at a jazzier style -- they just can't let loose enough. In recent months, I've seen this in Eifman Ballet's "Who's Who," City Ballet's decadent "Thou Swell," and now this work. I hate to dredge up an old misogynistic chestnut, but... they run like girls. That is, the choreography asks them to run like girls, and it rings hollow. Of course, besides the prissy chassees and the pathetic shoulder shimmies, there is all the kicking of the ears that is seemingly required, the better with which to show off gams. After awhile it feels more Vegas than ballet, not to mention the fact that it is a waste of much hard-earned technique.

Which brings us to the evening's final work, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," to Richard Rodgers's composition. I have a similar beef with this piece from 1936 (!) created by Balanchine as part of the musical comedy "On Your Toes." The old show-within-a-show, Keystone cops, hoofer/showgirl spiel works every time in theory, but it seems a shiny folly that requires more than the average bit of acting, or rather, caricature, in addition to the hand shimmies and hip wiggles. Led by Jennifer Kronenberg (who also starred in 'Fox Trot') and John Hall, Miami's dancers performed it well enough, but I missed the star quality of someone like Damian Woetzel, who headlined the NYCB cast I saw last season. I'm not familiar enough with Miami's dancers to expect them to fulfill expectations or not, so it is liberating to watch them dance a technical piece like 'Four Temperaments.' On the other hand, in a work such as 'Slaughter,' I miss the familiar charisma. Either way, I look forward to the chance to becoming better acquainted with Miami's skilled dancers.

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