featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review, 7-10: Long Ballet's Journey
'St. Louis' Splashy but Long, 'Four T's" Sub-par as Harlem Plays Lincoln Center

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Dance Theatre of Harlem made a splashy Lincoln Center Festival debut Tuesday with its new production of "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet," choreographed by Michael Smuin, and produced by artistic director Arthur Mitchell. The original show, by Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen, ran briefly on Broadway in 1946, but a handful of its songs found broader audiences, including "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "A Woman's Prerogative," made famous by Pearl Bailey. A live orchestra and three singers accompanied the new one-hour production at the New York State Theater with additional orchestrations, arrangements, and music by Joseph E. Fields, who conducted. The simple story, which mostly takes place in a jazz club, concerns a love triangle and its disastrous consequences.

There is much to commend in this new production -- the jazzy score studded with pop standards, seeing ballet dancers cutting loose properly, and the giddiness that goes along with the simple joy of moving to the vivacious music. The cast I caught boasted impressive acting, especially Donald Williams (Biglow, the tough guy), Tai Jimenez (Lila, his doormat girlfriend), and Caroline Rocher (Della, the sloe-eyed beauty who catches Biglow's eye). The three also performed Smuin's choreography skillfully, rising above its technical challenges and allowing their characters to develop. Williams partnered with strength, pressing Jimenez overhead as she curled into a C-shape, then skimming her centrifugally a foot off the floor. The slinky-hipped Rocher played a convincing vamp, her clean ballet positions somehow underlining her sense of superiority.

Ikolo Griffin danced the role of Little Augie, the jockey who wins Della's heart. Now, horse racing may elicit all kinds of analogies ripe for the dramaturgical picking, but on stage, a child-like man in white and teal silks is somewhat implausible as chick bait. To his credit, Griffin tamed a hazardous adrenaline rush in time to deftly execute a series of turns in which he spotted off of Della, who piqued in a big circle around him. He also exuded a sincere sense of eternal optimism.

Antonio Douthit danced the role of Death, cartoon-scary in white make-up, tattered tails, and bare legs down to his spats. Douthit had already literally scaled heights in the program opener, Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments"; here, he kicked and thrashed and deleted any subtlety from the sequences he danced -- all punctuation, no words. Death, in a kneeplay scene, entered with two women hanging from his torso; they pushed against him and one another to form parallel, horizontal cantilevers. More women -- clad similarly in metal, coconut cup bikinis and steel wool dreds -- joined the trio in a freakish line dance to push the scene into the realm of satire.

"St. Louis Woman" has some larger problems -- its length, for one. I say this with some regret because the score is so enjoyable that to trim it would be a shame. But this story -- told almost completely with dance, and to be more precise, with ballet -- is too thin for an hour, and Smuin winds up padding it. The countless stock ballet phrases right out of a fundamentals class feel like the equivalent of a conversation bogged down with "you know?"s and "see what I'm saying"s. It also tiptoes around the question of the appropriateness of utilizing the standard classical ballet vocabulary in a contemporary tale, but here it is not alone. It is one thing to display happiness or power with a big leap, but to execute one with no clear statement renders it a filigree -- and meaningless. Of course, there are sections of jazz and social dancing (during which the company looks terrific) but the lion's share of movement is ballet, complete with its momentum-killing pirouette preparations, et al. Smuin's ballet choreography is also a few degrees more difficult than the company was able to master.

Another major problem is the costuming, by Willa Kim. The cheap-looking fabrics are acidic kelly greens, violets, oranges, pistachios -- pep squad leftovers -- pieced together in the dresses with elaborate seamwork to emphasize the hips. The men wear blousy white trousers and satin jackets. They look awful onstage together, and clash equally with the popsicle-colored, Matisse-quoting set by Tony Walton. The adequate singers (Sabrina Elasyne Carten, Marlon Saunders, and Talise Trevigne) stood in a balcony box upstage; as part of the set, they needed to lose their scores, or at least use music stands rather than clutch their binders like choristers.

Interestingly, I recently reviewed a program by Miami City Ballet that combined a jazz club ballet on a program with... Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," performed with accurate (if conservative) technique. DTH's rendition allowed for more individual personalities to emerge, but on the whole, the company's technique is not up to par. It is perhaps unfair to compare the dancers with New York City Ballet, but how can I not, seeing as how they're in the house that George built, a week after NYCB's season ended? It is more than just improperly angled hands and arms and untrained foot pointing. The supporting dancers were not able to keep pace with the demanding choreography. In one instance the final woman in a line of several, tracing a pattern of contractions and lunges in circles around the stage, could've been mistaken for a wounded fawn, waiting to be seized by a stalking predator. That Balanchine permitted no stragglers in his ranks is evident in NYCB's current company -- a high standard, but a standard nonetheless.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home