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Flash Review 2, 3-20: Live and on Tape
Live history, Canned Music from the Joffrey

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO--Hurray for Museums of Dance! The Joffrey Ballet is doing a grand service to our art form by keeping dance history alive and kicking. Joffrey is currently presenting "The Prodigal Son," "L'Apres Midi D'un Faune," and "Les Presages" in Program I of it's Spring season. Seen Saturday at the Auditorium Theater, this program was a terrific trip through history and pre-WW II ballet, the start of the Russian ballet diaspora throughout Europe and the USA. While I knew the history of the first two pieces, I had never seen them live before and I was very happy to have the opportunity.

The lights dimmed and...ugh! Canned music! I would just like to say right here and right now that I would rather have seen just one ballet, for example "The Prodigal Son," with Prokofiev's wonderful score performed by a living, breathing orchestra, then to have seen three ballets performed to a f***ing tape!!! I believe it diminishes the experience by at least 75%. Also, I could hear stagehands talking during the show. Because I was sitting up in the Gods of the huge theater, I think it must have been the spotlight operators up somewhere in the roof. It was most annoying.

All three dances shared a common two-dimensionality in the body shapes. Ballet was entering the world of the Modern. The period seemed to be marked by an exploration of Cubism in the arms: many variations of straight elbows, angled elbows, flexed wrists, and flat hands. Nowadays, thanks to Mabel Todd and Irene Dowd and their ilk, we talk about the arm growing from the back, the winglike structures of the scapulae, the root of the arms in the tail, etc. We now look inward for clues to our humanity and our connections to other species. As for the arm shapes in the three ballets I saw last night: how innocent and industrial, and at the same time ancient and African! It makes one think of the whole climate of art and painting at the time. Dance at this time was not so concerned with the human, anatomical level. The works I saw were iconographic, Form, Feeling, and Idea meeting in the ceremonial ground of the Proscenium Theater. What a swirling cosmopolitan scene these Russian choreographers--George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Leonide Massine--found themselves in, travelling the world in the tens, twenties and thirties. They processed the forms and shapes around them, working from the outside in.

Enhancing this manufactured memory of the Ballet Russes were the painted backdrops and costumes by leading artists of the day: Rouault, Bakst, and Masson. I was struck by all these elements combining into a pagan evening of pageantry, the dancers in their ritual dress performing roles with intended Messages, Meanings and Big Ideas. The true glory of seeing this kind of dance is today diminished I think not only by the pre-recorded music, but also by the lack of shared art history in the audience. Looking at some ballet is really becoming a skill, I think, like reading epic poetry of bygone ages. Sometimes I worry there is not much in our culture at large that helps us to see ballet as other than a seductively pretty, but vaguely undignified and flimsy spectacle. Which perhaps it is! Ha ha ha.

Speaking of undignified: how about the deliciously steamy choreography for the Siren in Balanchine's 1929 creation "The Prodigal Son"? To me, this ballet is about her, not the Son. She is the force that strips him of everything he owns, including his hubris, and sends him home on his knees to Daddy. How radical of Balanchine to put such a movie-star dancehall stripper inside this biblical tale. Her hand up behind her head like a snake. The snake of sex, the snake of the spine, the snake of her long narrow red cape. Her choreography is spiky, elegant and raunchy, like a Hollywood movie interpretation of a burlesque artist. Trinity Hamilton performed this role with lovely technique, but she was not bitchy enough. The Siren needs to be a total Queen of Sex Power. Hamilton was sweet and delicate, not up to the challenge theatrically. This dance is a premiere for the Joffrey, and perhaps Hamilton's interpretation of the role will develop in time.

How interesting, for me, to see Balanchine in a narrative mode. His ballets I know and love best are all pure music and pure movement, with the underlying references of the gestures well obscured. How daring and sexy his choreography was! How over-the top theatrical when one sees it in the context of a story. The tongue-in-cheek cheekiness! The choreography for the "Drinking Companions," soldier-like carousers whom the Son encounters, is ingenious and has an edge of Busby Berkley-meets-Bronislavia Nijinkska to it. The Son was beautifully danced by Calvin Kitten, who has great technique and a lot of taste. However, I imagine that the dancers who originally performed these roles had a commanding rock-star charisma and starshine that today's crop just does not muster. But maybe I was just sitting too far away.

On the other hand, Davis Robertson did solid justice to the lead in L'Apres Midi. He skillfully projected the ethereal beauty of the Faune in Nijinsky's ballet, his spine so unballetically supple and rippling. I had never seen this ballet performed before and I was really looking forward to it. It was beautifully rehearsed and performed; and such a piece of performance art, almost like something Karen Carlson might come up with. The little tail the Faune wears is such an arousing little detail, repeated in the gesture of his thumbs pointing up from flat hands. The Faune mostly performs on the striking set piece of a big rock. The slowness of all, the tone poem of the music; gorgeous. The nymphs are truly Greek vase pictures come alive, unbelievably so, in their pleated gowns and tilted positions, linking arms and moving lightly through space. I could almost hear the drowsy hum of cicadas on a summer afternoon. For some reason, I wanted to see this piece up close, in a more intimate theater, to enter that world more and experience more fully the magic and the artifice of the production.

Even though I'd seen the Joffrey do "Les Presages" years ago in San Francisco, I had totally forgotten about it. Tchaikovsky's music sends me back and forth between rapture and tedium, and so does the choreography. The movements are at times very interesting: full of musicality, Limon-ish curves, and what can pass for weighted flow in ballet. Romantic and modernist, it falls somewhere in between Michael Fokine and Doris Humphrey. When enjoying a particularly dancerly phrase, I wondered why Massine's works aren't more often performed; they seem so fun and satisfying to dance, ballet technique with elbow circle premonitions of Twyla. But then as the piece wore on I felt trapped in time and I didn't understand the story, the poem, the theme until I read the program notes afterwards. Apparently the ballet is about "...man's struggle against his destiny," with sections entitled Action, Temptation, Movement, Passion, Fate, Destinies, Frivolity, The Hero, etc.

Part of this ballet reminded me a lot of Kurt Joos's landmark dance "The Green Table." I noticed the Fate character in Presages is very similar to the Death figure in Green Table. There are sections of soldiers dancing in rank that seem similar. Interestingly, Presages premiered in 1933, and Green Table premiered in 1932. Other notes/noticed moments: The Hero figure's yellow costume really did look like a comic book superhero getup. Funny futurism. Leticia Oliveira, who danced Frivolity in a cute little pointy sparkly hat, had lots of personality but her technique was not quite as crystalline as the jewels on her headdress. I think my favorite part of this dance was the breathtaking Passion pas de deux. Deborah Dawn and Domingo Rubio were just gorgeous in it, fearlessly inhabiting the broad melody of the music. Sigh, and I'll let that swooping swoon sign me out....

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