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Flash Review, 3-22: Good Eliot, Bad Eliot
Will the Real Feld Please Stand Up?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Two pop culture iconettes who loom large in my own psycho-social memory are the devil and angel Freds which hover over his respective shoulders whenever Fred Flintstone is faced with a moral quandary. "Come on, Fred," urges the devil Fred. "Just take the whole cake! No one will ever notice. Besides, you've worked hard--you deserve it." Meanwhile, perched above the other shoulder, angel Fred gnaws at him: "No, Fred. You promised Wilma you wouldn't take the cake again. Are you going to break your promise, Fred?" I sometimes think Eliot Feld, whose Ballet Tech opened a month-long season Tuesday at the Joyce, is haunted by similarly opposing muses. Devil Feld: "Come on, Eliot: Make another one of your one-gesture, one-joke American Vernacular dances." Angel: "No, Eliot, you can do better than that. Go deep and make a serious, elegiac, imagistic ballet that captures the sad mysterious history and beauty of the human soul." This battle for Feld's choreographic soul raged in all its glory and gore last night, and as for me, I'll take the Damian under Glass, please.

My choreographer companion of last night reflected that never had he had such divergent reactions to two works in one evening. He was referring to "Mending," a stunning quartet--Patricia Tuthill, Damian Woetzel, and two blocks of Plexiglas between which climbed Woetzel, anchored by pegs connecting the two slabs--and "Paper Tiger," about as embarrassing a ballet as one can find.

The 1999 "Mending" stuns you from the moment sound (sirens which, before you know it, as my companion pointed out, have metamorphosed into organs) and the tableau of Damian under Glass appear. In a more narcissistic body, Woetzel's maneuverings among the pegs (think ant farm to imagine the audience perspective)--particularly the arches of his back and the crucifixion-type poses--might have seemed like just so much "I'm so pretty" preening. But Woetzel, a principal at New York City Ballet, is so confident of his masculinity he doesn't need a dance to prove he's pretty. Poised is the word, folks. I think his poise, while it's occasionally drawn on at NYCB in ballets like Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering," is under-appreciated because Damian is so fleet, a master at the arrested high jump; in a word, an athlete. I refer to him by his first name because he seems like the type of regular guy with whom you'd like to shoot some pool. A man's man. Placed in the impossible, gimmick-rife position of maneuvering near-naked between two clear plexi sheets, Woetzel deepens the ballet with his restraint. Rather than seeming like the glass is there to show his body off, he seems to be in the glass to show what would happen to you, and you, and you under similar circumstances. How would you survive? How would you stay calm? How would you appear so unfazed? Aplomb is the word here, and Woetzel has it in spades.

He also has a partner, Patricia Tuthill, who appears halfway into the dance, moving down from upstage--really, riding the music, which has now gone Hildegarde von Bingenish on us. (I should explain that Woetzel is not only lodged between the two Plexiglas sheets, but the whole is elevated high above the ground.) This dancer has often struck me as the "I feel pretty" type, so out of fairness let me defer to my companion, who said, essentially, well, she IS pretty! He particularly liked her healthy female body, and commented about how beautiful and like a normal woman's her butt looked. (My words more than his. He also said that, while he wasn't sure if it was the choreographer or the dancer, there was something in the way that part of her body moved that captivated. To which I'd add: Particularly the way it caught the light.) Tuthill is Feld's latest real-life muse; it strikes me that perhaps she's finally growing into that role, not just in her body, but in her mind. I see hints of longtime Feld muse Buffy Miller, although Tuthill has a ways to go before she totally loses her ego and becomes subsumed in the music, as did Miller.

Speaking of muses, I'm afraid we have to get back to that pesky devil Eliot, who returned after "Mending" to have his way with the 1996 "Paper Tiger," just as he had for the program opener, "Apple Pie." To bluesy standards performed by Leon Redbone, the 15 dancers basically execute minor variations on one move: a sort of cartoonish shuffle, amplified by Willa Kim's faux hobo costumes. It gets worse: I've seen this move--been dogged by it is perhaps a more exact way to put it--in what seems to be most of Feld's new ballets over the last few years. It's a half-hearted, skin deep attempt at some kind of humorous dance inflection, but it's off. The jokes ring flat--like those embarrassing jokes at a party that everyone tries to ignore--and, in their datedness, are bizarrely out of place with the decidedly non-out-of date performers, most of whom hover that side of 21. The ballet truly becomes a dog by the end, and I'm not being pejorative: the concluding joke is the howls the dancers burst into in the last number.

(Speaking of embarrassing jokes which make you want to howl, during a five-minute pause while the crew set up the Plexiglas behind him, Feld, perched on a stool and riffing like some sort of hybrid of Woody Allen and a Bizarro World George Balanchine, offered these pontifications: "Ballet dancing has to do with the fact that our species stands erect. That is the central fact of ballet dancing." In other words, all that separates us from the chimps is ballet. Arguable perhaps, but how about this: "We have our genitalia in front, and ballet dancing exaggerates this." Well, some of us do.)

When I returned home from the theater last night, I looked up a couple of Marcia B. Siegel's mid-seventies reviews of Feld, which you can find in her wonderful chronicle of dance in that era, "Watching the Dance Go By." In the eyes of Siegel and some others of her generation, Feld at that time--the first ten years of his choreographic career, which started in 1967--was just this side of Twyla in his originality and reformulating of the ballet vocabulary. Siegel's reviews are generally favorable, but they did contain some critical observations that are prescient today.

After seeing his "Excursions" in 1975, Siegel wrote, in Soho Weekly News: "I keep wondering what relation the dancers have to each other and to the movement Feld has so formally given them to do. The ballet is full of very personal gestures--men scratch their chests with both hands, people shake their heads in a seeming excess of high spirits, they fix their eyes on some yonder horizon--yet they do the gestures impersonally, all together in precise formations, like some corps de ballet of the prairie. It feels cramped to me, antithetical to the idealized wide open spaces where it came from."

This analysis still holds 25 years later, at least as it pertains to "Paper Tiger" and it's ilk, the ilk comprising most of what Feld's made the last five years, at least. The quirkiness here seems imposed--the product of one choreographer's one-dimensional vision, not of the individual dancers. It doesn't seem organic. If Feld is aiming at an American vernacularism, he misses the fundamental American trait: individuality. At least with his group works he does--the recent "Yo" men's duets ("Yo Shakespeare," "Yo Johann") seem a little more, in their muscularity, like they could have come from the hip-hop exposed bodies of the young men he makes them on.

And speaking of duets, I was hoping to avoid discussing this because I don't like picking on kids, but now it's morning and I find it troubles me still. What were Feld and George Balanchine stager Suki Schorer thinking in presenting that "Tarentella," a Balanchine classic, last night? The boy particularly--and I'm using "boy" because of his age--was imprecise and blurry in all the moments where it counts. The girl was better, but still blurred at times. I am NOT blaming them; they seem to have done their best within their unformed capabilities. Also, my companion pointed out to me that the boy's beats were great. And, to be fair, I should add that I've had the good fortune to see this ballet on some of its greatest interpreters of our time, including Tina LeBlanc and Christopher Stowell, and Nichol Hlinka and Woetzel. High standards. But, my friend also commented, favorably, that this one reminded him of something he might see at a recital, and this was not a recital--it was a professional performance. Watch children perform at the New York State Theater with New York City Ballet sometime--nothing is sub-standard, the articulation is definitely great, and you don't see anything that embarrasses them or the company. The pair last night was "cute," but kids are capable of so much more, and it's not fair to them to settle for less.

As a group, the Feld young people (I'm referring now both to Kids Dance: Students from Ballet Tech, from the public dance school over which Feld presides, and to the company proper, itself on the young side) dance cleanly, with gusto and pride, and with overall sharp definition. But dancer-wise, the essentialness of Woetzel to bringing off "Mending" reminded me of one thing I miss in Feld's current company: the lack of older dancers. Feld's serious dances, too, run the risk of seeming one-dimensional. An older dancer who hints that he gets the deeper meaning elevates them. I think particularly of Phillip Gardner, who was dancing with Feld when I arrived here in 1995. His mere presence on stage gave the ballets some weight. Similarly Daniel Levans in a solo in "Paper Tiger" last year.

Again, here's Siegel, writing in 1976 in Hudson Review:

"I was noticing last fall during the Eliot Feld Company's season at the Public Theater how little he was using the older members of his company, John Sowinski and Elizabeth Lee, who left Ballet Theater twice to dance with Feld, and Naomi Sorkin and George Montalbano.Christine Sarry, another Feld stalwart, still dances major roles, but the new work he choreographed for her, 'Excursions,' styles her as a rip-roaring tomboyish teenager rather than the gifted grown-up artist she is.

"Like many choreographers, Feld wants to challenge his dancers' highest powers. This seems to leave no place for the dancer who's no longer at peak speed, strength, and flexibility, or who has to work too hard to achieve them. Most companies, including Feld's, look like a high school senior class."

Most of Feld's current ballets, I'm afraid, look like they were choreographed for a high school senior class, not adults, and in their shallowness meant to be watched by a high school senior class, not adults. Or, let's rephrase that so as not to insult the high school senior class: They look like they were choreographed for, and meant to be watched by, Feld's conception of a high school senior class. Watching these ballets is, in a way, more painful than watching works by a choreographer we know is bad, because Feld can do so much better--and go so much deeper.

P.S. To read an example of Siegel today, go to http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/dance/00/01/27/TWYLA_THARP.html

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