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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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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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