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Flash Diary, 4-25: An Insider Fan's Notes
Or: A Day in the Life of the Dance Capitol of the World

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Bertolt Brecht once said, and I paraphrase, "I found my theater in the street; I found it in the docks; I found it in the warehouse." Yesterday, the first day of National Dance Week, I found my dance in a small but homey studio on West 31st Street -- in the supple and exquisite dancing of Jessica Viles, her back muscles rippling in the light as she bent forward, interpreting the simple but expressive choreography of Rachael Kosch; I found it in the reverie of Diana Byer as she enacted the choreography of Martha Connerton, in the same studio. I found my dance in a group of young women from Tawonga, Penn. (population 3500), who confounded the Dolly Dinkle stereotype in choreography that, if it wasn't original, was at least tasteful and gave these young women a chance to shine in their Lincoln Center debut, holding their own among some of our top dancers from New York City Ballet, Pilobolus, and elsewhere. I found my dance in that same Josey Robertson Plaza, in a classic duet that I was able to really see for the first time, in which choreographers Alison Chase and Moses Pendleton make two become one. I found it in surprise corners, as well: as the two lead dancers from Ballet Hispanico, a company known to be melodramatic (a dancer friend once referred to it as Ballet Histerico) performed an understated, even quiet love duet. Escorted by the rustically noble Pedro Ruiz, who also choreographed the piece, the lithesome Alessandra Corona caught the wind in her hair and arched backwards to merge with the sun, ending as she started, with a quiet kiss. I found my dance at the New York State Theater, where ballet-master-in-chief Peter Martins announced a new choreographic center, funded mostly by Irene Diamond, where young choreographers will be given the dancers and the space to create without the pressure to produce. I found it in my own ribs which, under the protection of a Yoruba priest, bounced back resiliently after I took a useless fall diving for a press invitation.

What follows is one man's highly subjective account of a day that reminded him of the best -- and worse -- in dance, as he sees it in April of the year 2000.

The day began somewhat auspiciously in the African galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, at a press reception for the new exhibit "Art and Oracle: Spirit Voices of Africa," where high-ranking Ifa priest Dr. Wande Abimbola gave an extraordinary Ifa invocation. He spoke of three orixas or gods, one of whom (if I got this right) is the messenger, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. He spoke words meant to wash away all negativity, at least for the day and among those present; his eyes gleaming, he talked about how there's nothing wrong with money. He sung and asked us to respond, "Ase."

From the Met, crossing a Central Park resplendent with the colors of Spring -- did I mention the skies cleared and we finally had a lovely, gently windy spring day? -- I hied myself to Lincoln Center and the kick-off for National Dance Week. Produced by Dancers Respond to AIDS, hosted by the eternally spunky Sandy Duncan, and blessed by the dancing visage of our own Rachel Berman, it was sponsored by, among others, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, and Sansha. I plopped myself down among a group of first-graders to watch. What follows is not necessarily chronological or complete, but more what stayed in my subjective mind.

New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel, sponsored by IAM.com, performed an all-to-brief segment of a segment from "Dances in a Gathering," all too briefly reminding me what I love about this dancer and this dance. Managing to look studly and winsome at the same time, intent and a little distracted all at once, this guy for me has always been a man's dancer -- who I'd like to be if I were a ballet dancer. Who I'd like to pal around with. As for this classic Jerome Robbins ballet, it's most of all -- story-wise -- about a group of young people cavorting, unrushed, in a meadow somewhere. The dance is languorous, unfolding over what seems like an hour.

The opposite in grace, dance, and beauty from this is what I would dub Robert Battle's "Rush Hour," presented by the Parsons Dance Company. Folks, I don't like to invoke this harsh phrase a lot because it is cruel, but sometimes it's kind to be cruel, and this is one of those cases. Yes, this is a "Make it stop" dance, as in, after about three minutes I was moaning, "Make it stop!" It's an ugly non-dance of a dance, to a non-music of a music. It makes a mockery of dance, giving the impression that dance is just steps or action. This, my friends, is Parsons gone bad. I'm actually a defender of Parsons, for the most part. But the first time I saw Battle's work, in last year's Parsons season at the Joyce, this explanation struck me: Parson's aesthetic works because it's just once-removed from the musicality of Paul Taylor, and the puckishness of Moses Pendleton, both of whom Parsons worked with in his formative stage; throw in his own incredible animal magnetism, and you have a winning alchemy. But this hybrid aesthetic cannot stand even being once more removed from the source. Battle copies the music-ness of Parsons, but it isn't musical. Even the first-graders, I noticed, were mimicking -- and not kindly -- some of the gestures in this assemblage of steps. It's a waste of the dancers and a waste of my time.

What entranced the kids, surprisingly, was an excerpt from Chase and Pendleton's "Shizen," given by longtime Pilobolus partners Rebecca Jung and John Mario Sevilla. I've been present at this dance many times, but wasn't able to really see it because, well -- for personal reasons. (Becky and I used to be friends, but had a falling out; so this dance has bittersweet associations for me. I mention this fact also because you'll want to take my comment at the end of this paragraph with a grain of salt.) But these two have been doing this dance together for a very long time, and have essentially melded, beautifully and lovingly. She floated and, I realized, never touched the ground with her feet. When two become one is the best way to thumbnail the effect. I think the kids used the word 'fish' -- in good way -- in looking at this dance. I say that their reaction was surprising because the intimacy of this dance can produce giggles among kids, but didn't yesterday. The only disappointment in Jung and Sevilla's appearance was that they were the only dancers who didn't appear for the final kick-line, in which all the other dancers, and the 200-300 watching, took part, with zest, led by a zesty dancemaster, Joe Lanteri.

What else? I like Doug Varone better as a soloist than in his group work-he seems more exact, defined, unique, and virtuosic, as demonstrated yesterday in "After You've Gone," scat-release danced to the Benny Goodman tune. Cast members from the Broadway show "Contact," including our October cover woman Dana Stackpole, reminded me that choreographer-director Susan Stroman has really achieved something unique, at least to me: She's combined social and formalized dance in a way that looks both refined and spontaneous at the same time, and I suspect a lot of the credit for that goes to these seasoned dancers.

In terms of debuts -- in other words, not counting acknowledged masters like Pendleton/Chase and Robbins -- the choreographic stand-out was far and away Ruiz's "Romanza from Ballet Guajira." Elegant, simple, romantic, and natural. I was also reminded that the partnership of Ruiz and Corona, like that of Jung and Sevilla, is as durable and deserves as much recognition as some of our better-known ballet partnerships.

In terms of off-stage action, I can report that Eric Hoisington, formerly of San Francisco Ballet, looked fit and rested in cool yellow-rimmed shades and Don Johnson stubble, fresh from a tour of Coconut Grove. And that one of this dance insider's favorite behind-the-scenes bulwarks, Pilobolus road manager/stage manager Alison Schwartz, informed us that she will soon be moving on and into dance programming.

Shouts out to DRA co-founders Hernando Cortez and a very pregnant Denise Roberts, and -- oh heck -- to those Tawonga dancers, who were there because their studio, Maggi Frawley's Performing Dancers, raised $4,200 for DRA. (Which fact, incidentally, made me think that this fundraising contest among dance studios is a great way to get the word out on AIDS to this population.) Those dancers: Erica Smith, Francine Depaola, Kim Krissell, Jenelle Miller, Brittney Wilcox, Rachel Lavalle, Abby Sherburne, Jill Haines, Megan Noll, Lauren Hotaling, Carly Kingsley, Rebekah Schrader, Jenelle Craig, Jenny Lundy, Ashley Weed, Megan Angerson, Erin Kisner, and Megan Benjamin.

After a break to race back downtown to take care of some CEO business -- during which I miraculously found, on the street, a '70s vintage Panasonic compact stereo with 8-track and, more importantly, 78-capable turntable intact (I recently found on the street a bunch of 78 records, including a Leopold Stokowski "Nutcracker"!) -- I hied myself once again to Lincoln Center and the New York State Theater, where the New York City Ballet was announcing a fundraising campaign to raise $50 million dollars.

The good news is that NYCB, board chairman Howard Solomon announced, has already raised $30 million of that $50 million, which will be used to increase its endowment to $80 million. The further good news is that Irene Diamond has already donated $5.5 million, which will be used to fund the New York Choreographic Institute. The idea behind this is not original -- the late lamented Carlisle Project did something similar -- but no less laudable because of that. Plus a GREAT example for our leading ballet company to set! According to Martins, the goal is "for choreographers to be able to go into the studio with dancers and try their craft without a particular performance deadline in front of them," making the center "a laboratory for choreographers to be able to experiment with their craft." A pilot program will be held August 18-30, involving Dwight Rhoden, Christian Spuck, Christopher Wheeldon, Damian Woetzel, Albert Evans, Melissa Barak and Ryan Kelly. (Five of these are NYCB dancers, tho Wheeldon, Martins announced, will retire from dancing.) Choreographers and artistic directors from around the world will help guide the process. Says Diamond: "Our goal is to give talented choreographers from all over the world the chance to work without the pressure of deadlines." I humbly nominate Mark Dendy! Let's REALLY push this art form and these dancers.

That's the good news. And had the subject of the quality of Martins own choreography not been brought up, I'd be content to be gracious and leave it alone. But you know me; call a parade, and I'm the first to shout, "The Emperor has no clothes." In this case, Solomon, after noting that "Balanchine cautioned that he didn't want the company to become a museum for his repertory," went on to say, implausibly, that "Peter created his own masterpieces and near masterpieces." Where?

Martins is no Robert Battle; he is musical, and it is dance. But masterpieces? Okay, scouring the memory banks here.... Of the Martins canon which I have seen, there's one dance I found moving and one I'd call interesting. The first is "Stabat Mater," returning this season (and tomorrow night), and which, I believe, was made as a sort of homage to the late Stanley Williams, Martins's teacher and friend. It's a sad, dark, eulogy of a ballet, ponderously (in the good sense) danced. My suspicion is that Martins' personal investment in this one pushed him beyond his level. Then there's "The Waltz Project." I liked the lifts here, the grappling in some of the partnering. But beyond this I find it hard to remember anything. Okay, there's "The Chairman Dances," a boggling ballet and not in the same intriguing way that some of Jerome Robbins's works are boggling. Martins's "Sleeping Beauty" is way too fast; I remember Nichol Hlinka a couple of years ago racing from centerstage to the vision spot upstage; you could almost see her panting as she barely made it in time.

And many of Martins's one-act ballets seem like faint echoes of famous Balanchine masterpieces, particularly of Mr. B's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto." In these ballets, it seems to me that Martins gets the surface weirdness without really understanding where it comes from, musically. SVT is jutty and angular for a reason. I don't know; Martins said that he himself would not participate in the choreographic center because he is so used to working with deadlines; maybe that's the problem. (I trying to be kind here, honestly!)

Now, let's talk about one more emperor that, well, has clothes, but doesn't always have something beneath, at least that I can see and feel. In a nice little book called "The Moment," handed out in the campaign media kit (which, I'm guessing, also goes to potential donors) Deborah Weisgall says, elaborating on what watching Balanchine's "Symphony in C," Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun" and "Swan Lake" (not clear if she meant Balanchine's or Martins's) do for her and family: "Each is very much of its own time, but each will endure. Each makes emotion palpable; that is the magic My daughter, our sons and daughters, will watch these ballets and learn from them the ultimate lesson: the universe of experience and feeling -- the complexity of life -- that art can express." Feeling? Um, Ms. Weisgall, are we watching the same New York City Ballet?

In his remarks, Martins said that ten years ago, he realized that "Without a campaign, it was going to be an iffy future." If Martins and co. think the money is out there, and have identified needs that could be met with the income from an endowment, more power to them. They deserve it and I'm sure will put it to good use. But it seems to me that what's making New York City Ballet an iffy proposition these days is the lack of soul with which many of its performers dance. (With the exception of one dancer, Carrie Lee Riggins, this was evident yesterday afternoon, in the excerpt we were given from a ballet by NYCB corps member Ryan Kelly.) Sure, the speed part of Balanchine's legacy has been preserved, but that's about it. The precision that exists is over-bearing, in the sense that dancers often seem so concerned with reaching the right position, it in a way immobilizes the rest of their beings, and gives the appearance of dancing stiffly. And even the precision is sometimes an iffy proposition, in the sense that they don't finish, they don't reach the apex.

But I'm generalizing, and that's not fair; we are, after all, talking about 90 dancers (whose ranks Martins says he would like to increase to 93, with more funds). So let's take a step backá. Hmmm. Okay. On reflection, the problem here is more with the corps and some of the younger soloists and principals than the veterans. Jock Soto, for instance, like Woetzel, puts out every single time. The dude works it. Nicholaj Hubbe dances with pride; Monique Meunier with relish and lust for life. Robert La Fosse is the consummate showman. Wendy Whelan gives a schooling in inner musicality every time she's out there; on her good days, Darci Kistler does so too. And Soto and Kistler define the sensation and daring and thrills that a trusting partnership can yield. Philip Neal gets better every year; he's not content with being a pretty boy. Helene Alexopolous is, if I may quote Carlos Santana, simply Supernatural. A dance and music goddess. An instrument and an acrobat of the gods. Pascale van Kipnis is the sleeper, and Jennifer Ringer the eternal question mark-essentially joyous, but often unconfident.

The corps is another story. With the exceptions of Deanna McBrearty, Eva Natanya, Riolama Lorenzo, and perhaps Elena Diner, I don't see the unmitigated joy that should be there every time they take the stage. I do see stiffness, woodenness, and lack of finish. As a group, some pretty patterns do sometimes emerge. The men -- the men are still another story. They dance, in a word, smugly. That they are in the New York City Ballet seems enough. There's no sense that they have to prove themselves every time they're out there. It's our privilege simply to watch them.

If Martins is to add dancers, instead of looking at the School of American Ballet, he might start by looking at Byer's New York Theatre Ballet, to whose W. 31st Street studios I hustled after the NYCB press conference.

The performance came under the rubric of a program called "Dance on a Shoestring: NYTB in Performance," at the Dance Gallery, and the presentation did justice to the name 'gallery.' I got the feeling of being in someone's gallery, looking at their treasured works of art and promising works in progress. The lighting was simple and soft. Viles, mentioned above, danced Kosch's "After Daphne," her limbs extended by long stalks with peacock feathers jutting out at the ends. Sounds like a gimmick, perhaps, but the effect, as executed by Viles, was sheer elegance, ending in a tableau where, in addition to the stalks extending her arms, she attaches one to one foot, and lifts that before freezing. Choreographically (oh, and Michael Kosch's music helped in producing the lyrical elegance), this was the most sophisticated work I saw all day, and not a little of the credit goes to the poised and frank dancing.

The most poignant, touching, dreamy, heartbreaking, and multi-level dancing I saw all day was Mary Sugawa's performance of a solo from Antony Tudor's "Dark Elegies." It probably helped that Sugawa was dancing to the tape of Mahler's music that, according to Byer, Tudor most likely set the dance to. It also no doubt helped that Sallie Wilson set the solo. But credit also has to go to the 21-year-old Sugawa, who, in this very short solo, showed sadness, ardency, pain, longing, recognition -- all poised, and all precision.

And the dance that most captures what dance means to this non-dancer was Martha Connerton's "He Loves, She Loves: A Radio Reverie." The reverie in this case is that of Byer's character, who enters in frumpy attire, equipped with blanket, glass of scotch, crackers, and knitting, as she settles down to listen to a radio program -- it sounds archival and genuine -- of Gershwin tunes, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. It's hard for dances set to pop standards to win me over -- the same moves tend to pop up -- but the refreshing dancing of this cast at least got across the choreographer's intentions, and I think captured the jazzy, Charleston-era spirit of the music. Standouts were the muscle-bound Terence Duncan and Ursula Prenzlau, who gave a song that generally irks me, "Of Thee I Sing," new and witty meaning; and Cynthia Sheppard and Ron Spiess, who managed to impart some depth to stereotypical nerd roles for a duet to "I've Got a Crush on You."

In the end, Byer rises from her comfy chair and is, inventively, swept up, variously and victoriously, by the four couples. And so was I.

This program, which also includes a rare performance of Tudor's "Judgment of Paris" which I regrettably missed last night, repeats tonight at 7. Reservations are suggested, and can be made at 212-679-0401. New York City Ballet's spring season begins tonight with an all-Balanchine program. Whelan, Woetzel, Hubbe, Neal, and Ringer are in the house!

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