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Flash Review, 5-26: I Have a Dream
DTH + NYCB = A Real American Ballet Company

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Wow, wow, wow, and wow!

Last night at the New York State Theater saw the birth, for the first time in New York at least, of a truly American ballet company. American in its verve, vitality, and bonhomie, in its swing, in the types of bodies parading on the stage, in the wide-ranging ages of the bodies, and, yes, in the Rainbow coalition of colors of the dancers.

Many companies call themselves "American" -- one such was holding forth across the way at the Met, absent any black dancers last time I checked -- but this one looked it, in spirit, in its inclusiveness of various styles, its inclusiveness of the audience and, yes, the inclusiveness of more black dancers than have probably ever appeared with a non-Dance Theatre of Harlem New York ballet company. The occasion was a tribute to DTH and its founder and former New York City Ballet star Arthur Mitchell, hosted by City Ballet, and the celebration, merging both companies in performance, was anything but token. While George Balanchine's "Agon" featured just one DTH dancer, the quietly powerful Donald Williams, in the role Mitchell created 43 years ago, the two other offerings mixed the casts up from the corps to the principals, with incendiary results. By the time the curtain fell on a star-making "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" (the star being DTH's Caroline Rocher, who set a torch to Damian Woetzel and all of us the minute she looked at him), the audience was cheering more uproariously than I've heard them do in a long time, and I was standing on my feet for the first time in that theater in a long time. The DTH dancers showed they should be in a theater like that every night, and the City Ballet troops showed they do have some fire in them after all. In other words, both companies Represented, and they Represented together as well.

One can't imagine a more perfect vehicle for a truly American company than 'Slaughter,' spawned not by the world of ballet but musical theater, being originally created in 1936 for "On Your Toes," the first musical George Balanchine choreographed. Ray Bolger and Tamara Geva created the leads in that Rodgers and Hart show, and Mitchell created the male lead in the stand-alone ballet version in 1968, opposite Suzanne Farrell.

'Slaughter' is your basic ballet within a story: A hoofer convinces a visiting Russian ballet company to create a ballet set in a "tough but splashy" (Walter Terry's words) nightclub. Meanwhile, to be near the Russian ballerina who will play the lead of the Strip Tease Girl, the hoofer, Phil, joins the cast as a super. But when the Russian 'premiere danseur noble' playing the lead has trouble with the jazzy steps, the hoofer steps into the part. The plot of this mini-ballet has the stripper's husband/club manager accidentally shooting the woman when he tries to shoot Phil's hoofer. Phil's character shoots him, and is then supposed to shoot himself. The premiere danseur noble, in a prologue played out in front of the curtain, has hired a thug to kill Phil, stationing him in a box seat and telling him to shoot at the moment Phil's character shoots himself, so no one will notice. But after the stripper "dies," someone slips her a note about the killer lurking in the audience, which she manages to slip to Phil; he realizes that he has to keep dancing and stall "shooting" himself until the cops can apprehend his would-be assassin.

From the moment the curtain rises on this one, we're on the edges of our seats. First, like I say, it rises on a truly American, mixed, beautifully colored group of dancers. (Not to mention on Jo Mielziner's lively pinkish background.) The performers seem to notice the change too -- throughout the evening, they obviously inspired each other and pushed each other. It's like the DTH legion literally lit a fire under the NYCB dancers' butts.

That chemistry reached its height in the electric pairing of Rocher, as the stripper, and NYCB's Woetzel, as Phil, both making debuts. I first noticed Rocher during DTH's City Center season last fall, when she became the Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Coached by Farrell, Rocher used every single moment to communicate that this was not just a sexy, but a predatory, dangerous creature. More than much more seasoned ballerinas I'd seen essay this role with City Ballet, she got all the nuances in the relationship of the choreography to the character.

I was certainly expecting Rocher to be up to the voluptuosity of the stripper role, but what I was not expecting was the exalted, blessed freedom with which she danced. She managed to be sexy without being vulgar, a vamp without vamping. When she kicked a leg up and thrust her back and head back, as Woetzel held her at the waist, it was not a gesture meant to "impress" us, but just a natural, exuberant expression of her character. And her instant love for Woetzel the moment they first saw each other, and as it grew in such a short time, was not superficial. Amidst all the sashaying and kicking and strutting, she found the space and time to show us in her face that he moved her.

And, man, did she move him! Woetzel is already one of my favorite dancers -- clean, calm, easy, jocular, a man's man, the ballet dancer I'd like to be if I were a ballet dancer. As I've said before, I love the way he catches the light, especially when he sweeps his arms, and I really love the way he lingers over a pose in air. But Rocher inspired him to something else. Suddenly, this experienced master of controlled confident dancing became, well, organic. Swept up in instant passion for Rocher, he danced with abandon. The final moments, where he is tap-dancing for his life, were not cloying and played at the sort of indicating-level 50% many ballet dancers play mime -- he was genuinely, but still comedically, panicked, and all this while tapping. Oh, and not just tapping, but wonderfully melding his ballet virtuosity -- especially with those whipping turns in the air -- with Broadway showmanship. (At one point, Woetzel even executes a Fred Astaire, running to and then seemingly up the downstage right curtain!) We are used to hearing polite clapping at the rise of a foot or the eighth pirouette at the State Theater; what we heard last night -- again, at least as I can recall, for the first time -- was repeated, genuine oohing and ahing and gasping and sighing, straight from the heart.

Especially considering that this is the first time this pair has performed in public together, their chemistry was almost too hot to handle. I was so over-heated, I had to put down my pen! Where was I? Who was I? This is what is SUPPOSED to happen to you at the theater: Total disorientation! They'd taken me into their world, and this was not an accident. This American company -- again, for almost the first time -- was suddenly not a weird beast with bodies unlike mine doing things I couldn't do, but was warm and welcoming, not super-human but sublimely human, dancing from the heart out and not the limbs out. (One small glitch in this performance: Ryan Kelly, as one of the keystone cops who raid the joint, was unsure in his footwork; get that boy to class!)

Though they still danced their hearts out, there was some weirdness afoot in "Tribute," a premiere choreographed to Mozart by NYCB's Robert La Fosse and DTH's Robert Garland, with a mixed cast. First, there were those Early European Bunhead costumes which, as my dancer companion pointed out, made the women (including the stately Kyra Nichols, in the lead) all look like 12-year-olds. (Er, let me be careful here: I'm talking about the Pamela Allen Cummings costumes, not the dancing.) Nichols, who has been dancing with City Ballet since 1974, is still regal and, as my dancer companion pointed out, it's great to see a real woman up there. I'd extend this to say that Nichols and DTH's Donald Williams gave me the sense of adults, dancing. Grown-ups, real people, relating. When dancers communicate this, that's when ballet is elevated (or maybe brought down to earth is a better way to put it) to being about something besides body tricks and classroom exercises and calisthenic heroics. It becomes about relating. Even as the experienced Nichols generally oriented her head skyward, she still found time to subtly acknowledge her partner with a glance. Her arms sung in flawless epaulement.

The other weirdness -- perhaps accentuated by the Old World costumes on the women, as my dancer companion pointed out (the men were dressed as adults, in something of a non-sequitur) -- was that the white corps dancers came out first, and then the black. The conceit here was probably just the obvious one -- presenting the companies one by one before throwing them together, as corps and in various partnerships -- but before you go calling me hyper-sensitive on race questions, well, perhaps the choreographers could have thought about how this might look, and at least be sensitive to it?

But these are nitpicks. The larger problem was that this was yet another generically classically choreographed ballet to classical music. A shell of Balanchine. The only single phrase that sticks in my mind is the final one, when, in a shift, it is the ballerina, a couple of steps back, who presents the ballerino as he drops to his knees centerstage front and flourishes an arm triumphantly. Otherwise, only the right-on dancing made a mundane ballet seem almost interesting. These performers danced their hearts out, as my dancer companion put it. Standing out was DTH's sublime Kellye A. Saunders, as graceful and welcoming a dancer as I've seen since Evelyn Cisneros.

In "Agon," we were treated to Wendy Whelan again proving that dancing Balanchine's angular moves in his mod Stravinsky ballets does not mean moving your arms staccato. Everything was smooth and lyrical here, and her wit was as agile as her extension. When she lifts a leg and places a foot on Donald Williams's shoulder, there's a palpable sense that she sees how to play this move humorously. Ditto Williams, especially when he lies on his back, bends his knees, and sets his legs and feet aquiver. Whelan's partner in example-setting was the veteran Peter Boal, who quite simply savors and plays out every single phrase -- especially in those deliberate, patient arms. Watching him and then Maria Kowroski is the difference between watching someone who quickly swallows a bag of chocolates one by one just to get to the bottom (Kowroski), and someone who relishes and takes his time enjoying each one. Kowroski, unfortunately, is still dancing with over-carefulness and fear, as if she's afraid she'll forget a move. She doesn't look like she's having fun out there.

I should mention here that throughout, from the intricately designed Stravinsky score for "Agon" (Terry describes it as being specifically set up as a challenge for the choreographer) to the hurly-burly/romantic/dance hall/action film Rodgers theme for 'Slaughter,' the orchestra also played with slow savor and phrase-stretching when called for ("Agon") and accelerating attack when needed ('Slaughter'). It's a safe bet to say a lot of the credit for this goes to guest conductor Andrea Quinn, whose appearance was underwritten by the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

Come to think of it, the chemistry between the two troupes and their pairs of principals wasn't the only alchemy in the house last night. Hello! What's this? The musicians joined the party too, and were so involved that -- another first -- they lingered 'til the final curtain call.

So where does all this leave us? Well... excited, first of all! This is what ballet -- yes, BALLET -- should and can be: involving, RELEVANT, moving, SPIRITED, energetic, WARM, danced by HUMAN Beings LIKE US. This is living evidence that we NEED a ballet company that reflects America in all its vitality and multiplicity, not a stultified, staid, Louis the XIV European presentational promenade of a court dance that -- yo, reality check! -- doesn't speak to most of us.

Okay, we still have the new choreography question at NYCB, or, to put it another way, why were, well, some of the best dancers in ballet given something so mundane? (Talking about the premiere, not the Balanchine!) Or yet another way: Where's Mark Dendy when you need him? Or Alonzo King?

But the good news is the further reminder and testifying, if any were needed, that black and white ballet dancers look beautiful dancing together. (I'll say it again: My boy Damian has never been so on fire, so -- well, a master of control, he gave up his control and responded to his partner, to the moment, and to and for us.) That's what these dancers represented last night.

At the curtain call, Arthur Mitchell, dressed in trademark oversized black tunic and black slacks, slightly leaning on a steel crutch attached to his arm, appeared to join the cast. Mitchell founded this company in 1969 with Karel Shook as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King; that was his clarion call. Last night black and white dancers, New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, NYCB chief Peter Martins and Arthur Mitchell, intentionally or not, uttered a new clarion call: When King told us he had a dream, I seem to recall that part of that dream was a society in which all men and women are created and treated equal, and play together. My dream for ballet is a company that looks like us; not just because I'm a raving liberal, but because if ballet doesn't look like us, if it doesn't speak to us, it will soon be consigned to being little more than a museum item, a diversion for rich old white people. And as last night proved -- it doesn't have to be so!

This program with this cast repeats in the Sunday matinee, at 3 PM. Saunders and Philip Neal perform the leads in 'Slaughter' when the program repeats Saturday night. For more info, go to To read our past reviews of New York City Ballet, try typing "Whelan" or "Woetzel" or "New&York&City&Ballet" in our search engine window on the Home or Flash Archive page.

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