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Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet
Why Peter Martins Makes Me Weep

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Apropos of my Flashing two premieres by Peter Martins and one by Helgi Tomasson at last night's New York City Ballet gala, a fellow critic and I were comparing the two. (Note to non-insiders: Martins heads up City Ballet, and former NYCB dancer Tomasson is in charge of San Francisco Ballet.) Well, I told my friend, Peter has made a couple of ballets I've liked: "Stabat Mater" and "The Waltz Project." Ditto Helgi: "Nanna's Lied" and "Sonata." (What all these ballets have in common, incidentally, as far as I know, is that they each had some personal meaning -- for example, "Sonata" and "Stabat Mater" were made in memory of departed friends) Then I said, "You know, I think bad Peter Martins is worse than bad Helgi Tomasson." Said my friend (I paraphrase): "Yes, Helgi knows how to put steps together and he's musical, it's just that he's boring." Last night's program at City Ballet confirmed all of this, to my worse expectations: The Helgi contribution was pleasant, but the refreshingly con brio dancing, especially by Jenifer Ringer, only made you wish she'd been given more meaty moves. The first Peter Martins on the program, "Slonimsky's Earbox" -- well, I liked parts of it and wanted more. But this surprised delight only set me up for a bigger fall with the unveiling of Martins's tango ballet, "Todo Buenos Aires," for which there is only one word -- and I don't use it lightly: Abomination. Okay, on waking up this morning after writing that last night, a less severe word came to my lips. Opening my eyes, the memory of this travesty of a ballet still burning them, I concluded: "Crap."

I'm not angry anymore about what I'm seeing at the New York State Theater. (See Flash Alarm, 1-16, Robbins is Burning; Flash Review, 2-23, Shall we Dance WITH THE MUSIC; and Flash Diary, 4-25, An Insider Fan's Notes.) Last night I just found myself in a black hole of depression over it. I think the best way to explain why -- and to get in some positive comments along the way -- is to take last night's evening at the ballet sequentially.

Walking up Broadway towards the New York State Theater, I almost convinced myself to have an open mind. I reminded myself that I like nothing better than to be surprised at the theater -- even if it means having to acknowledge I was wrong about a choreographer or a dancer. That's the joy of live theater -- yesterday's goat can be today's hero. I remembered how Nilas Martins, an NYCB principal who usually leaves me cold and only seems about half into what he's doing -- kind of like the boy whose parents have forced him to take ballet with his sisters -- surprised me playing one of the lovers in George Balanchine's "Midsummer Night's Dream." It was as if the Dartagnan (sp.?) wig allowed him to lose himself and be someone else, and it was a joy to be taken along for the ride.

I also thought of a few of comments that Mr. Martins made recently in Talk magazine, to which a fellow critic directed me. I'm going to paraphrase these, as I don't have the magazine in front of me, but, first, he said that current principal Maria Kowroski is a better dancer than longtime Balanchine muse and former Martins partner Suzanne Farrell. Second, he said that Margot Fonteyn had no technique. (Or it may have been that she did not have good technique. To be fair, I think he did say that she was a beautiful dancer.) And then that Baryshnikov was ten times better than Nijinsky.

Still, I told myself, once the curtain rose I had to forget these things.

Looking around at the gala-bedecked and coifed crowd from my perch in a box on the first ring, I had a premonition: How many of these care about the art, and to how many of these is this just a social occasion? Is it enough for them that it be pretty, and the dancers garbed in beautiful costumes? Is this just like days of old, and is this just palace entertainment for the rich? A diversion for the court?

I delighted in my seat; I love to see the dancers' faces and this was close up, so I knew I would be seeing them. In this regard, Edward Liang, the first dancer to take the stage -- in Christopher Wheeldon's "Mercurial Manoeuvres" -- did not disappoint. (For more on Liang and this ballet, and a different perspective on the company, see Susan Yung's Flash Review 1, 5-1, So Why Don't They Clap?) He stood, he danced, he reconnoitered with a sense of gravity -- appropriate for the Shostakovich music. He showed me that it's possible to dance with precision and pizzazz simultaneously, with grace and gusto at the same time. This music, Piano concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 35, was one of Shostakovich's punchier, hornier (I'm referring to the instrument, not the libido), percussive, up-tempo pieces. Still, it WAS Shostakovich, and to my mind there's no such thing as light Shostakovich. And yet, that was the way it was danced for the rest of the ballet, by everybody but Liang and perhaps Jock Soto. Punchy Shostakovich is all over the place, but I didn't get a sense of shifting with those levels from Ringer.

And yet...and yet, a comment a colleague made afterwards makes me re-think that assessment. The colleague -- I'm not naming him/her only because I don't know whether they'd like to go on record -- said that the ballet didn't seem to be right for the music. Wheeldon certainly is musical, and he has a sound sense of patterns; but I'm not sure what it all adds up to, and whether he knows how to select the music.

For the first of his two premieres, "Slonimsky's Earbox," Martins chose John Adams's music of the same name. This is the one I liked; but how can I not like any ballet which starts with Damian Woetzel flying in, and then dashing about the stage and forging various positions en air? And I do mean, en air! Woetzel is one of those uncanny dancers who's learned the skill or trick of suspending or seeming to suspend himself in flight, not just in a jump, but in a sculptural pose. I have also always loved the way he catches the light, particularly with those sensitive and expansive and articulate arms.

Eventually enter two couples, Albert Evans-Yvonne Borree and Margaret Tracey-Peter Boal. My favorite moment came when they all entwined. At first I jotted down, semi-derisively, "Reminds me of when I used to play pretzel with the kids." But then I saw the tension between them as they wouldn't or couldn't unclasp and let go, and then the escalation of the tension when the red-suited Woetzel entered this blue world. Taking hands from both couples, he leaned one, then the other way. I got the feeling the tension was running through him -- he was the trip wire. But it was just a feeling; Martins was hinting at a kind of tension, but didn't really explore it as much as I'd have liked. This is where I found myself imploring, "Give us more, give us more!"

Well, of course I was, er, surprised at my positive reaction to this concise dance. So much so that I had to check myself with a colleague I encountered in the lobby, but she more or less agreed. "It's kind of like popcorn," she said, and I don't think she meant this in a derogatory manner. Maybe more that you can't stop eating it and always want more.

Let's skip ahead now to save the worse for last, because it gets to some deep concerns. Plus if I don't talk about Helgi's "Prism" soon, I may forget it. At first, things looked good. Here came Ringer, who was now warming up to the task, as if she realized that with leads in two of the evening's ballets (she was a late substitution for Miranda Weese in the Wheeldon), a large part of the burden of carrying this important night was on her lovely ivory shoulders; you could almost say she was the hostess. And now she was acting the part, putting us at ease with a more fluid attack and easy smile; I loved, for instance, the way her head lolled back on one of those leg-high-into-the-air-as-your-partner-hoists-you-and-your-back-arches exits. But here's where it was confirmed to me that this ballet was at Helgi's typical mediocre level. Ringer's dances didn't go far beyond lovely, and I'm guessing that it was the hamstrung choreography that limited her. Ditto later, with Maria Kowroski, who also seemed more fluid and warm than I'd observed of late. I was reminded of the frustration I sometimes felt watching San Francisco Ballet ballerinas like Joanna Berman and, particularly, longtime Helgi muse Elizabeth Loscavio in Helgi's dances. There was a sense that they could do so much more, but that he wasn't giving them moves to match their physical metal and emotional depth. I have to add here that the corps also shone, particularly the women. As with many of Helgi's large ensemble ballets, the men, particularly the soloists, seemed like mini-Helgis -- suave and debonair, and in their quiet moments even pensive. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, knowing (well, not actually knowing for a fact -- the press office couldn't confirm this) that this was Helgi's first ballet on the company for which and the theater in which he danced for so many years. But there was a moving moment towards the end where Benjamin Millipied walked to the front of the stage and, still for a moment, arms at his side, gazed out into the auditorium, reflecting, before the final ending flourish. (Did I mention the music was Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra, and the gossamer and very adult-sophisticated costumes by Martin Pakledinez, Mark Morris's longtime costumer?) Appearing at the curtain call, Helgi himself seemed the most demonstrably moved I've ever seen him, beaming really, his cheeks red.

An SFB dancer once told me that she imagined that Helgi selected his music by going home to his collection, where he kept a best of classical music shelf, and selecting something from that. For his second premiere of the evening, "Todo Buenos Aires," Martins did sort of the same thing, choosing the one music that is definitely in these days with all manner of choreographers: tango, and specifically, tangos by Astor Piazzolla. (See Flash Review 1, 4-3: Getting Piazzolla.) Although there's some confusion here. What unrippled, caringly, from the orchestra under conductor Richard Moredock was clearly Piazzolla. But the program attributed the music only to Adams. The souvenir booklet for the gala, however, seemed more accurate, noting that the music was by Piazzolla, as orchestrated by Adams.

One pre-caution for what I'm about to describe: It may seem at times in the following like I'm ragging on the dancers, particularly their inappropriateness for this style of dancing. I'm not! Rather, in describing how they handled or did not handle or appeared in or fit the dance, I am ragging on the director/choreographer for asking them to do something that's not physically within their powers.

In tango, basically, the guy dancers should look like they could eat you for dinner; or, if you're a woman, violently sweep you off your feet, and you'd probably let them. Their foot stomping should be executed with the ferocity of a dagger plunging into a heart. The women, on the other hand, should look like the either want to fuck you madly or eat you for dinner, and you're not sure which. And you're so overwhelmed with and intoxicated by and seduced by their passion, you don't care!

These guys wouldn't last two minutes in a Buenos Aires club. They don't make me afraid. They either dance too nicely -- again, for a tango -- as in the case of Philip Neal; his sweet smile, radiant in other ballets, here just looks just silly and inappropriate. Or, dancers that previously seemed to me paragons of confidence, like Nicholaj Hubbe, suddenly seem unsure of their steps. Guest artist Robert Tewsley, with slicked-back hair, is passable. Albert Evans makes a nice solo silhouetted opener, but his ballet-ending two taps on the ground are limp.

Watching the women -- and again here, I knock not them, but the choice of them -- was painful. She's one of my favorites, if not my top favorite, but the elfin Wendy Whelan just doesn't have the tango voluptuousness. She's thin, and while her supremely divine musicality usually makes that irrelevant, as it should, here it seems the music and the dance style itself, tango, calls for a more voluptuous dancer. Does that sound like an insult? God, I hope not. Let's try again: This was like taking your most beautiful, most talented child, and purposely putting her in ill-fitting clothing and giving her a task totally antithetical to her talents, that you know will embarrass her.

When Darcy Kistler enters, with Hubbe and Tewsley, things just get silly. Kistler has none of the tango tangle of menace and seething over-heated sensuality; she's the deer caught in the headlights with a frozen smile on her lips.

Where I started saying "Oy" out-loud was when these three started trying to do the tango whip of the head. You know, where you dip the chin and then pull it up sharply. At least, that's what it usually is: A fleet, piercing whip, mirroring the whip of the legs. Here -- well, I don't quite know if it's the deficit of the choreography or its execution, but basically the gesture was thrown away. Not a whip, it's more as if their heads suddenly went off-swivel and... ever-so-slightly jostled.

So where do I get off calling this abominable crap?

First, it's an insult to the music. On principle, I've softened on the notion of choreographers using tango and specifically Piazzolla. For instance, on first viewing, I wasn't that impressed with Paul Taylor's "Piazzolla Caldera" (That tells you something right there, by the way: NYCB forgets to credit Astor in the program, Paul puts him in his ballet's title!). But I eventually realized that what Paul was doing was legitimate: One musical master - Taylor -- was meeting another one -- Piazzolla -- and sifting the latter's musicality through his own. It wasn't just a dance, but an interpretation -- er, an orchestration, if you will -- of the music. Really, a gift. Martins, on the other hand, lacerates this music. He can make a serviceable ballet on occasion when working within a very limited element and/or on an emotional impetus -- as in "Stabat Mater," "The Waltz Project," or "Slonimsky's Earbox." But he's lost working in a non-native idiom -- his "Jazz" of a couple of years back is one example.

Out of his element, and without Taylor's talent to give something back to it in terms of an original interpretation, Martins ends up, really, insulting a native form. If I go out and tango dance, I am only doing it to entertain myself and perhaps my partner. Sure, I am trying to grasp some of the tango feeling, but I am not -- I am NOT -- representing it in a concert hall.

At first, one misplaces where the fault lies. Your first instinct is the most obvious one: These dancers can't dance this. But I realized last night -- in large part because the dancers WERE as a whole in beautiful form the rest of the evening -- that the blame has really got to be put on the choreographer, when he saddles the dancers with an idiom that neither of them understand. Or, to put it another way, that they neither have the specific bodies to execute, nor he the musical understanding of the form to teach. For example, the other reason Taylor's "Piazzolla Caldera" works is the Taylor dancers. They are real men and real women -- by real, I mean that the men have bulk and the women barely contain (that's a compliment) earthy lust. Both are charged with sex and menace.

Where Helgi only under-uses the dancers, Martins mis-uses them. As I write this, my colleague Aimee Ts'ao's story on last night's San Francisco Ballet performance of Helgi's "Romeo & Juliet" has just come in. (See above review!) I'm reading where Aimee asks: "What would have happened had they (the dancers) been given choreography that catalyzes the story rather than hinders it?" Martins does worse than this: He gives his dancers choreography that cripples them. Watching Whelan up there, I almost wanted to dive from my box and rescue her. And for the first time in a long time, I wanted to boo, and if my sense of critical aplomb didn't restrain me, I would have.

The final reason this ballet is an abomination has to do with money. Before the show, Martins emerged from between the curtains to praise Irene Diamond, the benefactress of the Diamond Project, the semi-annual new ballets program at City Ballet. In fact, the evening was dedicated to her. It's great and gracious to thank the giver in this public manner. But then to exhibit how that money has been wasted! Wasted even more because there is so much talent in this town -- talent that is starved for money to nourish it. I'm thinking particular of Mark Dendy, whose "Jam" I saw at Symphony Space's Face the Music and Dance Program Saturday. (See Tom Patrick's Flash Review 2, 4-28, Double-Teamed.) Honey, that child can do ANYTHING, to ANY music, on ANY theme, with ANY dancers. Far from embarrassing them, he brought magic to their bodies, and enabled them to bring magic to us, from the moment their mighty legs rose from various spots in the audience, where these beautiful men and women had been surreptitiously stationed. I'm also thinking of the rapture and respect with which Dendy, sitting on the aisle, regarded collaborator Don Byron, as he strode slowly down the aisle, riffing on his saxophone.

And I'm wondering what Mark Dendy, whose triumphs with Pacific Northwest Ballet's dancers we've already witnessed, could do with these City Ballet dancers. And I'm also wondering -- no, I'm beseeching -- why is mediocrity like that of Martins rewarded, and given such awesome artistic (the dancers) and financial resources, while someone like Dendy -- clearly our most talented and versatile choreographer, working in any dance language -- has to struggle just to make ends meet?

And here's the scary thought -- and, I think, why I'm so devastated and depressed by what I saw last night. In a way -- to be fair -- you could say it's not Martins's fault. After all, as a wise man once told me, no one sets out to make a failure. I'll even allow that as surface as Martins's foray into tango is, his desire to make a dance to it is probably sincere. So perhaps I could even retract the word "abomination" as it relates to his intention. But the responsibility, I think, lies at the feet of the ballet's patrons. Put another way: I could get up and claim to be able to make a dance too. But if I tried to present it at the friggin' New York State Theater, anyone with the least amount of artistic taste would toss me out on my ear. So I have to wonder: Do they even see? Do they even know? Do they even care? Or is it only the most superficial of opulences that they care about? And if this is so, what chance, really, does a Mark Dendy or a Sean Curran have? And what chance do we have to see art that really, genuinely stirs us? And what chance do the dancers have to create, really create art that fulfills and appreciates and values their talents?

I'm at 3,000 words now and it's time to file, and I'm reduced to weeping.


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