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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
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
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
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
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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