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Flash Review 1, 5-9: Ghosts
Resurrecting the Joffrey in Manhattan

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Imagine you lived in a neighborhood where the denizens included Robert Joffrey, Aaron Copland, and Agnes De Mille. Or at least their ghosts. Well, welcome to my neighborhood! Mr. Joffrey used to live around the corner in the red brick home on MacDougal and 8th Street; De Mille up the street at 5th Avenue and 11th; and Copland earned his bread early on not from making compositions that would come to typify the westward trek of America, but from teaching at the New School up on 12th Street. The spirits of all three were present a little further uptown last night at the Joyce Theater, revived by the spirited dancing of the first class of the spanking new Joffrey/New School B.F.A. program.

But before we talk about the new.... Last night at the Joyce was sort of like the Joffrey's version of the Yale-Princeton game, with alumni returning to watch a new generation follow in its footsteps. Spotted in the audience (NOT by moi, but by the webmistress, herself a former Joffrey dancer): Brunilda Ruiz, Trinette Singleton, Eleanor d'Antuono, Zelma Bustillo, Paul Sutherland, Denise Jackson, and longtime Joffrey School Director Edith D'Addario.

The evening began.... No, let's can the usual chronological approach and start with the performance where the kids rocked: De Mille's 1942 "Rodeo." And let's start with last night's Champion Roper, Matthew "Don't Call Me Jimmy Stewart" Prescott. He seemed to my eyes awkward at first, but then I realized this was probably the point; this savvy 18-19 year old was giving us a gangling, laconic Champion Roper, really a decoy set-up so that you don't suspect his killer feets until he gets them going to impress the Cowgirl.

Anna Kreager's Cowgirl was a pretty gangly wrangler herself; even when her tomboy Cowgirl, at the behest of the Champion Roper, ditches jeans and plaid for gingham, she still carries herself as if in dungarees; it's all she can do not to scratch her belly. Kreager literally embodied this ballet-mythical character (previously played by De Mille herself and Christine Sarry, among others). As she wavered between the Roper and Keelan Whitmore's duded-up Head Wrangler, her body teeter-tottered between the two. The moment I was waiting for was when, wowed and finally won over by the Roper's soft-shoe, she would bend down on her knees, marvel at the feet, and then clap her hands tightly together. Joanna Berman, who played this role at the San Francisco Ballet, told me once that Sarry explained to her that the idea here is to capture the sound. Kreager was not as emphatic as Berman, but she definitely captured the sense of...capturing something.

In can be a trick in this very Western ballet for ballet dancers to seem, well, at home on the range. But this corps pulled it off; this was not a forced rusticism, but rather came easily to them. They managed to perform a dance that was stylized without seeming rigid.

Oh, and we should add that what the Joffrey/New School students actually performed was an excerpt, tho the program neglected to mention that. This is no small omission, actually. Most of those in the audience were not dance insiders like me, the webmistress, or the Joffrey legends mentioned, but parents and friends of the freshmen performers. Not informed otherwise, for all they knew they were seeing the complete ballet, and it's unfair to the choreographer not to make clear that this was not the case.

A similar omission happened with "Billy the Kid," the ballet created in 1938 by Eugene Loring. Um, folks, this is not a simple shoot 'em up. As George Balanchine notes in his "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason, William H. Bonney was more than a "desperado" notorious for killing one man for every year of his life, starting when he was 12. "These facts," Balanchine points out, "do not tell us the whole story of the Kid. They do not tell that...he was loved and admired as much as he was feared, and that the Far West after the Civil War was a place where these emotions could interchange and resolve - to make of his life the heroic myth it has since become. This ballet is not, therefore, a simple biography of a Wild West killer: it is the story of the life of Billy the Kid as it became a part of the life of his time."

That time, as depicted in the full ballet, is a wondrous, mysterious place of haunted mesas, of the ghosts of outlaws past. Indeed, Loring's vision of the West was far ahead of the movies of the time in its complexity and the moral ambiguity of its protagonists. (And the October 16, 1938 premiere, presented by Ballet Caravan at the Chicago Opera House, reads like a roster of ballet legends past: Loring in the title role, San Francisco Ballet co-founder Lew Christensen as Pat Garrett, and founder (I believe) of the State Ballet of Missouri, Todd Bolender, as Alias. Marie-Jeanne created the Mother and Sweetheart.) And none is so haunted as Billy, who is pursued not just by Sheriff Garrett, his former friend, but by Alias, who shows up in various incarnations, variously killed by Billy, and who ultimately aids in the killing of Billy. And he is haunted by the spirit of his mother, whose accidental shooting death sets him off on his murderous path.

However, if you read the program last night, you'd believe that the solo and pas de deux we saw were the entire ballet, which they weren't. You'd think that the only characters in the ballet were Billy and the Mother/Sweetheart -- not the case. These omissions are not insignificant, ESPECIALLY when presented by a college, 'frevinsakes, which should be a paragon of sticklerism about getting the facts straight. The professors at the New School would not, I'm sure, accept it if a student quoted one paragraph of an essay by Nietzsche and represented it as the whole essay. They should hold up a similar standard of accuracy in the program for the culminating recital of the inaugural year of the college's ambitious dance program.

And speaking of accuracy: The excerpt that was presented was painstakingly restaged by Sandra Alberkalns and supervised by Patrice L. Whiteside, artistic executor of the Eugene Loring Estate. (Allan Bohemer is the executor.) But Alberkalns was not working in a vacuum; she was working from the notation of the choreographic score, an important fact because, along with the estate's supervision, it ensures that what we're seeing is not just what people happen to remember, but is based on strict, painstaking documentation. Through no fault of Alberkalns or Whiteside -- the omission was the New School's, which I assume knew this fact, as notators are very careful to insist on its inclusion -- this fact was not noted in the program.

Having said all that, Alberkalns and Whiteside's attention was evident in the solo and pas de deux, carefully executed by Charles Edward Connolly as Billy, particularly, and a little less so by Alison Dubsky as the Mother/Sweetheart.

Connolly got better as he went along. At first, his movements -- particularly in the slow pantomime sans music that begins the segment -- had fuzzy punctuation. This is an exquisite pantomime, and every point should be emphasized. (And can be; Whiteside told me later that when asked to give a length for this ballet, she reports that it's between 38 and 42 minutes, precisely -- if I understood her correctly -- because the actor/dancer has some leeway on the tempo in this section done without music. So it's not like he has to worry about keeping up with Copland's music.)

A little after the end of this solo, as Billy sits down to practice his card playing (also exquisitely deliberate!), the Mother/Sweetheart enters. The movement of her arm across her torso is meant to represent the strumming of a guitar, but I didn't get that; Dubsky, like Connolly, was a little blurred here.

But the magic kicked in when she finally lightly tapped him on the shoulder, and his whole body reacted, gently, his back arching and his head shooting up towards the sky. Here's where his punctuation did kick in, delightfully. My favorite was when this outlaw deliberately, carefully removes his boots and places them down, and folds his chaps before setting them down. As for Dubsky, her attention became delicate too, capped off nicely when, at the end, after Billy lays down, folds his hands behind his head and gazes up to Heaven, she, right before exiting, lightly but decidedly taps her thigh with her palm as if to say goodbye.

Now then: There were three other, newer ballets on the program, and I definitely have to offer a caveat before I report on them for you: It's hardly fair to consider these ballets on the same program as "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo"; those two ballets are lions of the heritage, and any new piece is going to be hard-put to stand up against them. So if I only skim over the other works, it shouldn't be taken as a judgment on their value, but rather a testament to the entrancing power of the classics; seeing even excerpts of these ballets -- lovingly staged and convincingly danced -- I'm hard-put to remember what came before.

So, having noted that, I can tell you that "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra," a premiere from Joffrey/New School program director Kathryn Posin, was notable mostly for its jazzy, too-rarely performed Copland score. It helped that, as Posin was careful to tell us before the performance, that was Copland himself playing piano on the recording, with an orchestra directed by Leonard Bernstein. The choreography -- well, in its effect on me, anyway -- was rather schizophrenic. By which I mean that on the one hand, the sort of grand sweep of it, in the movement of the corps, captured the jazzy spirit of the era (the '20s), and that the dancers definitely got this. On the other hand, the movement given to the individuals -- particularly the women -- was pretty cliche. If I see one more foot to the ear...! From their performances in "Rodeo" and 'Billy,' I sense that these dancers have a pretty sophisticated understanding and can go deep, but that depth wasn't really mined here, individually anyway. The Joffrey heritage is about so much more than high extensions -- in fact, wasn't one of the principles of this company to showcase ballet at a greater, multi-dimensional depth? -- and we didn't see that fully represented here. Oh, and the costumes were by -- there's that initial again -- A. Christina Giannini. (More notes from Posin: The music for this ballet was composed by Copland when he was teaching at the New School, in 1927! Note from Vivian Perlis, Copland biographer invited to speak after the piece: "This is a work that [Copland] considered one of his neglected children." After it premiered and played a few times, Perlis told us, it was 16 years before the piece was played again.)

Of Trinette Singleton's premiere, "On the Wings of Music," looking at my notes.... I can decipher "spooky." (As I said above, please don't take my memory as the final word!)

Of John Magnus's "Short Symphony," to the Copland composition of the same name (did I mention this was an all-Copland evening, in tribute to the centenary of his birth?), I noted: "Spirited movement." There was lots of lateral movement of large groups.... Choreography and execution reminded me how very much about the American experience Copland's music is.... And there's a nice "Serenade" (as in the opening group tableau from Balanchine's 1934 ballet) moment towards the end.

Now then, a couple of semi-personal reflections:

The Joffrey Ballet is not only seminal to ballet in this country, but to us here at The Dance Insider Online. It was the company that, seen at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1991 (I remember director Gerald Arpino taking the stage to dedicate the evening to Martha Graham, who had passed away that day), first entranced me with the ballet and showed it as relevant to my life. In particular, Jodie Gates in the Archer/Hodson (sp.?) reconstruction of Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring," Tina LeBlanc in John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet," and Beatriz Rodriguez and Valerie Madonia in everything. MORE important, the Joffrey II was the webmistress's first company, and she later went on to dance with the main company. I've also mentioned that the former Joffrey/Arpino home is about 100 yards from where I sit now finishing this at 7:30 Tuesday morning. When I first moved here in 1995 and would walk past the house and look up, you could still see a portrait of Joffrey through a window. It's gone now, and Arpino, long since relocated with the company to Chicago, has given up the lease.

This town (or at least its dance fans; the Joffrey was not so considerate of its dancers in its later years here, pay-wise) desperately misses the Joffrey, its own prodigal son. Sure, the school is still here, up the street a few blocks on the Avenue of the Americas, and kudos to Mrs. D for keeping that going through much tough times for the parent company. But it would be great if there were some adult, performing presence of the Joffrey in the town of its birth. Sure, the young people in the Joffrey/New School program are college kids, and they have some maturing ahead of them. But physically, they are well-trained, and spiritually, I got more than a whiff of the Joffrey spirit. Ghosts have their purpose, but here's hoping Posin, Mrs. D, and this program can make the Joffrey spirit live again in my neighborhood, land of De Mille, Copland, and Robert Joffrey.

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