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Flash Review 1, 6-2:
Relationships, Shallow and Wise
When a Body Meets a Body at NYCB
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier
ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could
have any relevance anymore, I often say that it's important for
us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships.
We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each
other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment
that body -- the eyes, the hands, the smile -- responds to ours.
These are the simple realities of human interaction about which
dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet,
there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine's
"Agon," the premiere of Kevin O'Day's "Swerve Poems,"
and Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old Fashioned." It was an inspired bit
of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship
looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.
The O'Day piece showed
its youth in more ways than one. It's actually a rather pretty ballet
(O'Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone
not to worry, it's a very light piece) -- simple blue costumes and
bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts
for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short
red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set
composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one
stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick
is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the
stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst
a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he's
zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards
on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor.
He's the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins
gave Damian Woetzel to do in "Slonimsky's Earbox." (See Flash
Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it's many minutes
of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes
-- they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used
to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying
awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.
There was lots of very
cool dancing here -- the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee
Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well -- and lots
of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped
and carried (plus some rather blatant "echoes" of steps I'd just
seen minutes before in "Agon," a lift lifted straight from "Serenade,"
and a "West Side Story" bit for the marvelous boys). But one question
kept coming to mind: What's the reason for these steps? Why this
way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together?
I couldn't see a mind behind the ballet, couldn't see any logic
to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked
like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for
more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for
just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same
way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness
dressed up to look like a savvy comment -- enough. This is what
the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like
set to music.
Actually, John King's
music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star
of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass's harsh, tender string
quartets, strangely moving in a way that O'Day's dance never quite
came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been
over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did
his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition
of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys
and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more
pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before
they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing.
Don't get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly
boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I'm thinking here
of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top
of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it's a ballet
with a teenager's sensibility about human relationships: tender,
smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.
"Agon" presented a group
of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and
somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and
endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn't the normal cast,
and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly
from Damian Woetzel, who's usually so sure of himself it's scary.
Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal's expansiveness and
picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness.
Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard;
McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out
from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and
winking. She's a very expressive dancer, without being obvious.
It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually
see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying
to move with Whelan's force in those potent opening leaps, but it
just wasn't working. She couldn't get any propulsion, and the effect
was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to
Kowroski appeared, all
legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was
a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging
and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great
moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski's shoe,
just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, "wow, what IS
this girl?" Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to
reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her
leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time
for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in
a while that she's been fun to watch. And I saw something new in
the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That's
how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit
like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These
are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and
gone a little batty in the halls of modernity -- you see the old-time
arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you
see the blood beneath the forms.
If "Agon" shows human
relationships at their most extreme -- exposed, anxiety-ridden,
trying to keep a hold on things -- then "I'm Old Fashioned" shows
us the grace. It's been a long time since I was as moved at the
ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe's pas de deux last
night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the
fullness of who they were -- pensive, cautious at times, a little
goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this
whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa;
because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and
purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all
the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see
them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment
it was, too -- I've rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if
she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was,
at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and
respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other,
and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear
of the audience, and carried us away. That's ballet with a soul,
ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn't be further from the sweet
immaturity of Kevin O'Day.
For schedule and ticket
info, go to to http://www.nycballet.com/.
Alicia Mosier is a New
York City-based dancer and writer.
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