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Flash Review 3, 9-18: Raspberry Mousse & Black & White Chocolate
The Many Shades of Mr. B

By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha

WASHINGTON -- It never fails to amuse me: the difference between the audience that comes to view a ballet and those that fill the halls for modern dance. Even for a matinee performance of ballet on a Saturday, part of the Balanchine Celebration at the Kennedy Center, the crowd comes so groomed! Hats with nets, and gowns, and backless dresses; the men in suits and many a tie. There is a type of "properness" which somehow goes with my personal idea of such a classical form of dance. The rustling of the programs, the lady in the box waving her fan and lifting her binoculars to sweep her glance over the masses downstairs.

Then there is that "Ooooh!!!" sound that comes with the lifting of the curtain. That perfect beautiful picture that one expects from ballet: tutus and tights in ensemble, alignment, alignment! When I came away from this performance I remembered how after the first two items on the program, "Divertimento No. 15" and then "Agon," I had a great regard for whoever had set the show that day. Raspberry mousse against a blue sky; black and white chocolate. Pure classical lines, then surprisingly clean, new, more angular movements; lightness and joy and sheer technique, as opposed to stern, clinical and power-packed movement. Both ballet, at different ends of the spectrum. What better representation of Balanchine in one evening, I thought.

"Divertimento No.15," danced by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, was without a doubt breathtaking! The ensemble held the audience's attention all the way through and the dance and the music blended in perfect harmony. The attitudes, the high extensions, the pirouettes -- everything done with finesse. What made it all the more enjoyable was the real delight that the dancers seemed to be feeling. No strained plasticky smiles, no straining neck muscles. I tried to pinpoint a particular ballerina, or some one male dancer, who was extraordinary in this troupe, but I could not follow through. Can there be any higher praise for a company than to say that its lines are filled with solo quality dancers? That as each pair took it's place for a brief pas de deux, you wondered how they could possibly match the last?

Now, when the men initially made their entrance on stage in this piece I did not react in the same manner. They were not synchronized and it really hurt the eye. However this did not last and they were soon streamlined and danced as one.

Somehow my focus in this dance remained on the partnering sections and how very important the chemistry and understanding between the two dancers is at such a time. A lift easing into a fish dive, the smooth flow from a posture in which the full weight of the ballerina is on the male, to one in which she needs all the support simply from one hand in his. It can all look so pose to pose, one static shot to another. This did not happen. Though sitting where I was I could see the soft full sleeve of the danseur tremble as the arm took the weight of his partner (perhaps it was that the lighting made every muscle so clear; is that good or bad, I wondered?). I was able to admire the men who danced more than in most other ballets. They gave support and yet remained elegant, an inseparable part of the ballerina's lines.

Yet how much more did the men shine in "Agon," presented by The Miami City Ballet! That beginning, with the four men starting with their backs to the audience in their stark black tights and white skin hugging short sleeved tee shirts, is somehow more male dominated even though there are double the number of women in this dance. Whereas "Divertimento" was full of joy, "Agon," to the Igor Stravinsky music, seemed to be made almost in anger, as if the choreographer was in a vengeful mood! The airborne dancing seems weighed down; the dancers shred the air as they fly into it. The sudden quirky movements, hard arm and palm flicks, flexed feet where you would expect the toe to be in use, in an otherwise classical pallet (which seemed to amuse the audience) were to me signs of a choreographer trying to see how far out he could go without being torn asunder by the critics as being "not classical" The black leotards of the ballerinas with their long legs encased in white tights and their waists clinched with neat black belts are so right for the mood.

Having recently attended a presentation during the Millennium Dance Conference in Washington on "Agon," I looked forward to the pas de deux in this dance. When presenting her paper, Amy Lynn Stoddart had shown clips of the duet performed by different companies, expanding on her theory ( which seemed to make complete sense at that time) that Balanchine based this section, perhaps sub-consciously, on the physiotherapy he practiced on his wife and muse Tanaquil LeClercq when she was struck by polio in 1956. I looked in vain for that tenderness, that slow lingering quality of movement, the stretching of the limbs. This was danced with clinical precision, clipped and cold, the expressions almost hard. After the wonderful partnering in "Divertimento," this was the one disappointing point in the otherwise strongly danced "Agon."

While the program notes mention the "stunning duet with the ballerina carried aloft, her legs in a wide side-split," the stunning part on the stage was more the work of the ensemble. They presented a unified charge: abstraction with spirit. The meaning for "Agon" in Greek is "contest." It appears as if the choreographer is in a contest with himself: is this the line; or is this the line? How far is my line of control?

After an interval, "Tarantella pas de deux," presented by The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago left me with knit eyebrows. It didn't somehow make sense to put just this one piece in by this company, except perhaps as a relief before what was to come; "The Four Temperaments." "Tarantella" was a delightfully happy piece danced with gusto and verve. It was easy for these two dancers with their tambourines and bright Italian peasant dresses to give the impression of their love suspending them in the air and following them in quick fiery circles across the stage! Staying within the pure classical realm the tambourines and the hand clapping add the folk accents to this dance, keeping it light despite the technical demands on the two dancers.

The return to the black and white costuming in the opening scene of "The Four Temperaments," performed by Miami City Ballet, was a sudden and almost shocking disappointment. Earlier I had admired the skill of the person putting together the show for the day, at the eye-catching contrast between the first two items. The difference in each thrown up and celebrated by the other both in color, costume, mood, and movement. Balanchine measured at the two ends of the yard-stick. The choice of "Tarantella Pas de Deux," although not completely satisfactory could still be understood. But then the addition of this last dance to the list really spoilt my image of the performance as a whole. It killed the novelty of an otherwise demanding piece.

Yes, "demanding" is a word that comes to mind. And unlike "Agon," I think of the word "challenge" here, but only in context of the dance for the dancers! I can imagine that as a dancer this dance would be a real challenge to master. It is intricate, detailed, full of idiosyncrasies The turned in knees, the wide open plies on the toes, the twists, the turns, the forward thrust of the hips, which while presuming to put the body out of balance somehow seem to accentuate the point of the toe shoes and the long legs.

I found that the section of this dance that brought forth the mood the best was the "Melancholic"; clear in its pain and contortion. "Agon" begins with a bite, but fails in mid-length to hold the audiences attention, and then amazingly seems to regain it again. The music in this piece is powerful and at times seems to carry the dance with it.

Amazing companies, beautiful dancers, raspberry and chocolate, and yes, a choreographer you can truly celebrate!

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