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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.
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
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
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
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