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Flash Review 2, 9-29: The British are not Yanks! The British are not Yanks!
All that (Royal!?) Jazz from Birmingham

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Hmmm....Well, yes, this week in dance has certainly been one of the more bizarre this dance viewer has witnessed in five years. To re-cap: From last Thursday to Tuesday at City Center, Birmingham Royal Ballet brought us "Edward II," in which the protagonist is killed with a hot poker stuck up his ass. On Tuesday and continuing through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Rennie Harris is in the house with a hip-hop version of "Romeo & Juliet" with, er, no live Juliet and no death scene. And last night, the veddy British BRB tried to carry off three very American jazz ballets. "Edward II" and "Rome & Jewels" worked gloriously. The triple bill of jazz ballets, which opened last night at City Center and plays through Sunday, wasn't so successful, but even that at least failed gloriously. Can you say, "Dance Boom"?

My colleague Alicia Mosier gave us the first American take on "Edward II," choreographed by BRB director David Bintley and receiving its U.S. premiere this month. (See Flash Review 1, 9-22: Forces of Nature Meet Forces of Bintley.) We (we being me!) were so blown away by this work, that we also asked renowned choreographer Mark Dendy to offer his take on it. (See Flash Review 1, 9-29: The British are Coming Out! The British are Coming Out!) And I explained, in Flash Review 1, 9-27: Hip-hop is in the HOUUUUUSE, why "Rome & Jewels" is such a breakthrough. But where "Rome & Jewels" succeeded because Harris addressed the Shakespearean tragedy on his own, hip-hop terms, BRB's mixed program of Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" and two more-or-less light-hearted Bintley ballets (one his own take on Shakespeare, the other his take on Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn's take on Tchaikovsky's "Nutracker") fails because the mostly non-American personnel are trying to be something they're not, twice over. Which is to say, ballet dancers doing straight jazz is already a tough sell, and European ballet dancers doing American ballet dancers doing straight jazz is pushing it -- at least too much to convincingly carry it off for an entire evening.

Why BRB brought "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," which brought down the house when staged on a dream team of City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem stars last spring, is a mystery. Even set by the same stager, Susan Hendl, it was, in spirit, a shadow of the ballet seen on the stage of the New York State Theater. That David Justin (who played the hoofer entranced, in the play and the play within a play, with a stripper and the dancer who plays her) is American did not help much. There was little chemistry between Justin and Monica Zamora's Stripper. It's difficult for me to say that; Justin is one of my favorite dancers of all time, the prototypical...well...I forget the word for it but I think it's demi-character dancer, someone who can dance both character and danseur roles. And Zamora wowed me just last week as Edward's Queen Isabella, evincing a frailty and vulnerability towards her homo-straying husband in the first act that makes her betrayal of him in the second believable, and not just emptily arch.

However, as the Stripper, I found Zamora for the most part emptily vampish. When she shimmies her fingers, I didn't buy it. Sure, she's hot -- beautiful and with flashy legs that soar -- but I don't believe her as someone who would have gone into stripping (or even, since this is supposed to be a story within a story, as a ballet dancer who would be able to play a stripper). It's all like someone taking advantage of her high kick to play at being a vamp. But vamping demands much more equipment than that.

None of this is exactly Zamora's fault; the problem is more that she's been asked to do this. And not only once. Zamora returns for the evening's closer, "The Nutcracker Sweeties," playing an equally vampish and teasingly clad character named the Sugar Rum Cherry -- doing the exact same high kicks and, inexplicably, constantly telling the audience to "Shhhh."

Unlike "The Harlem Nutcracker," Donald Byrd's choreographic take to the same Ellington/Strayhorn composition, this "Nutcracker" doesn't cohere as one story. It's a series of CLEVER vignettes that riffs on the characters in the original, rarely successfully. The only segment that works, to my critical mind and hetero libido, is a sultry, slow-but-hot tempered "Arabesque Cookie." And that works only, I think, because of the over-the top whirling dervish men and, more important, the supple and sumptuously voluptuous Leticia Muller. The Arabian Dancer is usually the credibility stretcher for me in this ballet (the exception being Monique Monnier at City Ballet) -- the dancers I've seen in this part either don't have the sexual/sensual abandon, or, frankly, the meat on their bones to, well, entice (as I think is the drift of the choreography!). But Muller -- whoa, Nelly! Even though the choreography she's given is rather mincing than sultry, especially at the beginning, she makes it work because she's totally committed to it: this really is her character. When she disposes of her sheer pants and reveals those legs -- oh, Mamie! As well, Muller's very expression, a warm and natural smile that lights her whole face, is inviting -- as an "Arabian Dancer" 's should be.

The one ballet which worked for me, to an extent -- and would have worked better if it were not grouped with two other jazz ballets -- was Bintley's "Shakespeare Suite." Here, the, if you will, juxtaposition three times over -- quirky choreographic takes on a bunch of Will's characters drawn from various of his dramas, danced also to modish Ellington -- was just weird enough to maintain, at least, curiosity throughout the dance. Standouts include the fleet Robert Parker -- who I saw as Edward's paramour last week, and Mark Dendy saw as Edward Tuesday -- as Hamlet. An unusually merry, but just enough gloomy Hamlet to be believable. (He closes the ballet with a single candle.) With punkish red hair and, in his case, a van dyke as well, the successfully vampy and poised Catherine Batcheller and the versatile Wolfgang Stollwitzer (the opening night Edward) were deliciously twisted (even in their bodies) natural born killers. Justin by this time seemed to have really loosened up; not quite unbridled and wild enough as the hoofer, he was an unwitting, nerd-thinking-he's-suave Bottom/Ass. His character was one permitted to actively mime playing the music, and I loved the way he strummed Ambra Vallo's Titania like a bass.

And speaking of playing, the stand-out of the entire evening -- and reveling in it -- was the jazz band Echoes of Ellington, conducted by Paul Murphy. They jammed during the ballets, they jammed (in quite lengthy sets, that had many in the audience standing, clapping, and peering into the pit) before each ballet, they hollered, they played "The Star-Spangled Banner," they played "Happy Birthday," and they even swung the theme from the Flintstones. From Bintley and the BRB crue, the ballet firsts are evidently endless. Hot pokers one week, hot swing the next!

Programmatically, however, what BRB should have done, I think, was to bring "The Shakespeare Suite" as it's divertissement, and sandwich it with a couple of the nice serious one-act ballets Bintley has in stock ("The Wanderer Fantasy" and the AIDS fantasia "The Dance House" come to mind). Bringing one Roman ballet to Rome would have been indulgeable. But bringing three was too much hubris even for Bintley and these verve-acious dancers.

Did I just say too much hubris? Hmmm.... Well, I think I have to take that back. (Prerogatives of the Flash: Flash change of heart!) What's been wonderful about this whole week, folks, and particularly the Birmingham engagement, is the utter abandonment of the play-it-safe choreographing we're so used to by supposed American ballet wunderkinds like Christopher Wheeldon and Kevin O'Day. I have never -- repeat NEVER -- been shocked by a new ballet at either City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. Do they program or commission our native daring ballet choreographers -- like Mark Dendy or Alonzo King? -- no! Instead they promote and give us the placebo ballets of Wheeldon and Ryan Kelly. The mold they expect their new choreographers to be in is NOT the break the mold Balanchine mold, but the toe and hold the line Peter Martins mold.

What's my point, as it pertains to what I saw last night? Just this: Sure, I am criticizing the piling on of three light American jazz ballets in one program by a British company, and I have sincere individual criticisms about each work. But I would much rather go to the ballet not knowing what to expect -- fearing, for instance, that I might see someone get a hot poker shoved up his ass -- than for the wet blankets we usually see from our supposed leading U.S. companies. Three cheers for noble failures, and Rule Britannia! God save the Queen!

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