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Flash Review 1, 9-9: To Mr. B, with Love
DTH Breathes Life into Balanchine

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Well, it happened again. A Balanchine ballet which, in previous viewings, didn't quite speak to me became, when enacted by the soulful and spirited men and women of Dance Theatre of Harlem, infused with warmth, heart, and meaning, at no expense to the geometry. The first time was "Serenade" which, in full orchestra no less, I found impenetrable at City Ballet; danced to taped music by DTH, the story was suddenly revealed, a real journey undertaken. The second was last night, viewing a ballet that previously had been, to my mind anyway, one just to be gotten through: "The Four Temperaments." Temperament, indeed! Oddly, the story ballet du jour at City Center in last night's opening of DTH's program B, the second act of "Creole Giselle," played strangely cold.

This would usually be the time where I give you the general line on the ballet at hand but, well, since I've never quite grasped Four T's, as it's affectionately referred to by critics more affectionate about it than moi, let's just go to Balanchine. In his "Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason, Mr. B says this 1946 gem is subtitled "A Dance Ballet without Plot." Well, er, okay, that would seem to expose my observation of above as just so much lunacy, so let's continue on: The Four T's, Balanchine writes, "is an expression in dance and music of the ancient notion that the human organism is made up of four different humors, or temperaments. Each one of us possesses these four humors, but in different degrees, and it is from the dominance of one of them that the four physical and psychological types - melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric - were derived."

Ah, there it is! "An expression in dance and music." Even an abstract ballet -- acutely so in the case of Balanchine -- is, even if not expressing a narrative, still expressing the music. Giving it humanity. This quality is what I frequently find lacking in New York City Ballet's excursions into George.

Of course, pristine execution is still paramount, and Bethania Gomes got things going last night in a finely articulate mode. She had the angles, but at the same time was anything but cold, making regular eye contact with the audience. Leslie Cardona, dancing opposite Mark Burns in the second theme, was more robust than Gomes; not quite so perfectly clean, but radiantly effervescent. Some dancers just project good ol' fashion healthy brio on stage, and Cardona is one of them. Truly one of the under-sung heroines of DTH! And Don Bellamy, once the most dynamic male at the putatively modern Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, proved himself quite adept at neo-classical ballet.

Where the story really kicked in, and I became transported, was with the appearance of Kevin Thomas -- first sorrowfully, poignantly alone, later guided by Lynda Sing and Paunika Jones, and still later with this main trio stalked by four long-legged women: Leanne Codrington, Christiane Cristo, Ebony Haswell, and Amanda Fitzgerald. Balanchine describes this section as "Melancholic," but Thomas didn't take the obvious route (facile facial angst) to achieve this effect. His poignancy was expressed through his limbs -- as when, for example, he simply folded one leg over another as he sat, alone, upstage center. Thomas in repose. Until, that is, Sing and Paunika converged to provide solace.

As for Ms. Kellye A. Saunders, dancing "Sanguinic" opposite Kip Sturm, well now! If there's a prima ballerina at DTH right now, Saunders is definitely she. I've seen her now as the rape victim in Michael Smuin's "Song for Dead Warriors," as Giselle, and in this "abstract" role, and each time she's someone else. The soul of fore-ordained tragedy in the first; ethereal but also human as Giselle; and, in Four T's, bringing downright joy to abstract ballet. These Balanchine abstract ballets are often danced with neutral countenance, the assumption being, I suppose, that Balanchine wanted the focus on the body and didn't want facial expressiveness that might detract. But Saunders uses an Evelyn Cisneros-like sense of welcoming us to make us a partner in this musical expedition. Looking at her feet, and then at us, a knowing smile on her face, she seems to say, "How about that? Pretty neat, huh. Watch this! And wait 'til you see this one." It's that ideal of the difference between, "Watch me dancing," and "Watch this dance." That sense of welcome was all I needed to bring me into the ballet, and see its humanity. Music is, after all, made with inanimate objects; humans dancing it can give it life.

Indeed, my dancer companion for DTH's opening night Wednesday -- see Flash Review 1, 9-7: Dance Theatre of America -- made a good point. In some ways, she said, DTH is our leading truly American company. She was referring, among other things, to its open-ness.

My friend was also wowed by the corps in "Creole Giselle" on opening night, and I think would have been again last night: Those chugs in arabesque were synchronized and, more, seemed to express the sheer zombieness of the women. And I noticed yet another indication that this corps is first-rate: Even frozen in a semi-circle, the way it framed the main players was as it should be: a vivid tableau, with not a one just watching the action. No dead wood there! I thought of Stanislavski's dictum: "There are no small parts, only small actors." These actor/dancers are huge, making for one grand, harrowing picture.

Unfortunately, their queen last night was not so frightening. On opening night, I commented that the direction of Frederic Franklin was evident in the characterizations and the mime. (Franklin staged and directed this version, from a scenario by Arthur Mitchell and Carl Michel, with choreography faithful to the 1841 Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot original.) Last night, however, Leanne Codrington was miscast as Myrta, Queen of the Wilis; not even good miming choreography can make up for undeveloped acting skills. Codrington's commands to Kip Sturm's Albert Monet-Cloutier (Albrecht) to dance himself to death, and her refusal to yield to Giselle's intercessions, seemed less like imperial prerogative than the petulant tantrums of a child. I, for one, was not scared, and it would have taken just too much suspension of disbelief to believe that Sturm was.

Indeed, Sturm's acting, naturally dramatic on Wednesday, was less effective last night, existing as it did in a vacuum. Caroline Rocher's Giselle, well...Hmmm. Let me first say that I love this dancer: Last year, her first as a full member of the company, Rocher's Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" eclipsed every other ballerina I've seen in the role, and we're talking about some biggies (including City Ballet's Maria Kowroski in her debut in the role, and Helene Alexopoulos); the coaching hand of Suzanne Farrell was evident. As well, as I noted in Flash Review 5-26: I Have a Dream, Rocher lit a fire under the butt of the suave Damien Woetzel last spring, appearing opposite him in DTH/NYCB's joint production of "Slaughter on 10th Avenue."

Here, well.... Rocher seems not quite ready for Giselle. The lightness of the heroine after she has become a wili seems to elude her, and a clear characterization seems to elude me. This usually electrifyingly charismatic but young dancer, close enough to the age of her character, perhaps does not have the life experience yet to convey tragic dimension.

Last night's program concluded with Robert Garland's "Return." For more on the DTH season, please visit the company's Web site.

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