When The New York Times reviewed Be, a high-energy melding of dance, drums, and acrobatics presented off-Broadway this spring by the Israeli performance group Mayumana, the headline read, "Who Needs a Narrative? Just Look Good and Bang on Stuff."
Reductive though it is, that headline could serve as a label for a whole school of musical theater that seems to be cropping up more and more regularly in places where narrative once held sway. A dancer looking for a job in these oddball productions is often better off with a resume that includes gymnastics, circus skills, and martial arts rather than one that stresses singing and acting. What's the point of being a "triple threat" in a show that relies mostly on recorded music or percussion and has little or no text? (And don't forget to mention your skating prowess.)
It's almost a throwback to the earliest days of musicals, to the Ziegfeld Follies. Even though nowadays it takes more to get hired than a good pair of legs and a pretty face, for the audience, the result is the same: easy-to-swallow entertainment served up in stylish, discrete chunks.
Then during the summer, New Yorkers were flocking to the South Street Seaport to see La Vie and Absinthe, a pair of Cirque du Soleil-like shows that shoehorn spectacular aerial tricks and nifty juggling acts into a themed evening. As it happens, Be did not catch on the way De La Guarda did some years ago--it ran a mere four months, compared with De La Guarda's five years. But, like De La Guarda, it has been tremendously successful at home and on tour. And no one needs to be reminded that the noisy Stomp and the messy Blue Man Group, two older examples of this trend, seem likely to run forever in the Village.
On the one hand, such displays represent a kind of Vegas-ization of theater--more or less content-free, accessible to all, and challenging to none but the prudish. On the other hand, they draw audiences--young ones, in particular--to a kind of entertainment in which sound and movement trump all else. That's not a complete definition of dance, by any means, but it's certainly a reasonable starting-point for arriving at one. So I'm not prepared to bemoan the popularity of a kind of theater that, while it seems to be a diminution of the form defined by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Kander and Ebb, is also an extension of the work of Petipa and Balanchine and Graham and Morris. And anything that stretches the possibilities for performers and audiences has to be welcomed.
Consider the newest entry in this increasingly eclectic genre, Jump. Opening this month at the Union Square Theater, it is a complete category-buster, a comic melange of music (by Dong-June Lee and others) and martial arts (choreographed by Gye-Hwan Park). It was created in Seoul by a Korean theater troupe, the Yegam Theatre Company, and, according to the publicity material, is still selling out there four years later. …