Magazine article The New Yorker

The Human Touch Dancing

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Human Touch Dancing

Article excerpt

On the surface, American Ballet Theatre looks as though it's becoming more and more like itself, a conservative opera-house troupe delivering the old-time religion--"Swan Lake," guest stars, multiple pirouettes--while now and then also putting on lame new pieces. Yet there does seem to be a change at A.B.T. since Kevin McKenzie took over as artistic director a decade ago. Basically, the classics are looking better and better, and the new ballets are getting worse.

I wonder if there is not another company history operating here. McKenzie grew up as a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet in the nineteen-seventies. The Joffrey still exists, in reduced form, in Chicago, but during the "dance boom" of the sixties and seventies it was an important New York troupe, with a curious repertory. On the one hand, it specialized in reviving excellent ballets from the early twentieth century--works by Frederick Ashton, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine, to name a few--which Robert Joffrey, the company's director, loved, and reconstructed with tender care. On the other hand, night after night these old beauties appeared on the same program with the dopey "youth" ballets of Gerald Arpino, the company's associate director. How could a company (or an audience) that liked Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun" also like Arpino's "Trinity," with kids making out on the floor? I don't know, but the combination may have created a fruitful synergy. That is, Arpino's flower-power ballets may have given the young Joffrey dancers a feeling of validation (these were the generation-gap days), which then fuelled their commitment to the old pieces. Whatever they did, the Joffrey dancers performed as if they were on fire.

Now look at McKenzie's A.B.T. How could a director who last spring presented Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee" and "The Dream"--both hands-down masterpieces--have produced, in the following season, the new "Within You Without You," in which the dancers jogged around in jeans to George Harrison songs? Well, remember the Joffrey. Arpino did not choreograph "Within You Without You," but it sure looked like his work. As for the Ashton ballets, they were revived by the Joffrey before they were picked up by McKenzie. A.B.T. may even be profiting from a Joffrey-style energy transfer. In all the repertory--the treasures, the trash--the dancers perform with what seems a burning belief in their material.

This makes for superb renderings of the older ballets. So should we just take our half a loaf and go home? I guess so, but really, the other half is very bad. This season, by way of new work, the company brought forth an evening-long bag of wind called "HereAfter," with a cast of forty-five, a chorus of a hundred and twenty, and what looked like about a million dollars' worth of sets (including a space module) and costumes by Santo Loquasto. The ballet even had two choreographers--Natalie Weir, the resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet, and Stanton Welch, another Australian, who was recently named the artistic director of Houston Ballet--working with two separate scores: John Adams's "Harmonium," for Weir's Part 1, and Carl Orff's warhorse "Carmina Burana," for Welch's Part 2. Despite the split authorship, both parts seemed to have been choreographed by a teen-ager who had just read Khalil Gibran. According to the program notes, Weir's section was about the "examination of one's life"; Welch's, about the "journey of a man's life." In each, a bare-chested fellow called the Man--Marcelo Gomes as Weir's Man, Ethan Stiefel as Welch's, in the cast I saw--appeared before us. He soon met up with various women, of the sacred and profane varieties, and he had intense experiences, which looked sometimes like the Stations of the Cross and sometimes like sexual intercourse. At the end of Part 1, the Man died. At the end of Part 2, the other Man died, whereupon the first Man reappeared (the eternal return), at the top of a staircase. …

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