Magazine article The New Yorker

Razzmatazz; Dancing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Razzmatazz; Dancing

Article excerpt

What would our American dance producers do without European goods to sell? Give up, probably. At series like bam's Next Wave Festival and the Lincoln Center Festival, a good seat usually costs fifty dollars or more. At such prices, you need to attract more than the art crowd. You have to bring in the burghers, and what they want to see on a Saturday night is a substantial show, something with costumes and sets and a story, something perhaps like Broadway or the opera, which is where they would be if they weren't at bam. From most American dance you won't get that. At the current rate of arts funding in this country, our companies can barely afford leotards. But money is only one reason. There are others--for example, the influence of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. Put those factors together, plus a few others, and what you have is a sturdy, decades-long tradition of abstraction in American dance. For the most part, our choreographers have been modernists, in the Clement Greenbergian sense. Their primary concern has been their medium, dance.

While all that was coalescing over here, people in Europe were voting huge subsidies for the arts, which were part of their national pride. They were also living lives different from ours. In the First and Second World Wars, the Europeans saw their universe laid waste, as we did not. Consequently, I believe, many of them could not give up representation, narration. They had to keep talking about the modern world, trying to figure out how it turned out the way it did. A good example is Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theatre, which has appeared at bam repeatedly in the past two decades. Its name notwithstanding, this company doesn't dance much. Bausch's shows are basically assemblages of skits in which, amid elaborate stagecraft, old beauties and hypocrisies are contrasted with the frank predations of modern life. Actually, over the years some Americans--Robert Wilson, Trisha Brown, Mark Morris--decided that they, too, wanted to put on big, history-freighted spectacles, but, the money situation being what it was, they did so mainly in Europe. Later, these shows were picked up by American presenters.

Some Americans with a taste for splash have even moved to Europe--for example, John Neumeier, a Milwaukeean who took over Germany's Hamburg Ballet in 1973. Neumeier is perhaps the most grandiose European-based Gesamtkunstwerker, and also the most naive. He specializes in updated story ballets and in large, gassy pieces, often to Mahler, about the soul of man. These days, however, he seems to be interested in something more pointed. In 1998, at the Lincoln Center Festival, we saw his "Bernstein Dances," which used four hundred and twenty-seven costumes, a vast armamentarium of sets, and two and a half hours of our time to address what was supposedly Leonard Bernstein's anguish over his bisexuality. A few months ago, at City Center, we got Neumeier's "Nijinsky," which laid on a similar amount of stagecraft to deal with Vaslav Nijinsky's putative struggle with his bisexuality, and his ultimate--or, the show seemed to say, consequent--collapse into schizophrenia.

The story of Nijinsky has lent itself to many cornball adaptations--films, plays, ballets--but Neumeier's version pretty much takes the cake. It opens with the dancer's last performance, in a hotel ballroom in Saint-Moritz, in 1919. Our hero, played by Jiri Bubenicek, stalks in wearing a chaste white robe, which he sheds theatrically. He starts to do a dance, but it soon devolves into flailing. That's his madness emerging, though the pathos is somewhat undercut by Bubenicek's peekaboo jacket, which keeps flapping open to reveal his handsome bare chest. Now come the hallucinations. Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky's former lover, turns up, as do Nijinsky's brother, his sister, and his parents. Then in comes a gang of additional Nijinskys, performing snatches from his famous roles in "Scheherazade," "Petrouchka," "The Afternoon of a Faun," and "The Spectre of the Rose. …

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