Friday, September 21, 2007

Dance: The Boston Ballet at Guggenheim's Works and Process

I bought a bunch of single student (shhh) tickets for the Works and Process series at the Gugu, which brings in dance companies (and other things in which I'm less interested) to showcase small pieces of their work, interspersed by panel discussion. I'd rather see more dancing, less discussing, and discussions that include the dancers (the discussion only included the company's artistic director and two choreographers), but for $10, a bored girl takes what she can get.

The program consisted of three excerpts. In his introduction, the artistic director (Mikko Nissinen) explained that the company performs three kinds of ballets: traditional (e.g. Swan Lake), neoclassical (basically anything by Balanchine), and contemporary (in which the influences of modern dance are allowed in, to varying degrees). As a dancer, I can drudge up an interest in the first kind, prefer the second kind to the first, but get really excited only about the third. I expected that the program would consist of one of each, but I got lucky, and we actually saw two contemporary pieces (premiered in 2006 and 2007, respectively), and only one short bit of a traditional piece (a pas de deux from Swan Lake that looked, in all honesty, tawdry in comparison to the contemporary pieces that bookended it).

I have nothing but the utmost respect for ballet dancers, who train their bodies into whips of supple steel; I was thrilled by a contemporary ballet performed by the Dance Theater of Harlem when they performed in Berkeley. Then, one night in New York, something possessed me to spontaneously buy a ticket and walk into a Lincoln Center performance of Swan Lake and the thrill was. . . not so much. My problem with traditional ballet (aside from the soporific qualities of Tchaikovsky) is the (and perhaps here I show my Berkeley pedigree) hierarchical, non-egalitarian format. That is, only four people actually dance (two in particular), while another twenty dancers stand in formation and wave their arms around. This is a waste, and it is an insult. It's also not very visually dynamic. And then, there are silly costumes and sets (a trapping of theatricality not much less noxious at the opera), which at best distract from, and at worst occlude, the audience's appreciation of the moving body, the thing we came to see (sorry, old ladies in the box seats, we are not here for the story; the story is, in all honesty, completely retarded).

Therefore, I won't take the time to discuss the pas de deux; it was typical: proficiently performed, despite some flying feathers, and rather tedious. It seemed particularly idiotic after the first piece, excerpted from Helen Pickett's Etesian. Pickett (as the moderator explained when she came out and joined the panel) was a (top-notch professional) ballerina for 17 years (she doesn't look the part). She said the only interesting thing that was said on the panel the entire evening, which is that, when choreographing, she likes to use a ballet lower body, and a modern-dance upper body. What this means, if you don't know much about dance, is that the feet wear toe shoes, the legs are extraordinarily strong and straight, and the upper body is extremely—almost excessively—mobile. We are therefore given the elegance of the elongated leg en pointe, but all of the emotive expression of a torso that can roll and wiggle and thrust and contract, and the arms are not the rigid blades of a windmill, moving only along the surface area of an invisible globe around the dancer's head—they too roll and wiggle and thrust and contract. This makes for beautiful, emotive, and interesting dance.

The stage in the Gugu's Sackler Center is small, and Pickett ought to have removed a few dancers in order to accommodate that (eight bodies exploring their full range of motion looked crowded and, at times, messy, in the limited space), but that is my only complaint. It was a problem for the third piece as well, excerpted from Jorma Elo's Brake the Eyes. This was a barefoot dance (shocking, for a ballet company), and much more cerebral than the first. It did feature a prima ballerina of sorts—a lead female who danced a seemingly deranged character and would regularly break out into nattering, high-pitched speech in an unidentified foreign language, and then a burst of disturbing, higher-pitched laughter. She danced with three men and five woman who did quite a bit of dancing themselves, and the music came from Mozart, but was "sound designed" such that it was broken into pieces, interspersed with silences and then threatening low rumbles and banging (imagine the idyllic golden world of the Eloi interrupted by the incipient threat of the Morlocks*) There seemed to be a correspondence between the changes in the music and the appearance of the disturbed ballerina. The movements were often rigid and automaton-like (the choreographer (and the artistic director)) is Finnish, and I couldn't help but note the detached, hyper-intellectual aesthetic as particularly Nordic. Ultimately I think I prefer the timeless cerebral coupling of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, but for a ballet company, this is very avant-garde, and somewhat satisfying.

*In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine

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