L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, April 23, 2011

At the Ballet

Gigi and I went to the ballet the other night. We get in a fair amount of live performance, though dance isn't something we see very often. But we attended the opening night of Song and Dance, a program of four pieces put on by our own Oregon Ballet Theatre. A classic Balanchine piece, two contemporary pieces, including one set to rap and hip-hop, and the last piece choreographed to Cole Porter songs. As someone who is very "classical" in all things, it was a surprise that the two more traditional dances left me a bit cold, while I thought the "modern" ones were amazing.

Balanchine, of course, was the great God of twentieth-century ballet. Few, if any, are still more respected. My actual knowledge of dance is extremely limited, but my understanding is that the great respect - reverence - shown to Balanchine most often relates to the extreme purity of his choreography. Clean, cold, naked in its precise line. He set a lot of dance in a very long career; his earliest great work was with Diaghilev. I don't know how Square Dance rates in his oeuvre, but I have to say I couldn't really appreciate it. Set to Vivaldi and Corelli with a square dance caller, it seemed as though it should have been cheekily delightful - the caller certainly was - but it just wouldn't come together for me. Aside from one elegant solo by OBT principal Chauncey Parsons, most of the piece seemed like a strained-for joke. Nothing wrong with the company or performance, I just didn't care for the concept. Or the choreography - God help me for saying so!

The final piece, Eyes on You, was exactly what I suppose it was designed to be: a crowd pleaser. Set by the company's artistic director, Christopher Stowell, it was beautiful to look at. Limiting the "set design" to almost nothing but lighting - in a perfectly judged choice of alternating red, yellow, and blue - with nicely textured, thirties-style, all-white costumes - which was something far better than the cheesy pastiche period costuming one so often sees - it was a smart and attractive production. The dancing was well done, but I feel the choreography could have been sharper. This sort of number easily falls into "too cute" unless the choreography is really smart. Especially in dealing with the larger groups, there were several lost opportunities for patterning that could have taken this endeavor to a higher level. Grouped movement that began well, looked as though it was developing into...and then it didn't. I wonder why, so often in dance, the most exciting parts are the solos and duos; bring everyone on stage and things often go flat. Maybe choreographers should take a look at (non-dance-trained) Busby Berkeley's notebook on how to stage large-scale groups; it might not be "pure", but it might be a lot more effective. And how appropriate his exhilarating sort of patterning could be in something just like this, set in the thirties as it is.

The other two works of the evening I enjoyed immensely. Speak was two short, related pieces created by Trey McIntyre, a very hot property in the dance world. Blank stage, rap/hip-hop style costumes - I guess you'd call them that; what do I know? - a solo and a duo, it was just delightful. I don't pretend to understand how it worked, any more than I "get" the music used. But it was so obviously smart, funny, unexpected - and beautiful - that any understanding beyond the recognition of those qualities isn't really necessary, I think. It's so good, that that is enough. You get it.

The big highlight of the evening for me was Left Unsaid, an amazing piece for six dancers set to music for solo violin by Bach. Made up of vignettes that faded in and out - solos, duos, many different combinations of dancers - it was created by Nicolo Fonte, certainly a world-class choreographer, certainly a world-class piece. Very abstract, very spare, monochromatic, dimly lit - all things that I might find off-putting - I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Three chairs, three men's jackets, a screen at the back of the stage that went up and down slightly. That was the "set design". And the dancing was fantastic. Everyone. Exceptional dancing.

I don't know enough of choreography to be able to really explain what I experienced but, stepping away from the plain wonder of what the dancers were accomplishing, I kept thinking how fluid and un-repetitive it all seemed. So much dance - great or not - seems to have repetitive movement: strike a pose and repeat, strike a pose and repeat. And so many ta-da moments that seem designed to call attention to themselves. This was completely fluid, every movement led from one to the next and never seemed to repeat. Never called attention to itself. Even when it was dramatic or exceptionally beautiful each movement was completely integrated to the whole. At the same time, the choreography was often so incredibly intricate, the transitions and positions so unexpected, that I found myself holding my breath. From plain excitement.

And one of the biggest surprises for me, watching this very abstract, minimal work of art, was how moved I was by it. It really got to me. There was a feeling of story in the choreography, even if there wasn't one. And an expression of emotion in the movement - not at all acted out - that was accessed in the most subconscious way. It was so moving, and inexplicable in delivering the gift of that emotion. I love it when a work of art knocks me flat, and I don't even know how I got there!

As I understand it, the choreography is influenced by Fonte's practice of Iyengar yoga and takes some inspiration from the novel The Golden Compass. Neither of those elements is familiar to me. And are, honestly, totally unimportant to my experience. As I said of Speak, I don't think I needed to understand anything about this work. I just let it wash over me. And this performance of Left Unsaid was some of the best, most satisfying dance I've ever been fortunate to witness.


It wasn't until we got home and I read more of the program did I realize that principal Anne Mueller would be retiring as a dancer at the conclusion of this run. She danced in three of the four pieces we saw. All three incredibly different. And she was superb in them all. I don't know how old she is, but she's been with the company for fifteen years. And a still-young person can be a very-old dancer. But how do you give up something like that? Something that she's been living every day since she was a child, I'm sure. How do you just say, I'll stop now?

I can't imagine what it's like to be so attuned to one's body, to understand and be able to calibrate its exact placement in space. As someone who has such poor balance, who's so completely out of touch with his body - if you said to me, "quick, where's your left elbow!", it might take me a shockingly long time to come up with an answer - I just have to marvel at the amazing control and sensitivity a great dancer has in communion with his or her body. The language of movement, the language spoken by the body of a dancer is something I'll never be able to comprehend. And when I see really great dancing its beauty is almost terrifying to me. Which is a rather odd thing to say, I suppose. But there's always something for me about watching a great dancer in action - on stage or on film, classical ballet or Fred Astaire - that makes me think I could dance, too. The perfection of it and the seeming effortlessness somehow put the perverse belief into me that I could actually do that: the music swells and I elegantly rise and fling myself into glorious, effortless dancing. All around the room. Or down the street, like they do in the movies. I always have to struggle to tamp down this madness because, if I ever let loose and threw my real weight behind my incautious imagining, my ignorant body could really hurt itself.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I love everything you say here - even though I did like the choreography of the Ballanchine, myself. :)

    Lovely review and musings on the evening and on dance itself.