Darkness Into Light

Modern Dance Titans Jump-Start ABT’s Spring Season

At American Ballet Theatre's opening-night gala last week, Paul Taylor's new Black Tuesday followed the sweeping Prokofiev waltz from Ben Stevenson's Cinderella and gave way to a cornucopia of star turns to whet our appetites for the season (through June 23). Taylor's piece seemed undercooked, dwarfed by the Metropolitan Opera House stage, but on ABT's second night, flanked by The Brahms-Haydn VariationsTwyla Tharp's gorgeous feast of flying counterpoint—and by Mark Morris's striking new Gong, Black Tuesday struck at the heart, and it seemed appropriate that people dancing to a medley of Depression-era songs should look small compared to Santo Loquasto's great arch, up through which rear the girders of an el train and a nighttime skyline. The money that built these massive structures is in short supply to those reduced to sleeping beneath them.

Taylor's dances, like the songs, cloak the dark reality with a lilting escapism. People in a wonderful assortment of drab/glam clothes (also by Loquasto) polka, skip, break into the Charleston, vault into leaps. Marian Butler, dressed like a boy, faces down the "Big Bad Wolf" at the door with index-finger pistols. To "Underneath the Arches," Jerry Douglas and Sean Stewart hoof through a music-hall turn. However, as in Taylor's Company B (to the Andrews Sisters' jaunty World War II songs), the choreography offers subtle yet mordantly ironic counterpoint to the lyrics. While the long-ago recorded voice of Connie Boswell pours out the rueful "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" like sweet cream, Erica Cornejo dances desperation. The plucky girl who craves a man (Karin Ellis-Wentz) is notably pregnant; she falls, picks herself up and goes on, and later, when the group forms up for a reel, she jumps to crash stomachs with a partner. A housewife's plea to her mate, "Are You Making Any Money?" becomes a grimly comic scene of a pimp (Marcelo Gomes) shoving and hauling his three whores (Elizabeth Gaither, Anne Milewski, and Cornejo) to work.

When Ethan Stiefel dances—with superb yet understated dynamic inflections—the final song, E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gurney's haunting "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" sung by a young Bing Crosby, he's sporting what could be army medals. Taylor and Stiefel give a bitter energy to the singer's pride in former accomplishments like bridge building and fighting for his country. Stiefel's marching is almost out of control; he leaps and is struck down, rolls, and rises. The whole cast joins him in rushing to the footlights, hands held out; Jennifer Tipton's lighting suddenly picks those palms out of the darkness.

Popsicle dream: ABT’s Marta Rodriguez-Coco in Mark Morris’s Gong
photo: Cary Conover
Popsicle dream: ABT’s Marta Rodriguez-Coco in Mark Morris’s Gong

Except for Stiefel and Gomes, all these dancers are in the corps de ballet. They do ABT and Taylor proud.

Even after an intermission, Morris's Gong comes as a shock. Michael Chybowski's lighting confronts us with high noon, and Isaac Mizrahi dresses the dancers in Popsicle colors. I'm still blinking when the performers start peeling away from a line and raise prayer-hands above their heads. Five demi-soloist women wear tiny space-age tutus over tights banded to resemble Balinese pants. Angel Corella, Robert Hill, Giuseppe Picone, Isaac Stappas, and Stewart sport earrings. The five principal women (Cornejo, Susan Jaffe, Anna Liceica, Amanda McKerrow, and Michele Wiles) are clothed in big flat tutus, also over banded tights.

Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan, for two pianos and orchestra, was inspired by Balinese music; in quieter sections, the pianos sound a little like a gamelan. Morris uses the ballet vocabulary, but also occasional wide-legged, bent-kneed steps. In a pas de deux, Cornejo assumes a lunge, and Picone "promenades" her by grasping one forearm and walking around her. As in both ballet and Balinese dance, the feeling is formal and music controls the rhythms of the movements. The pattern Morris builds with bodies and his clever interplays of symmetry and asymmetry freeze pictures for the eye the way many Asian dance forms do, yet those pictures keep moving. I'm speaking not just of spinning circle formations and hang-in-air leaps, but of seemingly static, frontally oriented designs that travel as if being pulled past us on wheels.

There are more blatantly three-dimensional exceptions to these austere yet scintillating friezelike allusions, such as two striking pas de deux in silence; the first, danced by Stewart and the beautifully silky McKerrow, contrasts smoothness and suddenness and contains some startling turns. Three men briefly lift and toss one another.

Watching Tharp's ballet, your eyes constantly dart to follow the canons careering through the ranks. Morris busies you in another way. He might almost be flipping through a sheaf of pictures showing superb dancers in action, now and then pausing to say, "Now, that's one of my favorites!"


This could be a play, you think, as the lights come on for Maguy Marin's Pour Ainsi Dire at the New Victory (April). A small room, walls with pictures and a cuckoo clock, an old sofa, chairs, three despondent people in shabby clothes. Potted plants edge the stage. Suddenly the people erupt into shrieks and gibberish. Musical crashes hurl them to the floor. Body mics pick up the sound of teeth biting hard.

New Yorkers have seen a couple of Marin's Beckettian pieces and her big, drastically revamped ballet classics (Cinderella and Coppelia). This atypically small work is an exercise in absurdist dance theater. Realities are repeated and rearranged with daunting precision, and communication seems a mountainous task. The three performers move the walls to reconfigure the space, but on a deeper level little changes. Laurent Frick scrubs fanatically at a small picture. No matter how many languages Laura Frigato tries, she can't get him to tell her what he's doing. It takes a while to realize that he may be controlling Denis Mariotte's music.

Frick, Frigato, and Alessandro Sabatini—all of them disarming—do dance: chunky little sequences of steps and gestures in which picking up a foot to examine the sole becomes part of a rhythmic phrase. But dancing is only one of their curious tasks. At various times, each places his or her head in a picture frame, and another describes the framed one's physical attributes. They enter in helmets, realize they've made a mistake, and go away to take them off. They offer the audience abandoned articles. They lie down and chant vocal rhythms. They read lists aloud. Frick selects a second tie from an electrically rotating rack. This is a ménage à trois lost in space.

In a charming and anomalous scene near the end, Frigato laboriously climbs onto Sabatini's shoulders and peers over the top of a wall. Oh! She can see the whole of her native Italy, and she hauls up a package from home. A salami, a Pinocchio doll, a tambourine, a horn! The men accompany her while she sings a nostalgic little song, and all move into a stiff, wheeling dance. On some level, they've communicated.

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