Tripping Around

European Folktale at ABT; Postmodern Moves in Prague and Bratislava

You may remember from your school days that Robert Browning's folktale poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," is about two important journeys. The piper plays, and the rats infesting the town caper after him and drown in the river. Refused payment by the stingy inhabitants, he leads all the children away through a door in a hill. The major flaw in American Ballet Theatre's newest spectacle is that choreographer David Parsons creates no journeys either moral or physical.

John Corigliano's dazzling Pied Piper Fantasy (1981) for orchestra and virtuoso flute does press onward, even though it's more a tone poem than a dramatic score. But when Michael Curry's wonderful rat body-puppets and slithery little red-eyed rodents on sticks surround the piper and he learns that he can't frighten them, his more lyrical tune simply makes them fade away. He doesn't take the children anywhere; they march round and round after him, while the adults, in a stationary seething cluster, reach out in vain. Only at the end, in one of Michaela Zabranska's innovative digital designs, do the kids travel, their tiny images drifting up the cyclorama like figures in a video game (I think they become stars).

The stage looks cluttered because the action boils around without clear dramatic focus. And Ann Hould-Ward's costumes turn the nasty townspeople led by the greedy, long-fingered Councilman (Clinton Luckett) into bundles of squabbling clothes. When they pull a banquet table (just a laden red cloth—a clever idea) around the stage, we can scarcely see the children—boys and girls alike dressed in plain little blue suits—trying to get some food and being shoved away.

To give the tale a sweeter touch, Parsons suggests that the children are abused; the piper takes them to a better place. To match the psychological dimensions of Corigliano's shimmering opening, he has given the piper three "aspects": the volatile young hero, his wiser self, and a child self. In one telling passage, the older man plays his flute and the starry sky becomes oil-slick rainbows and sprouting plants; the hero has to work at achieving a similar effect. However, if, as Balanchine said, sisters-in-law are difficult to show in ballet, aspects are harder. The "mentor" (I saw Guillaume Graffin) dies like a father, and the child (Chase Finlay) simply becomes a cipher. Joaquin de Luz plays the numero uno piper with all the elfin virtuosity that Parsons built into the role; leaps and multiple pirouettes of all sorts cascade like flautist Carol Wincenc's tongue flutters.

This is definitely a ballet conceived to bring in the bucks. But the usually inventive Parsons hasn't contrived enough material to match the bigness of Corigliano's score. The Pied Piper seems neither meaty enough for grown-ups nor clear enough for kids.


I'm thinking of becoming a specialist in culture shock. In the old town square in Prague, where I've come to deliver some lectures, the buildings' rampant baroque beauty competes with an immense video screen showing the final game of the world ice hockey championship (the Czech Republic—in the process of winning the title for a third year—versus Finland). To further entertain the crowd, a group of teenagers in silver sequins prances to head-banging rock. But when each hour strikes, the town hall clock's parading saints show their sculptured faces at the tower's little doors, as they've been doing for centuries.

The dance performances I see are anything but baroque. In a funky little theater in a building housing three bars, choreographer Kristyna Lhotáková and composer-musician Ladislav Soukup offer an austere menu of sights and sounds, enlivened briefly by the entrance of some rowdy dogs and their masters. Lhotáková—waifish and very focused as a performer—has been watching people in public places. To start transit!, for instance, the two dancers and three musicians travel wanly from point to point, feeding into a canon of actions: Lie down and pull a blanket over yourself; stand up and completely bandage your head with it; fall down; stay there a while; get up and walk to a new station. At the end, all stand in front of mics and silently push their faces around. The work is interesting, just a bit thin.

Lhotáková is a recent graduate of the Duncan Centre, a conservatory that teaches Isadora's philosophy of dance (although not her technique). Duncan would have admired the creative intelligence shown in a concert by five members of the graduating class, but their body language might well have baffled her. In Kristyna Celbová's fascinating Up Down Right Left, five people, looking startled, pop their heads and arms from behind flat green "hills." Once in full view, in dowdy clothes, they're stiff and uncertain, blinking in the sun, crouching and peering like hicks just come to town. The various disjunctive episodes evoke an atmosphere as elusive and as penetrating as perfume.

The young choreographers understand subtleties of gesture and facial expression. As the evening progresses, though, I become more and more puzzled by their predilection for extremely constricted movement, often channeled into two dimensions. In Come and Play, choreographer Petra Púciková and Mariana Jamníková toddle about like two dolls, or like a semi-doll playing with a doll (one hopscotches, the other tries). This is not cute, but rather scary—an adventure in expressionistic minimalism. The evening's wildest moment: In a nutty satire of TV game shows, Lenka Bartunkova rewards a contestant from the audience with a furiously inept topless solo, which we see, backlit, through a folding screen. Is the repressed physicality a chosen style? A contagion within the school?

The pretty "old town" in Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic, is smaller than Prague's, and a wide bridge and a highway built by the Soviets split it in two (the ancient Jewish quarter was destroyed in the process). For the fifth year, undaunted by financial struggles, the Bratislava in Movement Association has staged a weeklong festival in three different theaters, usually with two different shows per night.

The Slovakian choreographers seem to like their movement juicier, and their ideas, mostly focusing on emotional relationships, fit in with trends and themes seen elsewhere, like those wheeling, over-the-back lifts grandfathered by contact improvisation. A Play With Time, made by Milan Kozánek for the Studio of Dance in Bánska Bystrica, shows an idyllic white world of flowing, resilient, evenly paced movement; excellently danced, its circles, clusters, and seated watchers imply community, but Kozánek pulls back from really working the idea. The company's director, Zuzana Hajkova, creates a clever scaffolding for exploring women's roles in her I Haven't Written to You for So Long. Intermittently, two men read letters sent by young girls and women to their friends. In one lovely moment, Lucia Kasiarova, Eva Klimackova (especially fine), and Stanislava Vlcekova sit and touch one another gently with their fingertips, as if exploring a map of another country to verify its similarities to their own. A rather banal scene of domestic chores is redeemed by a beautiful ending, the women walking on glass jars pulled from a sort of big metal egg crate; in magical light by Jan Cief they step, helped by the men, along paths of their own creation.

I suspect none of these choreographers gets preperformance feedback on their work. Many seem to run out of steam long before they're done. This is certainly true of three duets, each about a couple's rocky journey. The most harmonious, One Yin for Every Yang, by Kozánek and his wife Zuzana Kozánkova of Artyci Dance, is also the most abstract, a matter of repeating patterns to mechanistic percussion or New Age waves. Disagreement, if any, is as mild as facing different directions or being out of sync. The wonderful young dancer Milano Tomasik (clear, unaffected, and technically strong) co-choreographed Zluftu with Katte Mojzisová, who projects a sharp, more calculating personality. What's admirable about their dance passages is the varied dynamic shadings and the dramatic timing; what's eventually numbing is the number of times sequences—which include banging into the walls and sitting in the front row—repeat.

Peter Groll's In a Minor Key, also drawn out, is wonderfully performed by Petra Fornayova and Daniel Racek. I admire the clever ways Groll suggests elements of their life together: Racek becomes almost fanatically engrossed in measuring with his hands the distances between certain points on the floor. Fornayová, ignored, tentatively tries copying him; he's startled, then touched.

The imagery in Fornayová's solo Half-moon Bear stays with me. Wrapped in a clumsy bundle of thin foam rubber pierced with rows of holes, the crouching woman holds at arm's length three peacock feathers that seem to betoken a feared sensuality in herself. Gradually the feathers "seduce" her, make her shed her bulky wrap, dance freely, and wend her way between the little trees formed by the feathers, which she has stood on end. Suddenly recovering her inhibitions, she snatches up the garment again, but three more feathers await her.

It's heartening to see all this contemporary activity in countries that, prior to the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, understood stage dance primarily as ballet.

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