Less than a week after French choreographer Maurice Béjart died at 80, the Ailey company opened its season with a revival of his 1970 Firebird. It's a shock to realize that this production may be many New Yorkers' first exposure to Béjart's work. In 1971, when his Ballet of the Twentieth Century first appeared here, audiences were ecstatic and critics mostly appalled. His mission was to make ballet popular with a generation reared in the '60s. He spoke of ritual, revolution, and spiritual quests. His Bhakti made you want to meditate and burn incense, in case the Hindu gods were as sexy as his male dancers.
A cultivated man, he was also a canny showman, simplifying important ideas in order to make them captivating and easy to read onstage. Critics also took him to task for his heavy-handed approach to music. (On the other hand, Balanchine, that most musical choreographer, once said that he admired Béjart's take on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring).
Stravinsky wrote L'Oiseau de Feu to accompany Mikhail Fokine's 1910 Russian fairy-tale ballet. Béjart's subject is the myth of the reborn phoenix, transported to revolutionary Russia; a leader casts off his blue-gray peasant uniform to reveal a flame-red unitard and embarks on soaring leaps to inspire his comrades. He dies, but another appears to take up the torch (originally, the new leader removed his outer clothing and arose from the mourning crowd; Jamar Roberts just walks onstage in his vermilion duds).
In many ways, Béjart's ultra-clear choreographic patterns remind me of early modern dance. In a close phalanx, moving as one, the nine dancers (both male and female) shift directions suddenly to gaze into threatening darkness; leap, spin, and crawl into contrapuntal squads or solo outbursts; and thrust fists in the air. The male firebird has the flashy, more balletic dancingthe exalted jumps, the beating of feet together in the air. The marvelous Clifton Brownpassionate but unassumingbrings a resilient, big-cat power to the steps (although I miss the incisive footwork of onetime Béjart stars like Paolo Bortoluzzi). At the end of the ballet, design trumps emotion: Béjart opts for a snowflake cluster, raying out from the two interconnected heroes.
In Fredrick Earl Mosley's brand-new Saddle Up!, the stereotypes are what you'd expect: the new-to-town sheriff, randy cowpokes, beruffled sweeties, and a lonesome gal. So are the situations: the frontier wedding, the barroom fisticuffs, the hoedown. Much of the music by Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, and Yo-Yo Ma channels Aaron Copland, although an agitated string passage fizzes up the action in one scene. Much of the movement, too, is what you'd expect, like the simulated galloping (with hobbyhorsesa nice touch), but Mosley adds some twists to the ballet corral. Many of his steps are quirky, unexpected. His phrasing and musicality, however, are a bit iffy. A yearning solo for gorgeous, long-tall Alicia J. Graf looks as if it had been grafted to the music at the last minute.
The cast brings spirit and high good humor to this entertaining trifle. Malik Le Nost as the Sheriff and Antonio Douthit as his rival duke it out with high-level virtuosity. Hope Boykin has a great bit as a bridesmaid posing for photos, stiff as a dollso drunk or just plain weird that she topples over unless well-braced.
The program I saw ended on a choreographic high with Twyla Tharp's 1983 The Golden Section, to music by David Byrne. The Ailey dancers have always had the prowess that this masterwork requires, but they've gotten looser and more at ease in movements that transform dancers into heroes, rocketing to the moon with all possible wit, power, and courage.
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