Theater archives

In-flight Ballet


And you thought 19th-century ballet scenarios were illogical! If your mind doesn’t instantly turn to crème caramel at the sight of masculine torsos emerging from feathered white bloomers, you may have a few questions about Matthew Bourne’s smash-hit, boy-bird update of Swan Lake. Why does the Queen’s private secretary (who’s also handy at nasty surgical operations) want the Prince out of the way so very badly? Is he in line for the succession? How is it that a leather-clad stranger with a whip (Bourne’s “Black Swan”) can crash a palace ball set up to introduce the Prince to various jet-set princesses, and all but stub his cigarette out on the Queen’s shoulder? How can this interloper have been coached to show traces of swannishness, when the secretary–Bourne’s equivalent of the sorcerer Von Rothbart–isn’t part of the lakeside crowd and can’t have known about the naive and unloved Prince’s rapture amid strong wings?

The cheering crowds care not; Bourne’s creation is ingenious and tremendously theatrical and pokes fun at the sodden British monarchy. Scott Ambler even looks like a handsome Prince Charles. Fiona Chadwick plays the Queen as part Princess Margaret, part film-noir ice bitch. A temptress (Emily Piercy) carries on like a vulgarian Fergy. Playing in a Broadway house, suavely staged and excellently acted, the production’s more nonvocal musical comedy than ballet. You can almost hear songs: “Let Soft Wings Enfold Me,” “Shape Up, Your Highness,” “Another Day, Another Officer of the Guard” (to be sung by the Queen). The opening number–crackling with drill-team precision and sharp jokes–gets the young Prince dressed and educated in minutes.

Tchaikovsky fares moderately well, given the thin texture the small pit orchestra musters. Bourne is pretty musical. And what of ballet? Better ask, what ballet? Except for a butterfly entertainment (a satire of late-19th-century classicism in decline) which the royal entourage attends, the styles range from modern dance (the barefoot swans with their sinuous arms, pecking heads, and predatory crawling) to music hall (the Queen with her guardsmen), ’60s-ish disco, and beyond-tango. Some of the numbers are impressive, especially one for four bad-boy “little swans,” a Spanish dance, a czardas, one of the Swan’s solos, and a padded-cell moment for the Prince. Surprisingly, although the performing is virtuosic, the dancing isn’t. Neither Bourne nor charismatic dancer Adam Cooper presents the Swan as an image of unattainable beauty or magical achievement; he’s a tough creature–as much surrogate parent as romantic interest, but warmer enough than the court crowd to seem loving to the poor Prince.

Cooper is stunningly lascivious in the second act, mauling the seven glamorous princesses as if pulling legs apart and nuzzling bosoms were his equivalent of high tea. Ambler and Chadwick turn in marvelous performances. Wilson E. Batista stands out in several scenes. In the end, what seems most admirable about Bourne is his ability to paint a picture that’s rich in detail. Often what’s going on in the background is as interesting as the front-and-center show. Poetry may be lacking in this Swan Lake, but with lashings of violent sex and the novelty of brawny flocks skillfully deployed,
P. I. Tchaikovsky appears to have stormed Broadway.

Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet score; “green yet ultimately golden” is how Robert Greskovic refers to it. If you don’t know much about ballet and feel awkward asking what a choreographer is or what critics mean when they talk about “line,” you need Greskovic’s Ballet 101. If you know a lot about ballet, you need it too. Where else, for instance, could you find a smartly annotated videography of every ballet available in America’s NTSC format?

More than a portable survey course, the book’s a walk through ballet history and conventions guided by a a fastidious eye and an encyclopedic memory. Discussing companies, gems of the repertory, famous dancers, and choreographic style, he’s occasionally tart, but friendly and fair-minded, even though his personal views are evident. His listing of ballerinas as either “aerial and/or lyrical” descendants of Marie Taglioni or excelling in terre à terre dancing and/or with a “clear classical bent” like Taglioni’s rival Fanny Elssler could send ballet buffs into hours of argument (Alessandra Ferri a Taglionist? Kyra Nichols an Elsslerite?).

Greskovic wants readers to see that ballet isn’t arcane, but easy to comprehend. At the same time, he obviously believes that the more we know about it, the better we’ll love it. Ballet jokes and insider chat serve to keep us loose while he educates us. And educate he does. After a whirlwind history of ballet and a look at various companies and choreographers, he launches into a meaty section on dancers (which contains an especially fine little essay called “Men and Women at Work”). He walks us, step by step, through 14 famous ballets, from Swan Lake to Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. So thorough is he that I’m surprised by the rare times he skimps on information (he identifies the founder of the Mordkin Ballet only as “an ex-Bolshoi dancer,” failing to link him with the Mikhail Mordkin he’s mentioned twice before; he says that the tourists visiting Tintagel in Ashton’s Picnic at Tintagel are transformed into “medieval personages,” but not that they reenact the drama of
Tristram and Iseult). On the other hand, he occasionally gives us more details than we need–that the French spell Nureyev “Noureev” or that 17th-century ballerina Mlle. de la Fontaine was not related to Margot Fonteyn.

In Ballet 101 insights mold information. Greskovic links Balanchine’s Serenade and Fokine’s Les Sylphides as “ballets of mood” that nonetheless reflect early- and mid-20th-century differences. He suggests that Serge Lifar’s experiments at the Paris Opera in the ’30s deemphasized turnout and thus altered the look of French classical dancing. Some of his language is in itself illuminating. “The flattened, angular postures and moves of Nijinsky’s choreography [for Afternoon of a Faun] passed through the music’s lush atmosphere like ships through a fog.”

There’s some sloppy copyediting (one example
of bollixed sentence order makes the pas de deux appear to be a definition of the pas d’action instead of its centerpiece). And it’s best not to get hung up on the titles given to the short chapters, such as “America, Ballet, and Balanchine” followed by “America, New York City, and Ballet.” What matters, as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s introduction makes clear, is the scope of Greskovic’s knowledge and the lively grace with which he passes it on.

One of the images in Airborne, the latest, beautifully designed collection of Lois Greenfield’s dance photographs, is of Ashley Roland sitting on air; her hair flies up, but she’s gazing serenely at a star of light hovering just above one hand. Text tells us the light comes from a camera flash (Roland snapped Greenfield snapping her), but on the page it’s mysterious. All Greenfield’s greatest pictures have that strangeness. Caught in midair or clustered on the ground, nude or–as in a stunning shot of Roland–cocooned in a spiraling plastic bag, the dancers in her compositions float, isolated from any implications of past or future. We know a leap must come down, but Greenfield can make us believe otherwise.

During the golden years when Greenfield’s photos regularly accompanied this column, I came to realize that she didn’t just record dance moments, she created them. In terms of daring and sculptural beauty, some of these pictures, shot for her own pleasure, outstrip what she’s done before. One shows Gail Gilbert arching backward almost to the floor, a sheer scarf flying up around her. It could be titled “The Spirit of Dance,” and, gazing at it, you grasp for a second something essential about our tricky daily comradeship with gravity.