Theater archives

Tales Retold


“Art is international, but the artist is the product of a nationality, and his principal duty to himself is to express the spirit of his race,” announced choreographer Helen Tamiris in 1928. Many of her peers of the ’30s and ’40s, whether in ballet or modern dance, seconded that—not only by creating pieces that evoked a gritty spirit deemed “American,” but by telling American stories.

Eugene Loring made Billy the Kid in 1938 for Ballet Caravan, the company devoted to Americana that Lincoln Kirstein ran between 1936 and 1941. Sophie Maslow designed Champion, based on the eponymous Ring Lardner short story, for a small modern dance ensemble in 1948. The former evokes the law less prairie, the latter urban lowlife. The characters in both are succinctly sketched in space, their edges as defined as those of a cartoon or a Bauhaus chair.

Loring’s ballet, restored for ABT’s current season, begins with a never-ending procession of pioneers, marching and praying across the frontier, pushed by Aaron Copland’s score. Champion, seen in the recent Limón season, begins with a tableau: spectators at a prizefight reflect what’s happening in the ring with realistic gestures performed in slow motion, while a raucous announcer in the theater balcony calls the shots. Loring applied a little fashionable Freud to excuse his flawed hero: the accidental shooting of his mother warped him; the same dancer plays both mother and dreamed-of sweetheart. One man embodies all his faceless victims. Maslow makes no excuses. Her portrait of a vicious heel is less sympathetic and more ironic than that snarled by Kirk Douglas in the movie based on the same story. While the announcer intermittently screams the successes of this brave “American hero,” she shows him knocking the crutch away from his lame brother, and banging women around.

Maslow’s small-scale work is a gem—a story smartly told, a dance wise in its choreographic conceits (the workout at the gym is especially vivid). The Limón company does it proud. Billy is bigger, more panoramic, stiffer in manner. As staged by Howard Sayette, the ballet still grips an audience with its colorful characters and clever stylizations (a flat hand, thumb up, spells gun; a bandy-legged lope says horseback). Angel Corella’s Billy is splendid: the dour hunk and the frightened boy cohabit in his psyche and transform his physique. Occasionally dancers look uncomfortable with the movement; this can create dead spots and make Billy look like an antique. It is, but it’s also a dramatically bright postcard from the past on a program that closes with Twyla Tharp’s superb Known by Heart—a work also acknowledging its ballet heritage and American to the core.

— In addition to the Lyon Opera Ballet’s venture some repertory of European and American contemporary dance, the company has presented some audacious reconfigurations of classic tales: Maguy Marin’s Cinderella and Coppelia, Angelin Preljocaj’s Romeo and Juliet, and now Mats Ek’s 1992 Carmen.

In a ballet as bold and shiny as the metallic ruffled dresses worn by the women, Ek builds a narrative line that doesn’t deviate much from Prosper Mérimée’s novel and Bizet’s opera: the characters expected to die do so. Micaëla, however, has become M. (Dominique Lainé), a sort of maternal fate figure, and the bull Escamillo faces is Don José. An entourage of soldiers and women frame the story, hurtling through the jagged doorway in what looks like a huge polka-dot fan (set and costume design by Marie-Louise Ekman). When tempers flare, the characters shriek gibberish at one another. In one potent theatrical moment, soldiers deployed in spread-out formation light their cigars simultaneously by swiping formidably large matches against the floor.

But the stylistic distinctions between ballet romances and Ek’s work are stronger and stranger than the tension between Bizet’s melodies and Rodion Shchedrine’s adaptation of them. Carmen is a swaggering, cigar-puffing wench, as gawky as a 10-year-old tomboy and—in Maïté Cebrian-Abad’s interpretation—not particularly seductive. Ek choreographs virtuosic dancing for Escamillo (Thierry Véziès) and José (Pierre Advokatoff), but the movement style emphasizes derangement and non sequiturs, and the excitement the dancing generates has a lot to do with its perversity. Bodies suddenly cant; stiff arms and legs wrench in opposing directions. Soldiers marching in profile turn into jointed wooden dolls.

The oddities are even more pronounced in Ek’s Solo for Two—and more compelling. The marvelous Marketa Plzakova and Yuval Pick explore the parameters of their physical and psychic worlds as if even they couldn’t account for their actions. There’s something almost pre human about them. Perhaps they’re one shape-shifting being. Patches of “beautiful” dancing to Arvo Pärt’s spare, haunting music are studded with curious gestures. Pick is just as likely to thud down on his butt or mime peeing in a corner as thrust a well-trained leg into the air. He and Plzakova intersect in uncomfortable ways; she puts her hand down his trouser leg and out the bottom. Why? They don’t know.

We understand them only in fragments, just as we sometimes see only parts of them protruding into the square doorway of Peder Freiij’s gray wall. Halfway through the dance, they strip and exchange clothes (while a massive staircase trembles at their audacity). Wearing Plzakova’s loose dress instead of his cotton pajamas, Pick becomes softer, swoopier, and less crabbed in his movements. Yet for all their peculiarities, these two are human—irrational, lovable.

— Pierre Droulers’s De l’air et du vent opens the New Europe Festival currently rampaging through Downtown spaces. This French choreographer has assembled intriguing fragments, braided them together, and given them coherence through echoes and repetitions. One imagines he started by thinking of all the ways of construing air and depicting wind—as mundane as inflating a balloon, as witty as tall Stefan Dreher seemingly blown into a jacket someone holds up as he races by. Later, howling and showing claws, Dreher’s hunted by colleagues armed with forks taken from a clothesline where they clank with Philippe Cam’s tempestuous score. The set is by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck. Some scenes are touching: Thomas Hauert stands an arduously long time on the ball of one foot, making minute adjustments in response to invisible cur rents of air. There are some delicious effects, like the silver curtain that rises at the end and then drops, shimmering. No activity lasts long. Storms toss these people (including Carlos de Haro, Martine Lunshof, and Celia Hope Simpson) into impulsive dancing (little jabs and lopes, arms curling or swinging freely from the shoulders). Romance isn’t an issue. They’re like friendly children in a breezy playground, riding the air.