“I liked the second ballet,” the man behind me told his wife, “but I didn’t understand it.” The piece in question was Christian Spuck’s Dos Amores, which the Stuttgart Ballet, under Reid Anderson’s direction, presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to kick off a seven-city U.S. tour. Dos Amores started me wondering too. Not about Spuck’s talent—that’s apparent—but about the trendy, eye-grabbing disjunctiveness cropping up in modern ballet. Is anomie the cause, or MTV?
I’m usually charmed by dance’s capacity for enigma, but what was going on in Spuck’s head? In this, his third ballet (he dances with the company), why interrupt quiet contemporary tickings and scratchy thunder by Thierry De Mey or Dieter Fenchel with Vivaldi allegros and adagios? What are the connections between six large silver plumb bobs, which the 12 dancers set swinging to great visual effect, and whispered love poems by Pablo Neruda in Spanish? Why do some of the men suddenly appear in gorgeous scarlet and purple silk skirts with corset lacing (by Miro Paternostro) and the women don scarlet tailcoats over their fleshings? And the red blindfolds? Amid the swinging pendulums, the dancers attack sculptural twistings, dramatic mysteries, and bright unison with élan, as if they knew what Spuck was up to, or could pretend they did.
Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti is equally relaxed about meaning and the implications of his ballet’s title, Kazimir’s Colors. The hues favored by Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich appear in Lucia Socci’s multicolored jackets, which disappear after the opening. The dancing, to Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Orchestra, is generally fast-footed and perky, but suddenly Robert Tewsley clamps a hand around drooping Bridget Breiner’s elbow, and then makes slow, startling cat’s cradles with her limber body for a very long time. When she gets independent and leaves, other women, including the sumptuous Kanako Sakamoto, fail to impress him, judging by his many wrenching turns.
You don’t have to puzzle over R.B.M.E. by company founder John Cranko. Not just a 1972 homage to four favorite dancers, it gives many individuals a chance to shine amid the intricate rushings of the ensemble. In today’s company, Tewsley, Breiner of the lovely feet (and her partner, Ivan Cavallari), Julia Krämer, and Thomas Lempertz cannot duplicate the unique qualities of Richard Cragun, Marcia Haydée, Birgit Keil, and Egon Madsen, but they perform with devotion and skill. Cranko’s approach to Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is unsettling, fidgety. You feel that he noted the music’s counts, rather than hearing the inner shape of its phrases. He is, however, a whiz with spatial patterns, varying and turning them around like a master artist on the kaleidoscope.
** Philippe Decouflé’s Abracadabra, part of a “Dance on Camera Festival 2000” program, also juggles non sequiturs (plus camera wizardry) with the ease of MTV. The title covers whatever magic acts most attract the choreographer. Spinning figures shot from above become pinwheels. Acrobats building a circus pyramid cantilever improbably from the group. A slowly moving woman dancer is haunted by flashes of a black-and-white masculine figure. This is all visually beguiling, if nothing more. As the 37-minute film opens, a voice explains in French that it is without logic, perhaps absurd, and with neither beginning nor end. So we’re entering a new era of why-not art. Not “why not?” as in the ’60s, to test conventions, but “why not?” as in, “if I want to.”
** In a Mark Morris dance, enigma sneaks into gratifyingly lucid, musically impeccable structures in the form of a witty aside, a joke, or a gesture stunning in its tenderness. The six revelers in his 1984 My Party prance about to Jean Françaix’s Trio in C for Violin, Viola, and Cello, and ring bright changes on the Virginia reel. But toward the end, partners of various genders drop to the floor and tussle in a gleefully inept burst of sexual verve. The 1998 Dancing Honeymoon captures the playful innocence of sweet old popular songs, wittily mating parlor game with vaudeville routine; in the quite pantomimic “And Her Mother Came Too,” Eileen Clark’s lilting soprano exchanges “mother” for “brother” in the last line, and the beleaguered bridegroom (Morris) falls unexpectedly into the arms of Charlton Boyd. In one of The Argument‘s exquisitely sensitive, dark-hued duets, Tina Fehlandt lays her cheek against Morris’s arm as she begins to lean away; I can never remember the gesture exactly, but it always stops my breath.
Morris’s musical sensibility reminds me of Isadora Duncan’s, although he is more erudite and down-to-earth. Chances are, if a musical phrase repeats, the dance phrase first identified with it will repeat too. This can seem pat, but is also deeply satisfying. The folk dance step with the bite of a tango stabbed out by the woman in The Argument‘s first duet becomes the meat of her dispute with her mate (Julie Worden and Boyd danced this marvelously on opening night). Every time the splendid pianist Ethan Iverson repeats Robert Schumann’s vehement motif, the step that goes with it becomes a barometer for gauging the dancers’ degree of insistence or yielding.
The chamber concert Morris offered at the intimate New Victory (never more than eight dancers onstage) was a haven for anyone overdosed on lifts (a severe post-Stuttgart possibility). Morris doesn’t like to see one person (usually male) tie another (usually female) in elaborate knots or carry someone overhead like a trophy. The two who perform Silhouettes (I saw Joe Bowie and Matthew Rose) do not touch. They literally dance circles around each other, banter in counterpoint and canon, and give an impression of affection without domination. When the three duets of The Argument merge at the end, the result is not a final ballabile, but a demonstration that all these relationships contain aspects of one another, and that these people are a community.
There’s plenty of room in Dancing Honeymoon for individual expression. Morris is especially witty as the fulcrum for a dizzy over-and-under garlanding of dancers. But he shows us unison as a cooperative task rather than a learned exercise. In a wonderful game with black folding chairs, some people sit facing in opposite directions, while others, holding hands with them, dart between the chairs and, pushed, fly up before racing back. Those seated delightedly kick their legs in the air at just the right moment. The sequence is a wonderful lighthearted joke on the machine routines of old-time popular theater—like the whole piece, a cliché burnished to uncommon fresh luster.