Since the 1970s, when a handful of intrepid choreographers began to define virtuosity as risk, the ante has been upped. While ballet dancers edged from three or four pirouettes to umpteen, those in the postmodern kamikaze set learned to hurtle through the air, hang from ropes, burst through plates of glass, and dive onto trampolines. At its best, Diavolo—run by a Frenchman, Jacques Heim, and based in Los Angeles—combines organized peril with drama and a mordant wit. The fact that his performers, who are drawn from theater, dance, gymnastics, and Hollywood stunt crews, wear real clothes (even tailcoats) gives their shenanigans a surreal edge.
The simpler of the pieces Heim showed at the Joyce last week (hardly simple to perform!) involve lightning interactions between humans and movable structures. In Apex, to John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” Nicholas W. Erickson, Meeghan Godfrey, Robert Lou, and Allen Moon perform startling balancing acts on two sturdy red stepladders—closed, open, tilted. In Le Siège, Erickson—the tallest and baldest onstage—holds down a coveted red bench. Benches multiply, people launch themselves into the fray from minitrampolines in the wings. Erickson actually fields Laura Everling with a bench.
Tête en L’Air and Trajectoire are more resonant and larger in scope (the former feels too long by one episode). Both involve big set pieces. In the first, characters and images drawn from René Magritte’s paintings (bowler-hatted men, umbrellas, apples, valises, etc.) parade or are paraded down a towering flight of very deep steps, redesigned by Cinnabar and Jeremy Jacobs from Roger Webb’s 1994 original. The participants shed attire as the piece progresses, and the events get more prodigious (for instance, skiing down the staircase over prone bodies). In one miraculously timed sequence, people pop up intermittently through the six stair treads, and the hinged lids they raise catapult passersby into space.
Tête en L’Air puts Magrittean imagery in a dryer and tumbles it with theatrical verve. The newer Trajectoire achieves a marvelous dreamy poetry, aided by the music selections from Hans Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line and Philip Glass’s Mishima; by Daniel Ionazzi’s splendid lighting; and by dancer-designer Godfrey’s trim white outfits. The centerpiece is Daniel Wheeler’s immense, fat half-column laid on its rounded side. With a deck railed on two edges and a transparent hull, it looks something like a ship—and it rocks like one, too. Lifts and dives acquire a new riskiness when they occur on a slanted surface. In this, Heim comes closest to building sustained dance passages. In one beautiful sequence, four of the company’s women (Godfrey, Everling, Blasa Acevedo, and Monica Campbell) repeatedly climb the tilting deck and slide down one by one into a demure row. The ending is austere: The “ship” is beached, and Godfrey, left alone, cannot reach the deck’s high end.
As Pascal Rioult’s two-part Passagère begins at the Duke, 42nd Street’s spanking new black-box theater, eight sleek and fervent dancers toss themselves into private explosions, break into man-versus-woman counterpoint, then join in couples. The music is Maurice Ravel’s Alborado del Gracioso. Rioult clearly knows how to put a dance together.
You could say of him what he says of Ravel—that his art gives one “the sense of being on a journey of discovery that somehow feels familiar.” He started choreographing in 1994 after leaving Martha Graham’s fold, and the Graham influence emerges in rhythmic stress and in particular moves. Dancers wind themselves up to strike precise yet dynamically charged poses. But Rioult has his own bold, sometimes eloquent style, plus a substyle that can look either antic—even silly—or disturbed. He himself sometimes flails his arms and legs as if he were having a good scream.
Passagère is part of a “Ravel Project” that Rioult plans to complete this year. In Part I, Graham veteran Joyce Herring, severe in pants and a long-sleeved, form-fitting top, plays a Graham-esque woman wandering through a puzzling world that might be her own subconscious. The others—wearing next-to-nothing black by Russ Vogler under long filmy black coats that drift behind them—brush past her as they race into new patterns and couplings, and she reels slightly in the wind they stir up. Later they wear white masklets: pig snouts for the women, tiny elephant trunks for the men. And they rough Herring up. Part II announces itself as a rite of passage without quite making us feel a transformation in Herring, even though her acting is thoughtful and beautifully modulated. Now the others defer to her, and when she walks off, leaving behind a suitcase without sides, we have to assume catharsis.
The excellent 1995 Wien points up one of the new piece’s flaws. In much of Passagère the dancers’ focus is strongly frontal. In Wien, they seem more of a community. As Ravel’s La Valse swirls to madder heights, Rioult charts a society disintegrating. Thronging, the people scuttle in a ring; circling, they push one another out of the way. Even in violent attacks, they’re controlled by the form of the waltz that sweeps them into oblivion.
Rioult’s other new piece, La Vie en Rose, doesn’t seem cooked yet, although it’s full of bright ingredients. Expert chanteuse Juliette Koka sings laments for soured love made famous by Edith Piaf, accompanied by piano, accordion, and drums. In a clinging black gown and heels, her mouth a gash of scarlet, she seems to be living in another world than that of the dancers, with their bare feet and prankish, ruffly pastel outfits by Ellen Berkenblit. The chairs and pale blue tablecloths evoke a Lake Wobegon church social more than a Paris nightspot. And if this is a public place, why do Seron Nelson and Craig Biesecker strip to their pretty skivvies to romance behind a tipped-over table? Particularly outstanding: Penelope Gonzalez slumping and stumbling through “L’Accordeoniste,“ while three guys observe hornily from the balcony above.
Tanaquil Le Clercq was 71 when she died December 31. What hurts to contemplate is that she graced New York City Ballet, unforgettably, for only 10 years and spent the next 44 in a wheelchair. She was just 27 when polio stilled her limbs.
Racy, witty in her dancing, she could appear supremely elegant or as easy as the kid down the block. She was a muse for both George Balanchine (to whom she was married) and Jerome Robbins. Beginning around 1946, her slim, leggy body and unaffected manner redefined Balanchine’s idea of “American.” In a film of Western Symphony, made immediately before her illness, she flashes those legs and hips and shoulders with such sly ebullience that you laugh in delight. To watch her (again on film) perform the beautiful duet in Concerto Barocco is a revelation. Who knew that the moment when the ballerina pulls away from her partner could mean so much? I was lucky enough to see her perform live. In my mind, she is, forever, that fresh young dancer in Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, who pauses in the doorway of a sunlit studio to rosin her shoes and adjust the ribbon at her waist before entering that world she left too soon.