American Ballet Theatre might better have called its “Contemporary Works” program “Kinky Pleasures.” In Jirí Kylián’s 1991 Petite Mort and his 1986 Sechs Tänze, Mozart’s music becomes a playground for two bizarre groups of 18th-century aristocrats who’ve been torn loose from any semblance of the Enlightenment. Kylián has set aside his earlier lyricism in favor of a style that involves dazzling physical complications, dark comedy, and sexy misogyny. In Sechs Tänze, set to Six German Dances, eight performers wearing soft slippers and period undergarments, their faces powdered like the men’s wigs, romp with the droll and pathetic grotesquerie of automatons on a rampage, their every elegant flourish misplaced, their limbs out of sync with what’s going on in their heads. Performing maladroitness at these speeds demands and gets extraordinary virtuosity from the likes of Erica Cornejo, Ashley Tuttle, Angel Corella, Carmen Corella, and Gillian Murphy.
The Petite Mort crowd is more brilliantly decisive. To the adagio and andante movements of two piano concertos, five of the company’s leading hunks (in briefs and corselets by Joke Visser) swish fencing foils around in a meticulous drill. Their intense rituals are interrupted by women who glide in wearing long, full black gowns and then step from behind the false-front garments to unite with the men in ingeniously knotty pas de deux that investigate all possible nooks and openings a knee, a hip, an elbow can tuck into, a leg can thrust through. “Petite mort” was once a sweet euphemism for orgasm, but there’s no release for these stunning people. Kylián appropriated the freestanding dresses from Sechs Tänze, where they were used for all kinds of running gags. No one’s laughing now.
For retro decadence, what better subject than Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray? But as a ballet? How many times in Robert Hill’s new Dorian do you watch the painter Basil Hallward (Carlos Molina) or the beautiful young protagonist (David Hallberg) or the louche Lord Henry Wotton (Victor Barbee making a subtle lot out of a little) spread his hands in that ballet mime gesture meaning “What’s up?” or “Why are you here?” or “What do you want of me?” and feel like screaming, “Speak, man, speak!”
Hill has whittled the story down to a sketch. A few 19th-century Londoners pass through looking happy or disapproving. Denizens of a low dive wrangle around a gigantic opium pipe. The mysterious painting that ages while the narcissistic Dorian remains gorgeous is played by Marcelo Gomes. This means that the two can do mirror dances together and that the painted guy does all the bad stuff, like rebuffing and driving to suicide the drifty musical hall “artiste” (Julie Kent) that the real Dorian has just embraced in a pas de deux.
The movement is bland, and time and character are skewed. In the 55 minutes it takes Hill to tell Dorian’s story, the years-long slide from youth to poisoned maturity seems to happen in a few bleak days. And imagine anyone indulging in a career of debauchery and ending up looking like Gomes, with only an added red tie, vest, and coat to advertise his sins.
The white strip crossing the Kitchen’s black floor extends up an aisle to an improvised dressing area. But Walter Dundervill, Athena Malloy, and Tasha Taylor, who perform RoseAnne Spradlin’s powerful Bessie-winning 2002 under/world on and around this “runway,” don’t seem to be parading fashionable attitudes or sexually titillating acts for the spectators. Unlike ABT’s dancers, they direct their obsessions and fetishes to one another or try them on as if in a fitting room. They exit only to turn around and come back to fruitless, grinding labor.
The first half, “Gravity Ball,” begins like a folk dance. Dundervill and Malloy grab hands and make big, swoopy turns together, he wearing only a red bra, she only trousers. This motif recurs several times, more ruthlessly, with Taylor in the mix. In the often lavish dancing (to Gavin Bryars’s sweet Intermezzo and Kenneth Atchley’s fountain_1998.3 for the second part, “Night Sweating”), the three terrific performers move as if trying to get something out of their systems. But nothing gratifies them: not Dundervill and Taylor tickling each another and then he seeming to nurse at her breast; not Dundervill trying to keep his mouth pressed against some part of a woman’s body; not the three grinding their hips or spreading their legs; not Taylor hurling herself at the others and being thrown away.
The couple in Spradlin’s new Rearrangement (or a Spell for Mortals) can’t adequately express or assuage their discontent and frustration either. As it begins, Dundervill and Malloy roll and jackknife on the floor in patterned obsessiveness, clutching big red notebooks. Later, they manage to write two words before slamming the books down. They echo each other’s big, full-bodied, skewed dancing and undulating fits, but only occasionally are they in unison. The sole time they touch, they squirm across the floor holding hands. Atchley’s live-mixed score, utilizing feedback from a fountain in one of three tanks, builds bubbling into destructive floods. The two people are apt to disappear without warning from each other’s lives. Spradlin’s corrosive worlds can break your heart.