How to Be Terribly Popular


Overheard on the subway platform after a performance of Boris Eifman’s new Musagète: “Well, you see, Balanchine married three women, and every time he fell in love he made a ballet.” Could it be that the spectators standing and cheering for Eifman’s work weren’t just seduced by his undeniable theatrical flair and eye-catching manipulation of props? Were they imagining that this piece of choreographic junk jewelry was an accurate ballet à clef that would tell them more about the genius who founded New York City Ballet?

Eifman was presumably asked to create a new work for NYCB’s Balanchine centennial because he, like Balanchine, is a Russian whose early work bucked tradition and official approval. Musagète develops his favorite theme: the suffering artist or “different” individual. Never mind that Balanchine, unlike the heroes of Eifman’s Tchaikovsky or Russian Hamlet, was a generally cheerful, pragmatic creator. This “Balanchine” (dramatically portrayed by Robert Tewsley) is given to slumping despairingly into a rolling chair, from which he rises periodically to teach or choreograph or make love. Occasional appearances by a wheelchair attendant suggest that the whole ballet, set mostly to Bach, is the hospital reverie of a dying man. Good taste doesn’t figure elsewhere either: Take the scene in which a lighthearted Alexandra Ansanelli—representing Balanchine’s third wife, ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq—contracts polio in mid-dance, loses control of her legs, and is dragged away on a swag of fabric by a death figure (Ask La Cour with slicked-down hair).

There are hasty references to signature moments in the master’s ballets and to the iconic photo of Balanchine demonstrating tendu front. Tewsley wanders through a class checking for muses. He works on a new ballet. He spies Maria Kowroski (as Suzanne Farrell, natch) and embarks on an erotic pas de deux of pursuit and evasion on a barre built for two. The oddest duet begins when Wendy Whelan enters in glittering black and places her foot on Tewsley’s shoulder. Prowling around his body in utterly improbable lifts, hoisted by one ankle while maintaining a reclining pose, she crawls faithlessly away after a passerby (Stephen Hanna), but not before “Balanchine” has cast a keen eye on her maneuvers with the new guy. (Could Eifman have believed that Balanchine’s acrobatic cat Mourka inspired some of his twistier duets?)

One NYCB program featuring Musagète revealed Balanchine’s innovative contemporary work to Stravinsky’s Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra and a redefinition of St. Petersburg classicism (Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, deliciously performed by Miranda Weese and Benjamin Millepied). Well might Eifman collapse in despair when faced with even alluding to such ballets. However, he musters busy, flamboyant passages that bring ice dancing to mind, and when the chandeliers come down in Slava Okunev’s mystifying set, the finale to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony swells from the pit, and the stage fills with dancers in tutus, tiaras, and velvet jackets, Eifman can only offer an unintentional travesty of Balanchine in his homage-to-Petipa mode. The ballet will be shown in Saratoga during the season that begins this week. By August, Georgi Melitonovitch, the worst will be over; stop spinning and sleep.

Eroticism, drama expressed in bold strokes, and the sight of bodies extending their range and endurance make dancing popular. Pilobolus exploits all these, dressing them with whimsical, sometimes wink-wink-coarse humor, magical atmospheres, and charming performers. Plus, you can order a Pilobolus cocktail at five participating New York bars, vote for the best, and maybe win free tickets.

The Pilobolites’ physical wizardry is the heart of the work: Men wear women as helmets and breastplates, women stand—look, no hands!—on men’s shoulders, a coiled body effortfully pried straight returns—boing!—to its natural state. Perhaps because the work process is highly collaborative, some dances ramble, piling clever image on clever image. Others, like Alison Chase’s strong Ben’s Admonition (2002), explore their themes in clear, meaningful, visually stimulating ways: In this one two men, each hanging by one hand from a single rope and, in the end, from separate ropes, powerfully convey interdependence and the contentiousness that threatens it.

Chase’s new Night of the Dark Moon, aided by Stephen Strawbridge’s splendid lighting, takes on the Orpheus legend. Set to music by Edward Bilous, it’s both mysterious and murky, and not just because of all the dry-ice smoke. A sexy and voracious Hell Queen—red-garbed, black-veiled Renée Jaworski—descends in a suspended white cocoon-cum-sling to separate the lovers (Jennifer Macavinta and Mark Fucik). Fucik tries to crawl away with his dead partner, her feet hooked under his armpits, but three servants of death (Andrew Herro, Manelich Minniefee, and Matthew Thornton in long dark coats by Angelica Avallone that make them look part sci-fi warlord, part Napoleonic officer) roll her upstage with their heads and appear to feast on her. In the remarkable climactic moment, Jaworski and her minions pull a rope that lifts Macavinta in the sling and flies her in circles just out of her partner’s reach.

The dancers’ daring is worth the price of admission. In Jonathan Wolken’s new Megawatt, they jolt around as if shocked by an electrified floor and their own high-wattage bodies, hurtling into dives or tossed down by their pals. Beats the summer flicks.