Beauty and the Vernacular Beast: Street-Art Meets Ballet at Lincoln Center Art Series Opening


Hunter S. Thompson, in his landmark book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, said that “every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.” Recognizing the rumble beneath its feet, the New York City Ballet (NYCB) opened its art series this past Friday night with a show specifically geared toward engaging the Internet generation during what could be their moment of clarity.

The packed house was a mix of seasoned theatergoers and newbie twentysomethings who were told by a pair of emcees that the evening’s four selections were meant to bridge the gap between the arcadian world of ballet and the cynical, media-saturated climate we find ourselves in today. Specifically, George Balanchine’s early ’70s choreography for Pierre Henry’s “Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir” was compared to David Bowie’s glam-rock opus, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” the connotation being that alternative gender roles and the intellectual rigor of secular life remain central to modern progress. (What’s next? Punk rock?)

Robert Daniels, communications director for the NYCB, attributes this large youth turnout to the sculptural installation located on the 2nd floor promenade of the David Koch Theater, where Brooklyn street-art duo FAILE (pronounced “fail”) fashioned a 40-foot tower constructed from small wood blocks and rectangular pallets. An epic undertaking by any standard, FAILE emblazoned these elements with cryptic ad slogans, icons sourced from comic books, B-movie posters and ’50s pinup magazines, as well as imagery from the NYCB’s own archive, including vintage depictions of Tanaquil Le Clerq, the ballet company’s most celebrated dancer from the 1940s. In the hands of FAILE, Le Clerq is recast as a kind of Wonder Woman, her glowing wingspread stenciled in a coterie of neon colors that suggest not superhuman physicality so much as transcendently good taste.

“Our work always starts with the image-making process,” notes Patrick Miller, who with Patrick McNeil, created FAILE over a decade ago. “With ballet, themes like flying and falling and the way gravity works with the body allowed us to grapple with this kind of Beauty and the Beast juxtaposition of street culture and traditional fine art.”

It should come as no surprise then that throngs of fashionable onlookers, who wouldn’t have been out of place on the HBO show Girls, feverishly snapped pictures of the tower with their iPhones, hoping to transmit back to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter the excitement of how this whole thing dared connect such relatable populist imagery with the most rigid of bourgeois arts.

Doubtless, the very topic conjures images of the many ballerinas painted by French impressionist Edgar Degas; tough shoes to fill no matter the era. Yet FAILE manage to bridge this gap effectively with one of the tower’s most evocative images, featuring a waify young goth chick on her knees, arms wrapped around the calves of a ballerina standing pointe work. Floral tattoos on the young girl’s biceps reach upward like vines, as if equally pulling the ballet dancer down into her underground, while aspiring to the more angelic nature inside each of us. The perfect combo of edgy and tender, nothing else on the tower comes close to that transcendence. Most of the re-appropriated ’50s imagery, while stylistically appealing, never manages to be much more than simple eye candy, very much in the shadow of youth.

To drive this point home, the tower’s perfect foil was the program’s closing selection, “The Waltz Project,” where four male dancers dressed like Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” pantomimed machismo gestures at their sassy female counterparts dressed in primary-colored summer dresses and matching Keds. Try as it might to speak the vernacular of the streets, “Waltz” ends up being corny, and moreover, fails to gets at the essence of the streets as much as the tower fails to evoke the core of ballet.

It should come as no surprise then that the aforementioned staging of Balanchine’s “Variation” (that one compared to “Ziggy Stardust”) dwarfed the entire evening by pairing a thoroughly modern female dominatrix opposite a male character who scuttles around on the stage floor like a hungry rat rummaging through the subway gutters, devouring the dignity of traditional masculinity, and in so doing, declaring everything else (the tower included) tragically stuck in the 1950s.

Granted, it is difficult to imagine any interpretive piece of art standing next to Balanchine’s genius and not being overwhelmed. Yet, whether the FAILE tower or the event’s program was a vast overreach is really irrelevant anyway. The mere fact that it exists makes it futile for anyone to play King Canute, who sat with his chair in front of the tides and told them not to come in. A new wave is here.