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Jack Anderson


Ballet Memphis Telling Stories


Ballet Memphis
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
April 3-8, 2007, $38
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, April 7, 2007

Ballet Memphis is the third enterprising out-of-town company to show an unfamiliar repertory here recently. First came bright choreography from the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Then the Cincinnati Ballet introduced us to the Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti. And now the Memphis troupe, directed by Dorothy Gunther Pugh, has presented an assortment of one-act works. Most were somehow dramatic in nature, yet had nothing to do with such familiar and often formula-ridden balletic tales as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella." Pugh clearly wants to look beyond the obvious.

Unfortunately, these ballets never really told stories effectively. That's not entirely surprising. Although most of ballet's 19th-century classics tell stories and narrative ballet flourished from Diaghilev's revolutionary Ballets Russes through much of the 20th century, many choreographers today, at least in America, have trouble with plots. Perhaps the plotless ballet's rise to esthetic favor has made them wary of storytelling. Yet Balanchine, that supreme abstractionist, could also tell good stories, when he chose to.

Two of the Memphis offerings, both by Julia Adam, were unabashedly dramatic adaptations of literary works. But I fear you probably had to know them (I didn't) for the ballets to make sense. Both baffled me because they failed to answer two basic questions raised by narrative dances: Who are these people we see on stage? And where are they?

Further questions are possible: for instance, in what historical period do events occur (this may or may not be important)? And how does time pass: simply chronologically? through jumps back and forth between present and past? or, possibly, through jumps between real events and imagined ones? Choreographers may have to grapple with all these problems, and more. But they must never overlook the first two questions.

Adam never really answered them in "A Curtain of Green," taken from a story by Eudora Welty and set to piano music by Philip Glass, and "The Awakening," based on a novel by Kate Chopin, with piano music by Frederic Chopin. In "Curtain," Dawn Fay portrayed a woman who had ambiguous encounters with two men (Steven McMahon and Kendall G. Britt Jr.). The ballet opened effectively with Fay sitting in a chair, looking expectant, and raising an arm as if to suggest mounting emotional tension. But what followed was murky, for Adam provided no convincing sense of characterization or setting.

"The Awakening" began with what looked like a funeral procession that gave way to turbulent relationships for members of a large cast. Christine Darch's costumes suggested early 20th-century beach or resort attire and parasols were constantly opened and closed. There appeared to be constant struggles between decorum and passion. But who these people were and why they did anything remained obscure.

The vagueness of both pieces led to a special awkwardness arising from the fact that Welty and Chopin wrote about the South and Adam put black dancers into her Southern narrative ballets. Did their presence signify that they were portraying characters who were black in the stories, or was this simply "color-blind casting?"

Short program synopses would have been useful. This last remark may horrify those dancegoers who scorn anything that smacks of being "literary." But what is really so terrible about a brief statement orienting viewers by introducing a plot? Presumably, unless a ballet is a choreographic whodunit, saying a bit about its story gives nothing really important away, for what matters is not a dance's bare-bones narrative, but the way that narrative has been meaningfully fleshed out.

Choreographers may overcomplicate their plots to avoid being doggedly literal. Yet, although plodding from event to event can be dispiriting, there may come times when literalness helps anchor a ballet in lucidity.

Two other choreographers offered pieces with dramatic implications. Thaddeus Davis's "Mercurial Balance," a hip-hop ballet that included poems about love's mysteries by J'malo Torriel and Ed Brittenum, began with a snap, then gradually fizzled as the dancers failed to sustain hip-hop's characteristic twitchiness. These ballet dancers just couldn't avoid looking like ballet dancers.

Trey McIntyre, the troupe's resident choreographer, contributed two pieces. The sentiment-laden but essentially good-natured "In Dreams" made heartbreak look like fun to songs by to Cindy Walker, Sam Phillips, Roy Orbison, and Joe Melson.

"The Naughty Boy!", to Mozart's Violin Concerto in G Major, was a ballet of missed comic opportunities. A pixyish Cupid, charmingly danced by Fay, darted in and out while bringing pairs of lovers onstage. But that's all that happened. And it wasn't enough.

"The Naughty Boy!" invited comparisons with the oldest ballet in any repertory, Vincenzo Galeotti's "Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master," created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1786, in which Cupid not only brings lovers together, but also has fun mixing them up in absurd combinations. But McIntyre's lovers, though lively, lacked distinctive personalities, their affairs were insufficiently snarled, and his ballet ran out of steam. "The Naughty Boy!" should have been naughtier.

Now, after all these grumbles, let me add that I enjoyed watching Ballet Memphis. Its dancers were personable and well-schooled and, its repertory, almost because of its dramatic problems, prompted serious thoughts about how ballets are made.


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