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Jack Anderson

Joys of Repertory: Thoughts on Two Companies

New York Theatre Ballet
Signatures 10
Gould Hall, April 23-24, 2010
Lyon Opera Ballet
Joyce Theater, March 9-14, 2010
Reviewed by Jack Anderson April 2, 2010

Ballet companies everywhere are blessed with good dancers. It's no longer possible to defend a company, as one once could, simply by saying, "They're such good dancers." So what else do companies need? Money? Yes, of course, always money. But let's keep the discussion "artistic." What else do companies need, then? Repertory. Repertory. Repertory.

In recent years, the ballet repertory has grown impoverished, with companies offering either blatantly virtuosic showpieces with more flash than substance, or neat academic exercises that, at their best, prompt one to say. "But they're such good dancers." That's not enough. It's certainly not enough at a time when people have been making polite noises about the centennial of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the troupe that brought us some of the most innovative and exciting ballets of our time, many of them highly entertaining, as well. But looking at the repertory lists of some of today's companies might make you wonder if their directors were aware that Diaghilev had ever existed.

So it's always pleasant to come upon troupes that take repertory seriously, that make repertory a joy. Two companies did just that in recent months: the Lyon Opera Ballet and the New York Theatre Ballet.

Over the years, Diana Byer's New York Theatre Ballet, now in its 31st season, has been steadily gaining confidence and going from strength to strength in productions that emphasize some of the great traditions of modern ballet. Their recent Signatures 10 program honored four distinguished choreographers with productions that were both technically and stylistically accomplished. All were in small in scale, yet demonstrated that in ballet big is not always better: little gems are still gems.

Among the areas of repertory the company has staked out for itself is British ballet from the 1920's to the 1940's (that period, by the way, is also a specialty of the admirable Sarasota Ballet in Florida). Two of Britain's greatest choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, were represented by (let's use that term again) little gems. Both looked back on historical dance styles and lovingly made them new.

Just as Peter Warlock's score for "Capriol Suite" derives from 16th-century musical models, so Ashton's ballet of that same name is his re-invention of Renaissance dances, high and low, for aristocrats and peasants. There's a lovely aristocratic lady who, in the course of a stately pavane is courted by two suitors, one presenting her with the gift of a rose, the other offering her a scroll with a poem or, perhaps, a love letter on it. Peasants dance robustly, but not roughly, four men are jolly buffoons, and all social classes coexist nicely. And this production totally lacked any touches of the preciosity that can sometimes mar stagings of British light-hearted ballets.

Antony Tudor revisited 19th-century Romanticism in his "Soiree Musicale," to Benjamin Britten's arrangements of pieces by Rossini. Although once briefly in the repertory of the Joffrey Ballet, this delicious diversion, choreographed in 1938, is little known in New York, and it must have surprised dancegoers (and I am one of them) who had never seen it before. Tudor could be a caustic satirist, and in his well-known "Gala Performance" he viewed 19th-century ballet with a very wicked eye. But "Soiree" appears to have been created out of affection, and it bubbles over with delicate allegro movements.

At a recent Ballets Russes reunion at the University of Oklahoma several commentators lamented the lack of attention given to small beaten steps in today's ballet. But "Soiree" has many such, and they often recalled the choreography of Denmark's great 19th-century choreographer August Bournonville, although Bournonville was almost entirely unknown outside Denmark until the 1950's. Could Tudor have seen a bit of Bournonville somewhere? That's theoretically conceivable, but not very likely. What probably happened is that Tudor attuned himself so well to period style that he invented his own version of 19th –century technique. The New York Theatre Ballet dancers looked perfectly at home in it, and it was fascinating to read in the program note that, to prepare for this ballet, they learned to read Labanotation. I wonder how many other companies have required such a thing of their dancers. I wonder, too, how many other worthy ballets in danger of vanishing away could be retrieved if more dancers could notate them and read their scores.

The successful revival last year of José Limón's rarely seen "Suite from Mazurkas" made one especially aware of the importance of preservation, and it raised questions about who could have seen what where over the years, for one of the key gestures in this Chopin "piano-ballet" of 1958 is a reverent touching of the ground remarkably similar to one in "Dancers at a Gathering," Jerome Robbins's Chopin "piano-ballet" of 1969.

However "Mazurkas" may have influenced another choreographer (if it did so at all), it remains worth reviving and, with Ferdy Tumakaka at the piano, the Theatre Ballet gave a heartwarming account of it.

The dancers also brought out the fun of "Three Virgins and a Devil" (1941), Agnes de Mille's robust comedy about how a devil manages to trick three silly sinful maidens and pack them off to perdition. More experienced character dancers might have made the comedy sharper. But in a work like this, both experienced and less experienced dancers might have belabored the jokes, hamming them up outrageously. Fortunately, these dancers knew how to keep all choreographic effects in harmonious balance. Indeed, they did that throughout the evening, making the entire program an affirmation of both the challenges and the joys of repertory.

Such joys were also affirmed by the Lyon Opera Ballet, a company directed by Yorgos Loukos since 1998 that has always seemed sensitive to balletic developments in both America and Europe. What made its current presentation so laudable was the dancers' total grasp of three distinct styles.

As they performed unison steps and scooped the air with their arms, Dorothée Delable and Amandine François occupied space in William Forsythe's "Duo," without really seeming to share it. Yet neither did they seem rivals seeking to claim the same territory. No matter how corporeally close they were on stage, a psychic gulf separated them. Just as Thom Willems's music sounded as if it were coming from far away, so the dancers, though close to us, appeared to be moving somewhere in the distance.

Since many Continental companies dance Forsythe, and his works have helped shape today's European balletic sensibility, it came as no surprise that the Lyon company danced "Duo" well. Ballets by two other choreographers were danced so unusually well that the performances amazed as well as pleased.

With its birdlike costumes by Marsha Skinner and quiet score by John Cage, "Beach Birds" is one of Merce Cunningham's most thematically explicit creations. Of course, Cunningham was a supreme anti-literalist and what might strike some viewers as explicit in a dance like "Beach Birds" might still strike others as highly abstract. Nevertheless, "Beach Birds" does appear to evoke dawn on a beach and the awakening of creatures resting there. Moreover, the score bears a quotation from James Joyce: "Between the river and the ocean, birds on the beach."

Cunningham's choreography makes his dancers hop, hover, and stand with arms spread wide (like wings, perhaps?), as if they have all day and night (in fact, all the time in the world) in which to move. Here is a dance in which stillness becomes as important as motion. What made the Lyon interpretation exceptional was how well the cast understood this. No one fidgeted when standing still, or appeared in a hurry to move. Nor did anyone hasten unnecessarily while moving. Everything happened in its own good time.

So, too, all happened as it should in Maguy Marin's "Grosse Fugue." And the ways things moved were surprising. Marin is best known in America for thematic ballets ranging from a choreographic commentary on Samuel Beckett to witty retellings of such familiar ballet tales as "Cinderella" and "Coppélia." But "Grosse Fugue" was devoid of narrative, though not of dramatic excitement. As if pursued by Beethoven's notoriously gnarled fugal string quartet, Marin had four women (Delable, François, Aurélie Gaillard, and Agalie Vandamme), in bright red costumes by Chantal Cloupet, contend with space and with the music, as well. As the score prompted, they strode with determination, clapped hands for emphasis, shrugged, and went limp, only to let the music recharge them and send them sprinting. Beethoven taunted and tormented them in what may have been some ordeal by music from which everyone emerged victorious.

Quite unlike anything by Marin that we have seen before, "Grosse Fugue" was strong in itself, and the Lyon Opera Ballet let its strengths become especially apparent by programming it so that it could be compared and contrasted with two dissimilar ballets on a triple bill. So, too, although all the New York Theatre Ballet's offerings could be said to concern the pleasures of dancing, their choreographers preached that message in different ways, thereby contributing to the joys of repertory. And the repertory choices of both companies were enhanced by such good dancers.


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