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Friday, April 10, 2020

Delight Fantastic

From the Vault Dept.: Bob Bowyer found the humor in ballet and offered magnificently endearing shows with his troupe, American Ballet Comedie, during the 1980s. In 1992, he died (at the age of 45) of an AIDS-related illness. Here’s a wistful look back at his 1985 visit to Schenectady.


ANY CULTURAL PHENOMENON can take itself too seriously and ballet is no exception. Its hallowed traditions invite respect, true, but they also invite someone like Bob Bowyer to take a few potshots. That he does so with a highly skilled ballet company makes a performance by American Ballet Comedie even more enjoyable.

Marianne Claire, Bob Bowyer, and JoAnn Bruggeman
The company paid a return visit to Proctor’s Theatre Friday night, with the pokerfaced Bowyer again demonstrating that ballet can be used to tell hilarious and compelling stories when it isn’t being lampooned.

The group started right out with a big opening titled, and why not, “The Big Opening.” To the strains of “That’s Entertainment,” eight dancers clad in glittering tails performed stunts with hats and canes that made it seem as if there were eight Donald O’Connors onstage.

Great comedians need to master all theatrical basics; great comic dancers must be similarly outstanding. “The Big Opening” works because of right-on-the-button timing and energy that throws a smile to the back of the house.

The comedy started with “Jacques and Jeannine,” introducing “the world’s greatest adagio dancers.” To the song “What I Did for Love,” Veronica Yurasits, dressed like a tightrope walker, and Bowyer, sporting oversized biceps, did a routine that should have left both of them black and blue. In Bowyer’s choreography, dancers aren’t lifted: they’re hurled. And dragged, and whacked, and tied up in knots.

There were 15 numbers, highlights of which included a “modern psychological dance:” the “Pas de trois pour Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2” and featured Irene Cho, Wilton Anderson, and former Albany resident Frank Affrunti as a trio of tormented souls who twitched and stomped, and then repositioned Cho’s body into knots that shouldn’t be anatomically possible.

The “Black Cockroach pas de deux” began with saturnine Bowyer in pajamas, sitting in an armchair, holding a bag of Doritos. The moment he opened the bag, two large roaches appeared and began a hypnotic, virtuosic dance to get at the munchies. Temporarily seduced by the female (Cho), Bowyer surrenders a chip, only be forced to fend off the other (Zane Rankin) with a slipper. As the music (by Gottschalk) comes to an end, the bugs are subdued by a can of pesticide.

There was the “Faux pas de trois,” in which Rankin is forced to partner Donna Matthews and Cho simultaneously, and “La Stampa de Feeta,” a Spanish travesty danced to Lecuona’s “Malaguena,” complete with two-man bull.

The company uses an amazing amount of costumes, and the costumes themselves are amazing. “The Buttercups,” which concluded the first half, gave us a lesson in gardening and meteorology as we watched a trio of flowers (Cho, Yurasits, and Judy Fielman, dressed in green-and-black sheaths and huge petalled headresses) celebrate the rising of the sun (Matthews, in a big yellow cartoon-sun costume) and the arrival of their favorite gardener (Bowyer, in a Hawaiian shirt and a large green thumb).

Affrunti arrived as a cloud, dropping tinsel rain, and then Anderson danced in as a rainbow. There was even a fat bee (Rankin) affectionately pollinating the flowers.

Many of the dances are constructed with surprise succeeding surprise, costume and concept both becoming more outrageous. “The Big Ballet in the Sky” began with a frighteningly dead-looking corpse onstage which zipped open to reveal Cho, escorted-up to St. Peter (Bowyer). The forces of good and evil are then represented: Anderson is God’s giant hand while Rankin is a cynical devil, eventually thwarted.

The final selection, “Smile,” features Judy Collins’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” and is unexpectedly touching, as two clowns (Rankin and Yurasits) try to cheer up a mournful Bowyer, only to discover that he literally is suffering from a broken heart. And it was lump-in-the-throat stuff, made all the more effective because we’d been laughing too hard to notice how emotionally susceptible that makes us. (Has anyone ever failed to drop a tear over the conclusion of Chaplin’s “City Lights”?)

None of this would be as effective were this company not fantastically talented. Each of them also uses facial expression as effectively as dance. The response was very enthusiastic, with a special surge of applause for Irene Cho, who could go anywhere she wants in the regular world of dance.

– Schenectady Gazette, 11 November 1985

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