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Friday, June 04, 2021

Ballet Gets Modern

 From the Terpsichorean Vault Dept.: No ballet at the Saratoga Performance Arts Center this summer, and I fear we’re getting accustomed to that, as dance in general recedes from public view. Here (as you suspected would be the case) is a look back, to what was going on there in 1988.


WHAT HAS 40 YEARS brought to us in the world of American Music?

If Tuesday night’s offerings of the New York City Ballet’s American Music Festival are any indication, new works benefit from a considered look over the shoulder. The program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center included a new piece that harkened back to an old one, an old one that still sounds new, and a new one that tried self-consciously hard to sound newer than new.

Helene Alexopoulos
Leslie Stuck’s “Behind the China Dogs,” which had its Saratoga premiere, is a modernist work that never lets you forget how modern it is. It’s also pretty funny.

Choreographed by William Forsythe, artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet and frequent collaborator with Stuck, it takes a fill-in-the-blank approach to what’s avant-garde. “Behind the China Dogs” could as easily be titled “Under the Tattersall Sofa,” except that it would deprive us of the accessory of several sculpted dachshunds stoically guarding the upstage area.

The costuming is the tip-off. With a corps of men dressed in black shorts, checkered vests and grey socks, how solemn an enterprise can this be? The women similarly lampoon formality with an illusion of evening gown suggested by leotard and body stocking.

The dance itself is amazingly fluid; even the many static moments are filled with electric tension. A kind of angst-ridden relationship is established between the sexes, women aggressive, men noncommittal and brutal.

And it was a great showcase for the marvelous Helene Alexopoulos, who took on a very un-NYCB-like character with seasoned grace.

Synthesized music like this score, booming at 100 decibels through speakers the size of a rural town, has the odor of techies at work: recording, mixing, snipping, proud of their mechanical agility. The intent, which Stuck correctly realized, is not to reproduce the orchestra but rather to experiment with sound itself. The effect, however, was that of a large old house being torn apart with a claw hammer while a tea kettle screamed in the background.

It should be observed that if noise of this volume were encountered in the workplace, OSHA would demand protective headphones for all who were exposed to it.

Peter Martins’s “Black and White,’ his second collaboration with composer Michael Torke, was another local premiere in this series. One of its immediate pleasures is as a vehicle for Heather Watts and Jock Soto, but it’s also a work that should endure well beyond this festival.

Martins’s choreography is a language all its own: restrained, stylized, even a little eccentric. The focus, especially in this piece, begins always on the self so that when the dancers do open to combine there’s an extra thrill of that transferred energy. And the combination of Martins and Torke with Watts and Soto is a powerhouse.

“Black and White” begins with a couple of Mahler-like chords before we meet twelve dancers in two groups dressed in one or another of the title colors. Each of the seven sections pays much attention to arms and hands, lithely, humorously. The arms suggest a symbolic language, an unfamiliar language or at least one in need of reinterpretation, as with the gesture of arms out, elbows bent, palms up, the “so what?” look used so effectively here.

Torke’s music is reminiscent of Bernstein’s, with jazzy riffs and syncopations punctuating the melodic score. It’s almost a shock to hear something so accessible in so potentially dangerous a context as a contemporary music festival.

Bernstein’s ‘Fancy Free” hasn’t aged a bit. At least in the musical sense. Jerome Robbins’s choreography, even 40 years later, has a zest about it that still mocks the suffocation of too-traditional ballet. But what must have been considered a fun look at wolf-like men harassing female passersby doesn’t cut it in a more enlightened age that’s turned the wolf into pig and exposed the anger that lies behind such advances.

Putting that aside, though, it’s hard to resist those three sailors on leave, looking for lust and libation. David Otto, Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Robert LaFosse danced the parts, each extraordinarily capable of trying to outdo one another as happens through so much of the piece. The audience included a ready-made claque of the students at the summer ballet school who screamed their approval of particular favorites among the sailors.

– Schenectady Gazette, 21 July 1988

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