Yay, Christopher Wheeldon Saves Ballet! And Wendy Whelan :) And Pasha!

Okay, Pasha didn’t save ballet; he actually doesn’t have much of anything to do with ballet, other than that he’s touring with Danny Tidwell right now. But he’s on my mind because last night, on my way to Fall For Dance, I stopped by Dance Times Square to pick up my receipt for the long-awaited and highly anticipated “DTS Students And Friends Outing” to the Nassau Coliseum next Tuesday to see Pasha’s tour!!! Er, I mean the So You Think You Can Dance concert tour :) I chatted with Melanie a bit, and she told me that they’re trying hard hard hard, fingers crossed fingers crossed, to get the SYTYCD tour powers that be to allow us all backstage. Apparently they don’t have a problem with a couple of people, but they freaked a bit when she told them we’re a group of, more like … 40. Still! Come on, we’re a bunch of ballroom dancers, how rowdy can we be??? Please SYTYCD people in power, let us in to see our friend and beloved former teacher! We promise to behave! We promise!!

Okay, on to Fall For Dance. This is a most excellent event that’s taken place at City Center in midtown for the past I think three years now. Each night for about two weeks four or five different dance companies perform an excerpt from their repertoire. Tickets are a miraculously low $10 for the whole night. So, audiences — especially young audiences — can be exposed to several new companies for only $10 a night!

Last night marked the very first performance in New York by a promising new ballet company, called Morphoses, whose mission is to bring new life and new audiences to that most poetic of dance forms that many have feared is getting a bit withery and dried up. It’s founded by 34 year-old Christopher Wheeldon, formerly the first-ever resident choreographer at New York City Ballet. Wheeldon doesn’t yet have a permanent group of dancers, but is using guest dancers from several ballet companies, mainly NYC Ballet. I’ve loved so many of Wheeldon’s pieces that I’ve seen at NYCB over the past couple of years, so I have really high hopes, as do, I think, the vast majority of ballet lovers here. Last night the company performed not a brand new work, but one created by Wheeldon a couple of years ago for NYCB, a lovely duet called “After the Rain.” I see it as kind of a bittersweet pas de deux whose theme is a couple’s attempt to patch things up and find some common ground in the aftermath of a bad fight. It was danced by two NYCB dancers, the really cute Craig Hall and celebrated prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, to Arvo Part music composed of a string and piano section, in which the light tapping of high piano keys actually sounds like rain drops. It goes without saying that Wendy is just such an incredible dancer; when I see someone like her perform I realize it’s not just a choreographer who’s responsible for the success of his or her work. She dances with such conviction, with a fully formed thought in her mind of what her movements mean so that even though she dances mostly abstract ballets, as with this one, there’s just such an intensity and drama to her performance, the audience finds a story anyway. Well, listen to her talk about her work herself. I really love that City Center has done this this year — put up these little audiocasts on their website of interviews with several of the artists whose work is being performed at FFD. Go here to see a list of participating companies arranged by date, click on “info” for a breakdown menu of companies performing on that date, then click on that company to be taken to their info page where you can see an interview. Very cool!

So last night was actually my second night at FFD. I went Wednesday night as well but didn’t have time to blog about it yesterday. Highlights for me have been, in addition to Wheeldon, Keigwin + Company, a rather hip, young modern dance ensemble. I really wish Larry Keigwin, the company’s choreographer, would do a piece or two for SYTYCD. He’s so much fun. They performed “Love Songs” — several humorous duets performed by three different couples, pieces of which I’ve seen before. Each couple had its own distinct ‘couple personality,’ and told its own humorous story of relationship angst. On first and last was a youngish charmingly awkward pair who were obviously trying rather desperately to get to know each other better. They danced to a set of Neil Diamond songs. In another set, a more sophisticated couple, danced by Keigwin himself and one of my favorite modern dancers Nicole Wolcott, performed a voluptuous witty tango-y pas de deux to clever-sounding French music. And the third couple, the most wickedly funny imo, evoked, to Aretha Franklin music, the classic struggle between male and female for the upper hand in the relationship, rendered all the cuter by their mismatched sizes — fleshy woman (Liz Riga, my second favorite female modern dancer), smaller man. At times, when the woman wore the pants, she would drag her beau around, at times lifting and carrying him around the floor, and, when Franklin belted out some of her “let me tell you how it is” lyrics, she’d bop her head at him right along with the words. Then the reverse would happen; he’d have her begging. Then tables would turn, she’d have him back in the palm of her hands (literally with those crazy lifts), but he’d become too needy; she realized she should be careful what she wished for. It was so fun, funny, evocative, and very relatable.

The other one I loved Wednesday night (along with the crowd) was Urban Bush Women‘s performance of its most famous piece “Batty Moves.” They tell you in the program notes that Batty is a Caribbean word for rear end, and the piece is a rather fun, raucous celebration of the African-American female form. The women sang rap lyrics, called out to the audience encouraging proud black women to rise, then launched into solo after solo of amazing combination African / modern dance. The audience was on its feet; a perfect ending to Wednesday night’s show.

Unfortunately, I felt really badly for ballet Wednesday night. The audience was filled with young and /or newcomers to dance and people related so much more to Keigwin and Urban Bush Women. The two ballets performed — one by Royal Ballet of Flanders — was a very abstract and rather slow-moving meditation on the passage of time and consisted of four couples dressed in generic pink leotards and white shorts doing abstract movements center stage while others dressed in black simply walked slowly around the stage’s perimeter.

The other ballet performed Wednesday night was NYCB’s small-scale one-man performance of Jerome Robbins’s “A Suite of Dances,” in which a male dancer interacts with an onstage violinist, at times almost cutely competitively. Robbins is my favorite “old time” choreographer, but he did most of his great work in the 1940s and 50s. And even though this particular piece had its premiere in 1994, the movement still had a very 50s feel to it, like Fancy Free. I love many of his ballets (particularly Fancy Free, as it’s often performed by my favorites like him and him), but I feel like every time I go to the ballet nine times out of ten they’re putting on something decades or centuries old. The audience was so much more into the aforementioned two pieces, not the ballet. I left with the feeling that ballet is encountering some serious relevancy problems. Kristin Sloan and I had an interesting little back and forth regarding “Suite” in the comments section on this post. I understand what she is saying, that’s it’s a softer sale, but I don’t know if the audience is really automatically pulled into a man’s own playful encounter with music. At least it doesn’t have the same urgency or speak to the human condition in the same way that glorifying a body Western Culture has long deemed “other” does. I don’t know, perhaps I would have had a different reaction if one of my favorites had performed the piece. There’s something about Marcelo‘s very being that is somehow always contemporary and relatable. It’s an extremely interesting discussion, though, classical ballet’s ability to speak to modern audiences, and I’m very interested to know what others think.

Anyway, that’s why I was so happy last night to see the Wheeldon. It was contemporary, meaningful, relatable, and gorgeously, poetically danced. Also standing out to me in last night’s program was the piece immediately preceding Wheeldon’s, “Inventing Pookie Jenkins” by Kyle Abraham. It began with Abraham, an African American man, sitting in a pile of white tulle, which, when he stood, was revealed to be a long skirt reminiscient to me of Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake. He moved about, first on the ground, then standing, at times jerky, at times with beautiful lyric fluidity, to a soundtrack of gunshots and ambulance or police sirens. Then the soundtrack changed to a provocative / celebratory hip hop song, “Respect Me” by Dizzee Rascal. Abraham’s movements alternated between hip hop and lyrical modern, as he seemingly tried to break free of … of what? A policeman’s custody, stereotypes superimposed on him, even his own self-image — which took on both a racial and gender significance. It really just blew me away and if you ever get a chance to see him perform, by all means do!

Tomorrow night is, sadly, the last night of the festival. I’ll be looking forward to “Quick” by Indian company Srishti, in which several ‘London businessmen’ use classical Bharantanatyam technique and South Indian rhythms to deal with today’s cut-throat corporate climate. Interesting! I’ll also be looking forward to “The Evolution of a Secured Feminine” by Camille A. Brown, which I’m dying to see just because of its name alone! (go here for Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s audio interview with Brown), Jorma Elo’s Brake the Eyes, which I blogged about before, and South African troupe Via Katlehong Dance.

Finally, I’m very excited about the illustrious Vanity Fair contributing editor James Wolcott’s commenting on my last post on Nureyev!!! Apropos of that post, apparently there was a big book party for author Kavanagh, which he attended and wrote about on his blog. Sounds fun, albeit a bit nerve-wracking! There were many members of the ‘glitterati’ there, including Jay McInerney, an abundance of “New Yorker” people, and even our favorite Sir Alastair :) It made me think of the book parties I’ve been to — only two: one for my former Feminist Jurisprudence professor, Drucilla Cornell, a comparably very academic, toned-down affair, and one for a friend of a friend, Ben Schrank, at which I made a flaming fool of myself in front of favorite author Colson Whitehead, a story which I’ll have to save for another day since this post is now 500,000 words long.

Anyway, while I’m kind of on the subject, for reasons that are too ridiculously complicated to explain, I haven’t been able to set up a “recent comments” column here yet, so just want to point out that artist Bill Shannon whose work “Window” I reviewed earlier, left a comment on that post, along with a YouTube link; and Ruth left a comment on my Suzanne Farrell post inviting interested people to participate in a Farrell fan site she’s set up.

Okay, I’m finally done blabbering. More on my final FFD later this weekend :)

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18 Responses to Yay, Christopher Wheeldon Saves Ballet! And Wendy Whelan :) And Pasha!

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  2. Bob says:

    It’s great that Christopher Wheeldon is trying to make ballet more relevant to young people but keep in mind that most young people who are willing to go to dance events are still likely to prefer “Love Songs” and “Batty Moves” to any type of classical ballet, including such masterpieces as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Serenade, Concerto BArocco, and Symphony in C. This is, after all, the age of rap and hip hop and most young people have not yet developed the personal maturity and aesthetic taste to appreciate the classical and neoclassical works of such great choreographers as Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine, Ashton and Robbins. That’s the bad news but it’s no reason for despair. Because the good news is that if they start to develop some appreciation of dance when they are young, they might eventually, as they get a little older, develop an understanding and appreciation of classical and neoclassical ballet. I did not start attending the ballet on a regular basis until I was 40 years old and at that time most of the other people in the audience were older (and in many cases, much older) than I. I think that has always been the case. So yes, it’s wonderful that Wheeldon is trying to reach out to a younger audience and there are others who share Wheeldon’s vision and will support his efforts but don’t expect the audiences for future Morphoses programs to be primarily twenty and thirty somethings. The acquisition of a taste for any real ballet does in fact take time. But ultimately yes, ballet will survive.

    As for Jerome Robbins, while he did create some of his best ballets in the 40s and 50s, don’t forget some of the terrific ones he did in subsequent decades: Dances At A Gathering, Glass Pieces, In the Night, Four Seasons, The Goldberg VAriations, I’m Old Fashioned, and In G Major – just to name a few.

  3. tonya says:

    Hi Bob — well, I also think things like Batty Moves and other work by Urban Bush Women (I saw a bit of it at Jacob’s Pillow) speaks to a younger audience in its social relevance; people see real, contemporary meaning in it and can relate it to their own lives and what they see in the world around them. Black women’s bodies are deemed not traditionally beautiful, so something that challenges that, especially with really fun — and probably for many, exotic — African dance is really engaging.

    I understand what you mean about people needing to develop the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate classical (and I think even contemporary) ballet, but I still don’t understand why the opera and visual arts are not having the same kind of problem attracting the young. Whenever I go to the opera I see tons of young people (up in the nosebleed section with me!) but they’re still there, trying it. And whenever I walk around Chelsea browzing art galleries, same thing, I see a bunch of people in their 20s and 30s walking around clutching their Time Out NY gallery listings, looking for the galleries they circled as having an exhibit they were interested in. And these aren’t really arty types, just regular people. We’ve been having this discussion about why young people will try an opera before a ballet at the Foot in Mouth blog and critic Paul Parish believes it’s mainly because ballet doesn’t translate as well to film (so that they’re not able to go out and try a video first, or become interested in ballet through inexpensively watching it at home), whereas opera does record well on CD, so they’re able to go buy a CD recording at the store and become hooked on that listening to it over and over again, which leads them to the opera house to see it live. I wonder if there’s also possibly a disconnect between the more popular forms of dance — either on TV or dance like BAtty Moves that has clear relevance to their lives — and abstract ballet. I don’t know… I don’t really think ballet lacks relevance so much; I think it’s more that it’s hard to discern meaning in some things and people don’t understand a lot of it. And there just isn’t a lot of really good arts writing to help them out.

  4. Selly says:

    Wow. I just looked up a video of Morphoses and that is pretty dang amazing. I will be forever intrigued by ballet, wherever it goes. Whether that be back to rigid European technique or moving forward to even more abstract yet oh so organic contemporary choreography, I will always want to be a part of, if that means dancing, choreographing, teaching, or even ending up as a silent spectator of the art form. It’s crazy how there’s the fusion of classical and crazy new choreography out there.

    Stay on your toes,

    Selly

    P.S. When I first saw the name of this post on Technorati, I’m thinking “How the heck did Pasha of all people save ballet???”. Then I actually read the post.

  5. tonya says:

    Hi Selly — thanks for finding that Morphoses video, I hadn’t seen it:

    http://danceoutlook.blogspot.com/2007/10/christopher-wheeldons-morphoses.html

    I don’t know what that’s from, but it looks like I’ll be finding out soon! Yeah, they’re the talk of the town here; I just saw a preview at Fall For Dance but I’m pretty excited to see their season which is coming up in two weeks. I’m very very happy to find another fan of both SYTYCD / ballroom AND ballet!!! There aren’t many of us!

  6. Bob says:

    Tonya – as always, your thoughts are very perceptive and stimulating. I think Paul Parish makes a good point – young people have more exposure to recordings of operas and more exposure to the visual arts as well (both at home and in school) than they do to ballet and as we all know, ballet does not translate well to film. There is no question in my mind that while most young people have extremely inadequate exposure to the arts in general while growing up, it is nonethless true that more of them have had some experience of opera in their homes than of ballet. Another factor to take into account is that of the ongoing problem so many men in this country have with ballet – the “homophobic factor”. We’ve made some progress in society with regard to this issue but there is still such a long way to go. The sad fact is that a woman – especially a young woman – can more easily persuade a guy she is dating (or is married to) to attend an opera than a ballet.

    We should also keep in mind that ballet companies have by and large done a lousy job of marketing themselves to the public. One significant piece of evidence for the importance of marketing is what happened with New York City Ballet’s very effective marketing of Romeo and Juliet last season. As you yourself noted, that ballet was sold out or virtually sold out for every performance. Why? Because the company marketed the ballet in a way that Broadway producers market their plays and musicals. And guess what? Whatever the critics might have said, the great majority of people who attended R & J really enjoyed it – and just might come back for more. I make that observation from personal experience because I saw R & J three times – twice at the State Theater and once at Saratoga Springs and I was amazed at how enthusiastically people (many of whom had never attended a ballet before) responded to it.

    Finally, let us not forget an important point you have already made – for ballet to thrive, it is still critical that new choreographers emerge who, while preserving the essential forms and vocabulary of classical ballet, still succeed in rethinking and reinventing it for a new generation. Petipa accomplished that for a 19th century audience and Balanchine did the same for a 20th century audience. Hopefully, Wheeldon (or some future choreographer inspired by Wheeldon) will do the same for our 21st century.

  7. Selly says:

    I’m very very happy to find another fan of both SYTYCD / ballroom AND ballet!!! There aren’t many of us!
    ===x===
    Yeah. I’ve taken ballroom before… from my old ballet teacher… at a summer camp… 6 years ago… but I did like it! And it’s pretty amazing to watch.

    Selly

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  9. Natalia says:

    I’ve been thinking about how you described one of the ballets as abstract, and I think you may be touching on something really key.

    I was thinking, what are the big overriding themes in new visual arts right now. Like in 50 years, how will art critics describe the major art movements of the turn of the 21st century? I’ve been to a handul of exhibitions of up-and-coming artsts, etc over the past year, and there are definitely some major themes: Most of the art I saw was representational – there was very little abstract art at all, and what was abstract in concept was created out of familliar and recognizable items or images. Portraits and art depicting people is lately very realistic and unidealized (Oddly, a lot of stuf reminded me of the classic Flemish paintings of maids and traidsmen) A lot of artists are working with taking handcrafts and folk arts and incorporating them into high art. Also, both in the US and UK, I saw a number of large works incorporating photo and video from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

    In that context, it doesn’t really seem like abstraction is really a major theme in the art world right now. Abstract dances portraying idealized characters seem to run completely counter to where other art is going. The other dances you described seemed closer to the current multi-cultural, DIY, realities-of-daily-life aesthetic.

  10. tonya says:

    That’s really interesting, Natalia! Thanks for pointing it out. I’ve been reading a lot of visual art reviews lately — mainly because of this little argument going on in the ballet world about whether dance reviews are worse than other arts reviews — and I hadn’t really thought about it, but now that you mention it, from the reviews I’ve read, there does seem to be very little abstract visual art out there right now. That’s really interesting how one art form may run contrary to the rest and what that means for that art form.

    What is also upsetting me is how critics and others are insisting on viewingand judging everything on abstract (I guess ballet) terms. With a lot of these non-ballet dance performances, I feel like there’s a key there, there’s something going on, there is some kind of representation, but the critics (not all but many) are looking only at the movement, how beautiful and awkward it is, judging it on those terms, and completely dismissing it if it doesn’t live up to their standard of beauty. It’s like people are afraid of representation because that’s “political.”

    In particular, it’s really really upsetting me how people are dismissing Kyle Abraham’s work, which I wrote about in the post (kind of interesting combo of hip hop and ballet). Here is this African American man doing something that is so clearly meant to evoke racial injustice and the constricting nature of gender stereotypes and all everyone can say is that he only uses his upper body (chief NYTimes dance critic Alastair Macaulay), or, although he combined hip hop with other movement the structure wasn’t sound (Justin Peck on the Winger). So, basically everyone is critiquing in terms of the movement vocabulary and not anything more. I want to post more on this when I have more time to gather my thoughts, but I just wish critics and others would look more at meaning and representation and what the movement is trying to convey or evoke. If they still want to criticize the limited movement vocabulary then fine, but at least try to unlock what is actually going on in the piece.

    But of course a lot of the current ballet out there is intentionally abstract and there isn’t supposed to be real ‘meaning,’ so that’s likely what’s compelling them to look at everything that way.

  11. tonya says:

    Oh and also, like you mentioned with the US and UK artists including in their work videos and photos from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, I feel like that’s the future of ballet — incorporating different kinds of movement with ballet to create something unique. That’s what great choreographers of the past basically did: Balanchine (ballet + American jazz), Tharp (ballet with social dance), Robbins (ballet with jazz and social), and modern dance greats Dunham and Duncan — it’s time now to expand even beyond America — there’s a whole world out there, let’s finally acknowledge it ballet choreographers of tomorrow!!!

  12. Natalia says:

    It does seem a little ridiculous to judge a piece of art only on its execution, not on its message. Seems a little bit like focusing on Andy Warhol’s sloppy screen-printing technique while ignoring his art’s commentary on pop culture.

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  15. tonya says:

    That’s a great analogy, Natalia! Thanks!

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