Just Say "No" To Minimalism, Please!

(all photos by Richard Termine)

So, last night I went to the Guggenheim primarily to see this Works & Process combination dance / fashion program, “A Two Part Affair — Ballet and Modern Meet Uptown.” I was really looking forward to it because, unlike the other W & P programs, which are more of a preview of an upcoming show, this was a performance only to be shown at the museum. Two choreographers — one, Pam Tanowitz, from the Modern world; the other, Brian Reeder, from Ballet — collaborated to form a kind of hybrid dance form.

Also exciting was that Jillian Lewis, from Project Runway, did the costumes. She, along with Tanowitz and Reeder, spoke about the production on a panel moderated by dance writer Robert Greskovic (who is actually a pretty funny guy — who knew! — cracking jokes right and left, making fun of himself for being so out of it as to not know who Lewis was :) I probably shouldn’t admit it but neither did I :S — I just don’t watch enough TV…)

Anyway, the program, as its name implied, consisted of two parts: the first danced to Renaissance music; the second to modern composers like Charles Wuorinen (creator of the upcoming operatic version of Brokeback Mountain), Philip Glass, and Lou Harrison. This second part, I far preferred to the first, though to be honest, I thought most of it was pretty eh… pretty, but just nothing that really blew me away, either costume- or choreography-wise.

I feel like we’re currently in the midst of a rather unfortunate period of Minimalism. Choreography consisted mainly of ballerinas tip-toe-ing around, taking very small steps, men and the sole female Modern dancer doing these small side-sweeping steps, sometimes with flexed feet, sometimes pointed. Once in a while there’d be a leg slightly raised and a very small waist-high lift, but overall there was nothing spectacular, nothing the least bit dramatic about the movement. I think choreographers still need to tell a kind of story with the movement, even if it’s not a full narrative but of the Balanchine (“whenever a man and woman are onstage together, there’s a story) variety. I just didn’t see that here — dancers kind of partnered at random with one another, broke into a short solo, but there didn’t seem to be anything to it that you could hook onto.
And the costumes — well, here are some more pictures so you can see for yourselves:

(again, all photos by Richard Termine)

So, as you can see, all of the men’s costumes consisted of pink or blue diaphanous t-shirts and tights with cut-outs that were also see-through in places. The female dancers all wore leotards with exterior underwire bra; the two ballerinas sassy little striped tutus and the Modern woman a lacey thing that wrapped around her neckline feather boa-like. But the tutus and boa were worn only in the first, Renaissance section; they were taken off for the modern.

I mean, Lewis was likely going for sexy– she said she wanted to focus on the body, highlight the human form — but to me, I guess that’s just been done before. Plus, she used such light colors and mundane-looking fabrics, the costumes just kind of almost weren’t even there. And, even including tutus and boa, they just didn’t seem to fit at all in the context of the Renaissance. I then remembered seeing David Hallberg dance earlier at the Guggenheim in a fabulous Christian Lacroix. He left out the delicious candy-apple velvet jacket, but here are some pics he took of himself in the tights. I mean, hello — THIS is what we need to spice up Ballet, I say! I say away with minimalism; bring back Lacroix!

Anyway, I really did appreciate the concept of this program; I think collaborations can be very fruitful and lead to innovation and creativity. Back to the dancing for a moment, I really just think the choreographers needed some more time. There was one point during the second, modern, part where Roman Zhurbin (center, in the bottom picture) held his arms out and each ballerina grabbed on. He lifted, walked slowly around stage carrying the two of them. To me, it was beautifully reminiscent of Balanchine’s Apollo. At center stage was one of the male modern dancers in a kind of Martha Graham-esque pose, body bent over forward, foot flexed back, seeming to carry a non-existent world atop his arched-over shoulders. So, also Apollo-like, yet fundamentally Modern in form. It was like a double-sided Apollo. I feel like they should have gotten rid of everything else, used this stunning moment as a starting point.

I think the rest of it was kind of too hybrid. They didn’t use the Ballet dancers to show the beauty and poetry of the dance form; ballerinas were going on pointe and Zhurbin would point instead of flex his foot at times, but that doesn’t really mean anything. It just looked like a very watered-down form of Ballet. And then both Zhurbin and the female ballet dancers had these very muscular bodies — particularly Zhurbin (aka Ballet god! — never noticed that before; ABT is really under-using him…), and the Modern dancers were more thin, almost a bit scrawny in comparison. But of course there’s a reason for that — Ballet requires great use of the legs, the thigh muscles for those huge jumps and the calves for pointe work. And the upper body is so developed for spectacular overhead lifting. If you don’t show some of that difference in the movement, I think the bodies end up looking a little weirdly unbalanced…

One final thing: writer Claudia La Rocco didn’t see the program, unfortunately, but here’s an interesting discussion she and her commenters started about Ballet’s current kind of identity crisis and how costuming fits into that.

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