at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 28-April 2

If institutions can suffer the same diseases as individuals, then the Joffrey Ballet is afflicted with acute schizophrenia. Watching a program that includes both poles of the company’s repertory–the revival of Balanchine’s 1932 Cotillon and Gerald Arpino’s 1983 Round of Angels, for instance–produces peculiar sensations of displacement and dislocation, almost as if one’s own sense of time and personal taste, have been skewed.

The Joffrey is the preeminent repository of “historically important” dances of the 20th century as well as the country’s leading ballet exponent of modernist aesthetics. Their Chicago season included Cotillon, the reconstructions of Nijinsky’s L’apres-midi d’un faune (1912) and Le sacre du printemps (1913), Massine’s Parade (1917), Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938), Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom (1976), the pas de deux from Robert Joffrey’s Remembrances (1973), and five dances by artistic director Arpino, choreographed over the last 20-odd years.

Arpino’s choreographic style conditions the company’s dancing, and did so long before Joffrey’s death last year. The death-defying leaps, excruciating splits, and limitless extensions of Arpino’s choreography hone dancers’ technique to razor precision. Arpino’s relentless adherence to every peak and valley of his chosen scores–the utter predictability of choreographic stress and accent–gives his dancers an utter uniformity of phrasing and interpretation. His dances are so lurid–in their crowd-pleasing exploitation of virtuosic technique, in their tendency to reduce all human relationships to orgies and orgasms–that the dancers never emerge as dancers, as individual personalities, or even as human beings.

Arpino is a choreographer working with the ballet idiom–the nouns and verbs of releve, plie, pointe work, arabesque, fouette–but not in ballet style as we know it.

Dancegoers and critics tend to place ballet style along a continuum between two extremes, the classical and the romantic: the New York City Ballet is America’s exemplar of classical style; American Ballet Theatre, our most characteristically romantic. The first is concerned with abstract qualities–purity of line, elegance, musicality; the second with affective qualities of expression and imagination. Dances, dancers, and companies usually tend toward one of these poles, but none can be purely one or the other. In Arpino’s aesthetic universe, line is less important than sheer muscular elasticity and extremes of elevation, extension, or speed; elaborateness is more interesting than elegance; the choreography is, at best, clear, straightforward music visualization, and its expressive range is defined by the collective libido of the late 20th century: pop modernism.

Round of Angels begins with a huddle of seven dancers before a star-sprinkled backdrop. The huddle unfolds, revealing the central couple surrounded by a circle of five men lying on the floor, rolling and extending their limbs. An obvious celestial circle, just as the title suggests. Angels fly, right? And so does Leslie Carothers, her arched torso lifted and swung in porpoiselike arcs–over and over again, lifted and swooped by any two of these nearly faceless, interchangeable male automatons. They spread across the stage in lines, arcs, and eddies suggesting orbiting planets. The seven dancers perform still more’splits, more rolls, frightening leaps, dangerous catches. The men arrange their arms, raylike, behind Carothers. They drag her, lift her, turn her; she never moves of her own volition. Round of Angels presents its dancers as machines, steel legs and torsos as flexible as electrical conduit, encased in silvery metallic unitards. The qualities of these dancers’ performance–their astonishingly pliant torsos, the unlikely height to which they leap and extend, their very coldness and lack of expression–lend the dance a fierce, alien beauty.

Arpino’s Viva Vivaldi! (1965) is less monotonous than Round of Angels but no less predictable. The dance caroms off every crescendo and slight accelerando of the score, the Concerto in D Major for Violin, Strings, and Cembalo; but at least the score inspires movement that covers a wider dynamic range than Round of Angels. Our cues are as clear as the dancers’: Viva Vivaldi! makes certain we know exactly when to gasp, applaud, cheer. The dance’s veneer of elegance–its arabesques and bows, its spangled dust and cream tutus–nearly covers its gimmicky splits, flailing arms, and furious footwork.

Suite Saint-Saens (1978) is immediately familiar: we’ve already seen these ballerinas dragged across the stage in taut arabesques, these fabulously fluid torsos, these whiplike arms, small, sharp jumps, and careful beats. What’s different? Sometimes the ballerinas get to push back (using the same arabesques sautes that the men occasionally use to nudge the women backward), and some of the supported turns are tilted off-axis; the dancers wear soft-colored practice clothes, and someone else composed the score.

The Joffrey consists of accomplished, beautiful–if somewhat anonymous–dancers schooled to the pitch Arpino’s choreography demands. Such technical sophistication is irrelevant to much of the company’s “historically important” repertory, and can actually deaden some of the works. The dancers’ low profiles serve some of the historical dances, and hamper others.

A number of the Joffrey’s historical dances have frankly modernist aesthetics that suit the company admirably. Parade, a dance about four larger-than-life figures touting three music-hall acts–a conjurer, a novelty dancer, and two acrobats–choreographed by Massine and designed by Picasso, is a modern dance despite its use of mime and ballet technique; and it’s a spectacle more than a ballet. Parade is interesting, even in 1989, because it’s still novel and noisy; abstraction and affect–and maybe even the qualities of the dancing itself–are simply beside the point.

Nijinsky’s Le sacre du printemps is a profoundly moving, vital, entirely modern dance, the least museumlike of the Joffrey’s historical repertoire. It’s difficult to imagine a single individual actually choreographing this dance: Le sacre du printemps seems to have sprung whole from the collective unconscious, its ritual of individual sacrifice and universal rebirth immediately, viscerally understandable without reference to the cosmology of any particular culture. Sage, wise woman, sacrifice, and tribe: their archetypal power is everywhere.

I’ve begun to think that only the Joffrey could dance Sacre so well. Archetypes are necessarily faceless: individuality makes them personally meaningful and culturally insignificant. Sacre’s relentless stomping, the pounding steps that mark the pulse of Stravinsky’s score even when that pulse slips far into the sonic background, does not allow for individual musicality: these steps must be painstakingly precise, or muddy. The movement itself–its slightly hunched torsos, small fists held close to the body, the legs excruciatingly bent and turned in, the jumps performed without preparatory plies, the sheer stamina involved in keeping such a running, spinning pace for so long–places extraordinary physical demands, nearly inhuman demands, on its dancers.

Nijinsky’s L’apres-midi d’un faune is the real casualty of the Joffrey style. In the last year, the dancers have fully metabolized the choreography’s harsh two-dimensionality, but they’ve lost the little subtlety of expression they once had. The dance is randy instead of erotic, furtive instead of feral; if it weren’t for Leon Bakst’s astonishing costumes and decor, the tame, self-aware faun and coy chief nymph would simply make me cross.

The company’s Chicago premieres, Loring’s Billy the Kid and Balanchine’s Cotillon, are welcome additions to the repertoire. People who particularly enjoy Balanchine’s most severely classical dances may find Cotillon a bit florid, primarily interesting for the way the choreography prefigures La Valse, La Sonnambula, and Serenade; and people who especially appreciate the complex interrelationships of stage design, scenario, and choreography typical of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes may find Cotillon unexpectedly plain.

Christian Berard uses a confectioner’s palette for the costumes of Cotillon–pink, peach, tangerine, lemon, lime, chartreuse, emerald, primary red–colors so bright that the pale, marbled arches of the scenery almost disappear. Boris Kochno’s scenario–a ball complete with a mistress and master of ceremonies, some entertainment by the debutante and her two friends, dances and party games for all–slips by imperceptible degrees from festivity to foreboding. Balanchine’s choreography for the three trios danced by the young girl, the young man, and the friend of the young girl–Tina LeBlanc, Edward Stierle, and Carole Vallesky–is lively and charming, and so are their performances. But it is the Hand of Fate pas de deux, performed by Beatriz Rodriguez and Glenn Edgerton, that forms the dramatic and choreographic core of Cotillon.

Eight white-gloved hands reach from behind a screen; the cavalier strokes them all, and chooses one to be his partner. Instead the character of the Hand of Fate, a woman in black from toe to fingertip, emerges. He hides his face; she pulls his hands away. Alternately they hide and feint; great battements draw her in a circle around him. Eventually he ceases to resist and follows her across the stage, echoing her every step and change of direction. Their hands flick, arms and heads circle in unison, and psychic darkness descends. Even the Grand Rond cannot break the spell: Cotillon ends with the young girl still and alone, the brightly lit center of a maelstrom of circling, spinning guests.

The Joffrey’s Billy the Kid is also dark, but it is the darkness of unresolved oedipal feelings rather than of alienation. The passage of 50 years has dated this once-daring Freudian ballet. The great generalized gestures of the introduction and the coda–movements suggesting whipping, riding, roping, scrubbing, lifting a skirt above a muddy street, scanning the horizon–cross the stage in a wavelike canon. The choreography of the intervening sections–the gunfight over a girl that claims the life of Billy’s innocent mother and determines his destiny, the campfire card games, romantic interludes, the shootings, escapes, and final ambush–is more interesting as theater than as dance.

Billy the Kid is an important document in the history of American ballet; but perhaps like Faune, it’s a victim of the increasing sophistication of dancers and audiences. Even if dances like these belong only to the past, I’d rather study history on the living stage than in books, photographs, dance scores, or even films; as long as the Joffrey Ballet makes history dance, I’ll watch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Herbert Migdoll.