American Ballet Theatre

at the Arts Center of the College of DuPage, August 16-18

By Laura Molzahn

Ballet is a huge albino dinosaur stumbling across the plain of the late 20th century. It’s classist, sexist, and very Christian in its denial of the earthbound body and glorification of the airy mind and spirit: think of all the sprites, nymphs, swans, and dead people in classical ballet. Or, to be more precise, ballet dancers make the body both visible and invisible. I’ll never forget the moment when, watching American Ballet Theatre perform Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, I glimpsed something floating toward the ceiling like a feather in an updraft and realized it was a ballerina’s leg.

Designed to be performed by and for members of the French court, ballet is now almost prohibitively expensive to mount–and attend. Thus American Ballet Theatre’s appearance at the Arts Center of the College of DuPage featured a live orchestra but a reduced complement of dancers in three short 20th-century pieces rather than one full-length classic. With tickets at $50 to $55, I don’t think the audience was getting any trickle-down effect, however. The most we could hope for was that ABT was operating in the black rather than the red.

Which is fine–if you think ballet is worth saving from extinction. One of the works here made me think it dead for sure, and a good thing too: Clark Tippet’s S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., a 1988 piece for four men accompanied by a live barbershop quartet. I was intrigued by the idea of this dance because my father once belonged to the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, and I still have a taste for the ringing chords and dissonant harmonies sliding into resolution that I used to hear drifting up from the kitchen as my dad practiced with his quartet. I was curious to see what a ballet choreographer would do with barbershop’s wide dynamic range and odd phrasing, which can vary in a single song from jolly and quick to agonizingly attenuated.

Well, Tippet did absolutely nothing with them. Instead he plastered on the cliches, some boring, others offensive. Straw boaters and canes are to be tolerated, I guess, but the mime–hands to chest at the word “heart,” hands to head at the word “regret”–was little better than the “acting” I used to see at S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. shows, and often worse. A little soft shoe, a few barrel turns–none of the choreography was inspired, and none of it was performed well. These are ballet dancers, trained practically from birth to pull up, away from the floor, not sink into it and have a good time. All four of these men looked miserable. Added to this indignity was a drag bit in which one man was decked out in a skirt and floppy watermelon breasts and chased the others around the stage while the singers intoned “Somebody take my gal!” If this is Tippet’s idea of catapulting dance into the future, ballet is dead for sure. There’s something inherently conservative about barbershop singing, whose sentimental lyrics celebrate a long-gone time in a thoroughly white, middle-class, straight world; indeed, at one point S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. was in trouble for excluding blacks. Tippet’s dance hangs onto the worst of that world: its sexism, mindless patriotism, and easy solutions.

Antony Tudor’s 1975 The Leaves Are Fading also brings ballet into the 20th century, but barely. The music is from the 1880s, a collection of Dvorak string pieces, and the ballet was made late in Tudor’s life: an Englishman, he began choreographing for Ballet Rambert in the 30s and for Ballet Theatre (now ABT) in 1940. The Leaves Are Fading has less of a story than other well-known works like Lilac Garden (1936) and Pillar of Fire (1942), but though it’s more abstract it’s equally psychological. Tudor’s ballets remind me of the great turn-of-the-century novelist Henry James because they’re so focused on the workings of the mind and heart, which Tudor, like James, believed struggled under tragic social constraints. An elderly man when he made this dance, Tudor framed it with the conceit that its romantic interludes are the recollections of a woman looking back at her youth. And these duets, solos, and ensemble sections convey the gentleness and politeness of an earlier time. The Leaves Are Fading looks back, not forward, despite Tudor’s genius for subtle eroticism: sometimes, when the music pauses, he brings the dancing to a standstill, as man and woman face each other in a moment pregnant with erotic suspense; later, the woman’s open, offered palms and forearms signal her complete sexual surrender.

The only work on this program that brought ballet into sync with modern life was James Kudelka’s 1994 Cruel World. Though again the music is from the turn of the century–Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, arranged for strings–Kudelka brings out its wildness and darkness: this is dance better suited to Dostoyevsky than to the czar’s court. The costumes recall medieval peasants, but in the manner of postmodern fashion designers, Carmen Alie and Denis Lavoie add their own twists to the suggestion of earlier times, using luminescent fabrics in muddy colors: gold, brown, green, aqua. No pastels, no tutus. Scott Zielinski’s lighting is similarly lurid: an oppressive darkness hovers over the dancers.

Tudor’s memories of true, perfect love do not hold here. Kudelka, relying I think on the rigidly defined gender roles of ballet, looks into love’s heart of darkness. Though the first movement is filled with a wild, rocking energy that lifts the dancers and sucks them under like waves at sea, the following three sections deliberately, even ceremonially, expose the destructive forces driving men and women. The second movement opens with a woman (the magnificent Kathleen Moore) surrounded by a half circle of crouching men whose raised arms create a kind of fence around her; when they lift her she remains passive, as stiff and lifeless as a sleepwalker or corpse. There’s the suggestion of rape as she tries to break out of their circle, and the only way she can escape is by hauling herself offstage by their raised arms, navigating a treacherous forest of tangled, phallic trunks and roots. The third movement reverses the situation: a single man (Guillaume Graffin) is surrounded by women. Here female passivity becomes threatening and coercive: the women’s steady regard of the man as they remain upright and almost inanimate seems to push him into activity, an enforced, slow-motion braggadocio. The signature phrase of the final movement is a man holding a woman at the waist and pushing her torso forward, then pulling it up, as if she were a rag doll.

But it isn’t just Kudelka’s critical take on sex roles that makes Cruel World modern–it’s his whole approach to ballet. He uses toe shoes to increase women’s range of motion from floor to ceiling, not just to lift them toward the heavens; the flat feet and bent knees and horizontal energy of his choreography make the movement swing down and out as well as up. And he often employs a downward gaze even when the dancers aim for the skies: it’s strange and wonderful to see a woman lifted high but looking down, as if she were reluctant to be there or anticipating her descent. Bitterness and defeat singe every aspiration. And by changing the look and feel of ballet, by acknowledging the world’s pervasive sadness–which no final romantic triumph overcomes–Kudelka brings new life to the form, offering hope that the dinosaur can adapt and survive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo from “The Leaves Are Fading”.