at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 5-7

In a bit of eclectic programming last week, American Ballet Theatre juxtaposed a 50-year-old Balanchine work and a Twyla Tharp Chicago premiere. This succinct lesson in 20th-century ballet demonstrated not only how Tharp follows Balanchine’s line but also how she extends it, risking innovations more queer looking and far-reaching than anything he would have attempted, for all the transfusions he gave the ballet idiom.

If these two choreographers were just formalists, we wouldn’t care so much about them. But both work from a personal vision that gives their dances an emotional charge. Ballet Imperial is informed not only by Balanchine’s nostalgia for a particular time and place–Saint Petersburg in the era of Petipa–but also by a general longing for a safe and ordered world. This dance rests firmly on its solid 19th-century score, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, even as it exploits the music’s occasional sparse, anxious, and modern-sounding piano solos.

The set, the costumes, and the choreography all enclose and reassure us. Towering midnight blue draperies line the sides of the stage, and the rear is closed off with sheer white curtains and a fairy-tale painted backdrop of the Neva River and Peter-Paul fortress: the box of the stage is even further boxed in. The monochromatic costumes–all in shades of blue and white, with the exception of one pink tutu–are uniformly regal. And at one point in the third and final movement, Balanchine lines up the corps along the sides and rear of the stage, almost regimentally straight and ordered, to frame–further enclose, protect, and set off–the soloists performing center stage.

The choreography emphasizes symmetry, particularly symmetrical repetition. The female corps of 16 breaks up into lines of 4; one line performs a phrase in unison, which the next line repeats, and so on until all four lines have completed it. Then the innermost dancers in each line move in unison to the center and back out; that phrase is repeated by the next dancers in each line until the fourth and outermost have completed it. Geometric patterns rule: squares, circles, diamonds, parallel lines set diagonally or straight, star shapes. And there are no ends left untied. At the beginning of the second movement the female soloist in white leaves the stage and the male soloist, flanked by two lines of five women, flings first one line behind him and then the other in a slow-motion crack-the-whip pattern. The woman in white reappears at the rear of the stage and advances to the man through a living corridor, five women on each side, to embrace him. At the end of this movement the sequence is reversed: she embraces him and departs through the same corridor; he gathers his two lines once again and cracks the whip. This moment of reverse deja vu is oddly elegiac.

We might think of Ballet Imperial as excessively ordered and rather stale if it weren’t for its kernel of story and its human longing for a platonic ideal of womanhood–an ideal that just might be partially achieved in the concrete bodies of actual dancers. Moreover the choreography for the three soloists often admits disorder–or if not disorder, the apparent freedom and randomness that are a legacy of the Romantic era. And the dance has its own stately joy, particularly the third movement with its party atmosphere: the music speeds up and plays us little ditties, the solos come fast and furious, and the footwork is as merry and light as a child’s spontaneous jig.

A sense of flux rather than stability is Tharp’s aim in Brief Fling, though in its way the dance is as ordered as Ballet Imperial: both works have a shape through time as well as moment by moment. But Balanchine was content to echo the shape of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, whereas Tharp, ever the individual, has created her own music: a pastiche of Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens and Handel in the Strand and a score by contemporary composer Michael Colombier created for this piece. The costumes, by Isaac Mizrahi, are yet another ingredient in this crazy salad: two “principals” are dressed in dark blue, four supporting dancers are dressed in red, another four in green, and the corps of eight is in shades of beige and gray. Everyone wears plaid.

“Brief” is the word for this dance, which speeds by in ten quick sections; the whole thing is only 20 minutes long. (Tharp disdains doing anything “important,” though she has plenty to say.) It’s easy to distinguish the first five sections, but the last five seem intentionally fudged: they go by in a blur, especially on a first viewing. Tartan patterns come to mind, the way different colors in a plaid both remain distinct and blend together–at the beginning of Brief Fling, we see the colors distinct and separate; by the end they’ve been melded.

Those colors–not surprisingly, since this is Tharp–are ballet and modern dance (or approximations thereof). I put the green contingent at the modern end of the spectrum, the blue pair at the ballet end, and the red quartet and the beige-and-gray corps somewhere in the middle. But–also because this is Tharp–the two styles are never completely distinct. When the ballet duo appears for the second time, for instance, in the section called “Country Gardens Variations,” their dancing is noticeably cockeyed. It’s ballet in a fun-house mirror, with ripples and exaggerations and odd angles and proportions, straight legs that turn rubbery and rigid torsos that collapse.

Very different kinds of music also help distinguish different dance styles–though as the piece goes on Tharp increasingly mixes and matches music and dance. Colombier’s music can sound military, as it does in “Tattoo,” the opening section with its snare-drum beats; at other times it’s menacing, like great winds moaning at your door. But it always has a modern edge. Grainger’s music, particularly the familiar Country Gardens, is so pastel it almost seems parodic–or perhaps Tharp is just using it that way. With the first few notes of the “Country Gardens” section, which immediately follows “Tattoo” and features the two ballet dancers, the audience breaks into titters.

That laughter comes not only from the sudden change in music but also from the suddenly insipid look of the choreography: it’s small, careful, precise, like barre exercises, not dancing–ballet in its most cautious and dismal dress. Like Grainger’s music, this section builds to a climax; but overall it’s too roped in to be much fun–except as parody. Because Tharp seems to undermine ballet right from the start, it’s difficult to think of its two exponents as principals (even if they are ceded the stage–well, almost–at the end of the work).

Watching Brief Fling, I thought of the Scottish clans that created the original tartans. The most warlike factions here are the green and red contingents, which are featured in “Double Quartet”; in the “Fugue” section that immediately follows, whole troops take flying leaps at each other. That aggression, that edge, is the infusion ballet needs to avoid falling into a state of “Country Gardens” anemia.

Other aggressions pop up in Brief Fling: part of what distinguishes the factions is how roughly or gently the men handle the women. The blue man usually partners his lady with the deference typical of traditional ballet. But the green faction, which includes only one woman, shows no respect whatever for the delicacy of its representative female. She spends much of her time in the air being unceremoniously tossed and flung; she’s held aloft blatantly by her butt; and at one point she’s seated comfortably on a man’s shoulders, her crotch pressed firmly into the back of his neck. This woman is at least as cocksure as the men; when she tumbles down their extended arms to the floor, her legs click open and shut with the dangerous action of a Swiss army knife. (Kathleen Moore is unsurpassably authoritative in this role; a miracle of simultaneous concentration and ease, she holds us in the palm of her hand for the short, sinuous space of her solo in “Suite.” She even manages to make a nonchalant slap to her thighs mean business.)

I saw Brief Fling as a very personal dance, a piece of self-history. Consider the different color groups: though each occasionally copies moves from the others, each has its own characteristic Tharpian look. The reds are daggerlike, resembling the pointe dancers in her In the Upper Room; the blue, like Baryshnikov in Push Comes to Shove, make ballet floppy and self-parodic; and the green–the ruffians, with their open shirts, floppy pants for the woman, and micro-mini kilts for the men–are the aggressive clowns we’ve seen in such early Tharp works as Eight Jelly Rolls. The look of the corps is smudged–or perhaps I just didn’t notice them as much.

Brief Fling resembles In the Upper Room, if only in its complexity and vigor. But I think it’s a better dance, a dance integrated and buoyed by emotion (when In the Upper Room first came out, Arlene Croce likened it to an aerobics competition). In Brief Fling’s “Epilogue,” when the green quartet make their final slow exit at the rear of the stage, in a second position so wide they’re about as close to the floor as they can get and still move, Kevin O’Day’s splayed hand seems to wave good-bye. Is this the last we’ll see of Tharp’s early rough-and-tumble sorcery? Will the blue couple, who’ve been graciously handed to downstage center by the other dancers, retain what they’ve assimilated of that style? Why is the final action the corps crossing the rear of the space, to Colombier’s deep, menacing, windy music? Is the corps background noise, or the future of dance? Brief Fling is a dance for its time–for Tharp’s time, with her long history and uncertain future.

Massine’s Gaiete Parisienne closed this program; its vulgar riot of poisonous colors and obvious jokes was like a squirt of ketchup and mustard over a gourmet meal. Though well danced and historically “important,” it’s laughably destitute of the formal beauty and emotion that distinguish Balanchine’s and Tharp’s art.

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