Joffrey Ballet

at the Civic Opera House, March 16-21

When MTV meets pointe shoes, look out. Brash, fast, and fashionable, Billboards is probably the sexiest work ever performed on the Civic Opera House stage. The Joffrey’s new evening-length ballet set to music by Prince stands conventional thinking on its head. Not the idea that ballet demands “great music”–the company has presented ballets set to rock scores by Gerald Arpino, Robert Joffrey, and Twyla Tharp–but the notion that ballet is the highest dance form, a kind of privileged discourse. With its appropriation of movement associated with social, popular, and presentational dance forms, Billboards equates three separate arenas of dance activity–the nightclub dance floor, the opera house, and the television screen. It’s the ultimate postmodernist fantasy: say good-bye to the established canon of dance; media and street forms are formally enshrined in the temple of high art.

“Sometimes It Snows in April” by Laura Dean is a peculiarly cool and silken introduction to the steamy ballet. In the first section, set to an atypically spare and lyrical song, the dance’s vocabulary is austerely classical, and its central images are simple geometric forms in space: straight lines, diagonals. The movement is unembellished–no multiple pirouettes, no jumps with multiple beats–just long, smooth sequences of turns, balances, leaps, and steps that devour space. The 18 dancers seem innumerable, the lines never-ending. The section closes with spinning, dipping lifts, a movement that prefigures the spatial concerns of the next.

The second section, set to “Trust,” sends the dancers spinning like planets revolving on their individual axes and rotating around an unseen sun. Circles, lines, and diagonals alternate; the movement grows increasingly complex–more conventional partnering and less repetition–while maintaining its geometric clarity. When the music changes again, to “Baby, I’m a Star,” the stage erupts in unison jumps and shimmies, evoking a 70s disco. (Remember the Hustle? I could swear I saw not just an allusion, but a direct quotation.) The steps and jumps pound the musical beat as relentlessly as an 80s aerobics class. The costumes too invoke nostalgia; the shiny gray shirts, trousers, and spaghetti-strap dresses sprinkled with silver jewels simultaneously recall John Travolta shirts, the white costumes of Laura Dean Musicians and Dancers, and Dean’s other Joffrey dances.

Charles Moulton’s “Thunder/Purple Rain” is entirely contemporary. Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham’s longtime collaborator, costumes the dancers in a fantastic amalgam of grunge and lingerie (the see-through orange hot pants over a miniature thong was my particular favorite). In spite of the exquisite staging and Howell Binkley’s fine lighting, Moulton’s crude, jejune horseplay left me cold.

Clearly “Thunder/Purple Rain” is a parody of music video, a form Prince and his collaborators have mastered and enlarged. One suspects Moulton of sending up the composer as well. The dance’s vocabulary represents the movement vocabulary and performance style of music video, but Moulton appropriates only a small fraction of that form’s material, and not necessarily the most interesting fraction. The men’s significant movement motif is the human equivalent of the thrusting pelvis and pumping forelegs of a tomcat, the women’s a leaning stance that suggests a cat in heat (and having the men and women switch characteristic moves doesn’t make it any more interesting). Music video’s familiar crotch-grabbing gesture is presented with a new twist: she grabs his crotch. Hard.

The choreography for soloist Elizabeth Parkinson is less reductive and derivative. She prances in, brandishing a heart-topped golden wand: she strokes the wand slowly over a dancer’s chest, and he writhes and falls to the floor; she points it at the various pairs of groping, humping dancers scattered about the stage; she passes it back and forth among the members of her quartet. The combination of dildo, Cupid’s bow, and ringmaster’s whip is nothing if not novel.

Even in parody, sleaze is sleaze: it’s not interesting for very long. “Thunder/Purple Rain” seems even longer than it is because Moulton co-opts music video’s music and movement vocabulary, but he has no theatrical equivalent for the multitudinous camera angles, fast cuts, and artful editing that enable music video to capture and hold the viewer’s attention. I expect parody to pillory and comment.

If “Thunder/Purple Rain” does comment, it does so in its second half, a solo for an angst-ridden clown danced by Valerie Madonia. The movement is not particularly interesting in and of itself–a lot of running toward and away from the audience, of grabbing the torso and contracting as if shot, of falling to the floor, of being chased and lifted by others (amidst this much cliche even the crucifixion lift looks banal). However, the ending twists. This recording of “Purple Rain” features a significant amount of applause at the end, and Moulton sets movement to what the viewer knows are pop star Prince’s own real bows: Madonia approaches the audience, blows a kiss, and contorts her face as if choking off a scream. The dance equates the composer with the onstage clown. But is the viewer supposed to sympathize with her histrionics and Prince’s supposed private sufferings? Or believe Prince and his work are on the same artistic level as this schlocky acting?

“Thunder/Purple Rain” is pretty unrelievedly heterosexual. It is Margo Sappington’s “Slide”–set to “Computer Blue,” “The Beautiful Ones,” and “Release It”–that pushes ballet’s established gender roles: women dancing with women and men dancing with men provide the dance’s most interesting movement; the dance suggests that relationships–especially heterosexual ones–are static, if not entirely stale. “Slide” is framed by a man sitting on a gold ballroom chair at the side of the stage, watching the dance’s opening and closing moments. Julie Janus and Deborah Dawn dance a charged duet (who would have thought that one woman stepping delicately but deliberately over another could be so erotic?) followed by an ensemble section in which they throw themselves at, even drape themselves over, the unresponsive men.

In the next section the lone watcher moves to center stage, posing, spinning, then posing again in a pool of light. One woman presses against a sheer gold curtain; another woman appears to float behind them. Other dream images appear upstage–a man, a couple–while the duet unfolds. The duet too focuses on position at the expense of dancing; like Sappington’s duets in the Hubbard Street repertory, it emphasizes moments of stasis over movement. Even in the midst of physical intimacy the couple can’t connect; he covers his eyes, and they walk offstage in different directions.

In “Slide” the men and women are costumed very differently: the men in ripped T-shirts and tight shorts and trousers that suggest a weight room, the women in tiny bandeaux and thongs underneath skintight, sheer black jumpsuits that would be at home on runway models. The men’s final ensemble movement is fast, athletic, their posing on the floor sheer beefcake; they, not the women, are the sex objects. The dance’s final section reprises earlier motifs, danced with significantly greater speed and power, but ends with the one man alone, watching a women’s duet and a men’s trio.

In Peter Pucci’s “Willing and Able” the viewer sees working dancing relationships, both gay and straight, but the dancing takes precedence over any hints of narrative. “Willing and Able” (set to “For You,” “The Question of U,” “It,” “Willing and Able,” and an excerpt from “Gett Off”) is dancing about dancing, but it’s culturally specific: the dance inserts something of our own time and place into the venerable body of the classical tradition. And dancing like this–virtuosic, spontaneous, unrestrained–is what makes me love ballet in spite of all its repressive imagery. Pointe shoes are sexy and fashionable, not instruments of disfigurement and torture.

The dance begins with an assault on the viewer: thumping noises and a row of bright lights focused on the audience; the dancers, whom we can barely see in the glare, seem a purposeless mass. But as the fierce lights disappear into the flyspace, the stage lights warm and the chaos dissolves into a single duet. Sharply angled arms slice the air and settle none too gently back on a partner’s shoulder. She grabs his hands and places them deliberately on her buttocks. He plies and lifts her slightly; her feet flutter between his outspread legs. Now his back is turned, and he is grabbing her hands.

Both in choreographic structure and performance style “Willing and Able” recalls Balanchine’s “Rubies,” which Ballet Chicago danced on this stage just weeks ago. Both works demand dancers of lightning speed and extraordinary lightness, equally at ease with elegance and distortion. Both play soloists and ensemble off against each other, cleverly marshaling masses of dancers on and off the stage (the cast of “Willing and Able” is much smaller than it seems–just the 2 soloists and an ensemble of 13). And both dances appropriate American popular culture. Pucci succeeds where many of his contemporaries have failed: he creates ballet movement that incorporates current street dance–witty, surprising, funky, and still elegant. He also takes a quick swipe at classical tradition: his allusions to Swan Lake made me laugh out loud.

Billboards sold out every performance. Opening night garnered a standing ovation longer and louder than I’ve heard for any ballet or opera in at least four years. Prince sells tickets, but it’s sex that makes audiences cheer.

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