at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 16-21

The Joffrey’s repertory is by now a very mixed bag: different styles, different eras. This engagement offered four brand-new dances (none by Gerald Arpino, the company’s artistic director and resident choreographer) light-years away from the two classic dances of the 30s on the schedule–and the contrast favored the dances of 60 years ago. It may be that we’ve been immersed for so long in a sea of visually clever abstract works that we’ll grasp at any straw of substance: any social or political comment, any narrative, any drama.

One of the premieres, Charles Moulton’s Panoramagram, starts promisingly with 18 dancers arranged in three horizontal rows of 6 on risers: I thought of school photos, cheering sections on bleachers, the sit-down dancers of the old American Bandstand who made do with upper bodies alone. But ultimately the appeal of this “corps” is its abstract visual texture: Moulton expertly manipulates the dense weave of dancers, animating them in varying contingents of six, or one by one, or in duos or trios. The effect is of a living, breathing woven sculpture (subtly lit to maximum effect by Debra Dumas). At times the dancers grasp or toss spongy colored balls, and when they each hold one at the end of an outstretched arm, the effect is of a field of pistils or insect antennae moving in unison.

Nerfballs aren’t the only prop: the corps also sports some bright red Mickey Mouse hands. And the ensemble isn’t the whole show–in fact for most of Panoramagram it’s just the backdrop for a duet, a trio, and a solo. Costumes for the featured dancers unaccountably refer to the 60s: two of the women wear short dresses with rows of feathery polyester flounces; a third wears white pants with tiers of sculptured ruffles like pagoda roofs and a white bra. In the duet a man and woman (Beatriz Rodriguez and Pascal Benichou) alternately pursue each other; the trio (Philip Gardner, Jodie Gates, and Brent Phillips) involves some vaudevillelike glad-handing; and the solo, for Valerie Madonia, places her at the top of a movable tower in some gyrating, trapped choreography that’s almost a parody of her serpentine performances in such works as Arpino’s Round of Angels. So why the elaborate props and pop references? Why the sharp division into ensemble and featured dancers? Yes, Panoramagram nicely interprets the music, but it doesn’t add up to much more than a clever goulash of mismatched contemporary-looking elements.

Alonzo King’s premiere, Lila, is worse: boring choreography combines with a monotonous score to produce the longest dance I’ve ever seen. Though King made it for his own troupe (Lines Dance Company in San Francisco), it’s very much in the Joffrey style: like Arpino, King experiments with nontraditional movement on pointe in Lila. But I thought I’d scream about the fifth time I saw the soloist (Madonia) lower herself into a deep plie on pointe and step painstakingly offstage like some poor tortured crab. Throw in the work’s premise–pretentious fiddle-faddle about a Sanskrit creation myth–and you have a work that deserves to die.

Christopher d’Amboise’s Runaway Train at least has an interesting score: Bela Bartok’s Dance Suite. But the dance itself seems highly derivative. The costumes unmistakably recall Peter Martins’s 1978 duet Calcium Light Night–the featured woman (Tina LeBlanc) is in glowing, electric red, and the featured man (Tyler Walters) in electric blue. The movement also recapitulates Martins’s, with its asymmetry, flexed wrists, elbows, and ankles, and dancers’ manner of clicking into one position after another. Even the music is “difficult,” just as the Charles Ives score is in Calcium Light Night. True, d’Amboise adds to his featured couple an ensemble of eight. And he does manage to capture one side of Bartok’s music: its percussiveness and modernity. But despite LeBlanc’s musicality, her occasional brilliant stitching together of the choreography’s discrete phrases, Runaway Train fails to ride the underlying current of the score, a dark, almost imperceptible sweep beneath the notes.

George Balanchine’s Cotillon (1932) and Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table (1932) are invaluable reminders that dance can do more than concretize music: it can tell stories that make us shiver. Of course Balanchine and Jooss are masters of dramatic efficiency–not every choreographer can tell such complete but resonant tales. Of the two, Cotillon is the more open-ended, full of ambiguities and unexplained drama. Why are the Master and Mistress of Ceremonies vaguely comic and vaguely threatening? Is there a correspondence between the relationship of the Cavalier and the Hand of Fate and that of the Young Girl and the Young Man? Why are the Young Man and Young Girl enclosed in boxes and made to disappear, unimportant episodes in some obscure magician’s act?

But though the details of Cotillon may be ambiguous, the overall thrust of the ballet is not. It reverses our expectations: at first it seems a dance merely about dancing–the narrative focuses on a formal ball–but it quickly turns into a dark story of initiation, marked by fortune-telling and card-playing motifs. Clearly the Young Girl (LeBlanc) is the protagonist, and the opening and closing images illustrate her evolution: Cotillon begins with her standing on a chair, gazing at herself in a mirror; it ends with her gazing out at us from a sea of whirling dancers, as if she were drowning and beseeching us to help her. Movement deftly reinforces character. The female partygoers have a side-to-side, almost circular motion of the hips that’s confiding, sensual but domestic, like the confidential chat of women among themselves. The Hand of Fate repeatedly removes the Cavalier’s cupped hands from his eyes: she’s definitely stronger than he is, but is she kind or cruel?

The Green Table tells its story in eight crystalline scenes. Jooss’s antiwar saga, composed between the two world wars, could not have a more obvious agenda, yet its clear, simple strokes are not only affecting but timely. Only the stylized oppositions of the third scene, “The Battle,” seem dated. Jooss makes Death truly horrifying, at once primitive and modern, human and inhumane. In a costume like a Roman gladiator’s, and made up to look like a cross between a skeleton and a vicious dog, Death manages to be always huge, no matter the size of the dancer playing him. Death’s choreography–stylized marching, for instance, in which each step is a series of lunges–also makes him larger than life. Yet he’s most ghoulish when his movements approach the ordinary–as when he seems to trail his lips, loverlike, over the belly of the Young Girl, devouring her.

The one premiere that resonates as these two older works do is Edward Stierle’s Empyrean Dances, but that resonance comes more from circumstances outside the work than from the piece itself. Stierle was very sick with AIDS when he made the dance, and he died shortly after the Joffrey premiered it last March. The context transforms this work–gives it substance, makes it seem to comment on the decimation AIDS has caused in so many arts communities but particularly the dance world.

There are two ways to comment on Empyrean Dances. If you don’t take the context into account, it’s a nicely musical, not very innovative work to a dramatic but not first-rate score (Howard Hanson’s Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra). The excitement in the choreography comes generally from the juxtaposition of flowing, continuous movement with moments of attack.

But if you think of Empyrean Dances as the work of a talented 23-year-old who’s about to die, it packs a wallop. The joyful fourth and final section is no longer a traditional big-bang ensemble ending but a statement, a parting remark. The urgent all-male second section, marked by naturalistic gestures–one man pushes the others aside, two men greet each other with a cordial handshake–seems to say an affectionate good-bye to the gay community. Over and over the dancers are lifted triumphantly by their outstretched arms, straining as the spirit might to the highest heaven, the empyrean; the almost angular formations created by dancers helping other dancers escape the earth are repeated in the painted backdrop of ruins shored up by scaffolding.

Some works in the Joffrey’s repertory may be more disposable than Stierle’s final work, others less. But in these days of threatening financial ruin, you have to pray for the Joffrey’s life even if you don’t care for every single dance. This company is 35 years old. It dances classic works we might not otherwise see and incubates new ones, and its performances are frequently masterful. It would be devastating to American dance if the Joffrey were to perish.

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