Civic Opera House

March 17-29, 1987

In the opening moments of Gerald Arpino’s Birthday Variations, the curtain raiser of the Joffrey Ballet’s current engagement, five women in filmy pastel costumes embraced dancer Glenn Edgerton in a circle. They tilted their heads backward and arched their pliant spines, resembling a glorious flower opening its petals and emitting a delicious fragrance. It was a lovely image–one that exemplified the troupe’s programs throughout its first week at the Opera House. Variations, introduced last year, emits a romantic, period-piece flavor. Yet it’s unlikely that the romantic ballerinas of the past century could have performed the intricate solo variations that Arpino designed for a cast of six. Jetes, spins, fouettes, saute de basques, and other split-timed steps followed in heady profusion and demonstrated, if there were any doubts, that the Joffrey dancers are among the most accomplished to be seen on any stage.

The opening night program showed the dancers’ virtuosity off in many contrasting ways. Nijinsky’s revolutionary ballet, L’apres-midi d’un faune, for example, created in 1912, remains a fascinating work still unlike any more traditional ballet. The nymphs and faun perform the entire work in profile, looking like figures on an Attic amphora, with movements that in their mythic, mysterious mood had an enormous influence on the development of modern dance. Charlene Gehm was the leading nymph, and Tyler Walters the faun. Robert Joffrey deserves thanks for reviving the seminal work.

The mood changed with Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, a charming pas de deux in which two young ballet students explore their feelings for each other, using the barre as an active third partner. Danced by Leslie Carothers and Philip Jerry to three Rachmaninoff piano preludes played onstage with true romantic ardor by Stanley Babin, Preludes emits a delicate, yet technically daring fragrance.

Light Rain, which closed that first program, is Arpino at his most venturous erotic best–an exciting, sexy introduction to a stunning ritual. The nonstop and complicated spins and leaps of the entire cast, and the pairing of Carothers and Jerry as high priestess and priest of the sensuous rite, are guaranteed to raise the audience’s own body temperatures. The taped sitar and drum score, which is a heady throbbing mix of Hindu and rock, contributed to the hypnotic effect of a work that somehow reminded me of Arpino’s Trinity, for years a Joffrey signature piece that celebrated uninhibited movement and joy.

The second program was devoted to the ballets of Frederick Ashton, the distinguished British choreographer, and it opened with the weakest number on any program–A Wedding Bouquet. I’ve never loved this work, with its arch Gertrude Stein narration and the supposedly zany wedding guests; it’s a period piece that simply hasn’t worn well, despite the efforts of the cast.

However, Monotones I and II, two sets of trios that celebrate the beauty of sculptured bodies moving slowly to Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies–orchestrated piano pieces–is a beautiful work that requires enormous physical control. Les Patineurs, the final piece, remains what it’s always been–a pleasant, entertaining skating party in a park setting, complete with falling snow and amusing skaters.

Thursday night, Joffrey introduced two new choreographic talents. The Gardens of Boboli, an abstract dance for nine, showed off Mark Haim’s talents as he took a lighthearted choreographic look at youthful fun and games. His male trio for Parrish Maynard, Peter Narbutas, and Roger Plaut was especially imaginative and witty. What it had to do with the Boboli Gardens I have no idea, for there was no set. The early baroque music of Tomasso Albinoni was a lovely, bright accompaniment.

James Kudelka’s The Heart of the Matter, on the other hand, was a much more serious, dramatic work–a hostile representation of the battle of the sexes. The movements of the men, clad in beige trousers, shirts, and ties and looking somewhat like soldiers on display, are relaxed in a Twyla Tharp-ish slouch, unballetic in style, while the women in pale draperies and headbands parade in solemn, cold formation, like Greek goddesses ignoring mere mortal males. Dawn Caccamo and Edgerton circled each other in a most unusual pas de deux, in which they never touched, fearing too close contact with the opposite sex. Their dance is brilliantly composed, and they brought a sharp intensity to it, with a surprising final twist, when they embraced and kissed. That kiss permits the other members of the cast to take their first tentative steps to reaching out to each other, despite their wary fear of commitment. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 was the powerful accompaniment; Babin, the soloist in the pit, and the orchestra led by Allan Lewis were outstanding partners in a work that is a striking theatrical example of where this new young talent is going. Santo Loquasto’s costumes highlighted the contrasting personalities of the men and women, while Thomas Skelton’s lighting contributed to the ambience.

Friday was all Arpino, and reintroduced Valentine, a delicious novelty in which Beatriz Rodriguez and David Palmer were rivals preparing for balletic fisticuffs, supported by Jacob Druckman, whose wheezes on his bass and verbal grunts added to the fun. The program also included Arpino’s exquisite Round of Angels to Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony no. 5. This most exalted, moving evocation of love and mourning for the loss of the beloved blends music and heavenly movement into a seamless whole that leaves one elated in spirit. Carothers and five men brought an otherworldly quality to the dance that was breathtaking in its luminosity.

The first week was especially notable for the revival of The Clowns–Arpino’s stunning, thought-provoking, and terrifying picture of a postnuclear world, as seen through the experience of a compassionate clown and his company of survivor clowns. We tend to toss words like “masterpiece” around, but this dance is a masterpiece–not only because it deals with a vital subject, but because it is breathtaking in virtuosity and choreographic imagination.

Edward Stierle gave a heart-stopping performance as the savior clown, who dances a wild dance of mourning when he believes he’s the sole survivor of a nuclear explosion. His joy when he discovers others, led by his sweetheart danced by Tina LeBlanc, is riveting, and his despair when he sees those he’s saved from the holocaust turning on him like mindless wild animals is crushing.

Arpino has said he’d like to give Clowns to every nuclear power. It should make the world stop and think. Clowns made the audience here stop and think. It left it numb and shaken. The score by the late Hershy Kay, composed of electronic bomb blasts and traditional orchestral music, is a worthy companion to Arpino’s own genius, and Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes’s costumes and Skelton’s lighting contributed to the bizarre atmosphere. Clowns was first performed in 1968. It is even more theatrically effective today. It’s certainly more timely.

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