American Ballet Theatre
University of California, Berkeley
September 19, 2001
It may not be the full company but American Ballet Theatre returned to Zellerbach just
a week after the World Trade Tragedy, making their San Diego and Bay Area commitments by means of hastily rented buses. The company was in Kansas City September 11 and Artistic
Director Kevin McKenzie decided the show would go on regardless. Someone from the audience
came up and thanked him. This, he remarked in a wonderful public interview conducted by Marnie Wood, that delicious minute of dance, made him feel justified in his decision.
While there were five performances of Giselle over the weekend, I saw only the opening
night of two mixed bill programs, Paul Taylor's Black Tuesday; Mark Morris' Gong and Jabula
by Natalie Wier, a young Australian woman choreographer. Missing necessarily were most of the supreme stars of the company whose energies were to be displayed in the Romantic classic.
Black Tuesday is another Taylor excursion into a segment of American history,
The Depression. Based on the beautiful evocations of the New York skyline and the vistas of the Chicago elevated, it was an urban take on bleak times imprinted on the mind set of those who experienced it. While The Depression was a world-wide phenomenon, this is Taylor's personal, rather wry take on it, filtered through six decades of creativity. Santo Loquasto's costuming particularly managed to emphasize seedy elegance. Dresses long past their prime, suspenders, knickers, golf caps, vests hanging loose all signaled immediately their possessers had seen more affluent times, the tired attire echoing the worn social behaviors of the wearers. With the additional songs, which Joanna Harris could sing word for word, what the choreography may have lacked in great emotional depth, the period came through clearly, and even on the bodies of these dancers whose techniques and silhouettes are so vastly different from the classical dancers of those days in America.
Taylor accomplished this through variations on the soft shoe, the tag ends of vaudeville
type routines, the renverse jumps and the diagonal lines of the arms he utilizes so much. He also included a poignant number of an abandoned woman far gone in pregnancy. The fifteen dancer cast exhibited a cohesion and flair which made me wish I saw the company more often so I could identify the dancers clearly and watch them develop.
Mark Morris' choreography to Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan under the name of Gong
seemed hastily constructed to me, principally because his reference points to Indonesian dance styles were semiphores rather than gestural. Isaac Mizrahi costumed the women like rainbow
ice cream, winsome principally because the very short tutus which displayed the underskirts were met at the leg by an identical color, so you had multicolored, two legged popsickles with Julie
Kent in a smashing rusty red version of Mizrahi's costume solution.
McPhee, native to Canada and a serious Western musician, fell in love with Bali, and spent more time there than was healthy for a professional musician to get ahead in the still divided world of East and West musical styles. What he accumulated in personal knowledge found a final, if brief, home at the University of California, Los Angeles, and its burgeoning program in ethnomusicology in the early 'Forties. The music possessed an element of bombast,not exactly typical of Indonesian music, although the brass gongs were quite prevalent throughout the score. There were too many diagonal lines,dancers rushing in and out to what sounded like Rule Brittania trying to learn how to adapt to a gamelan rhythm, not succeeding all too well, but enjoying visual panache in the process. I hope Morris might take it in to his mind to do some tinkering or revision. Oh, I forgot both the men and women had wide
brass-like cuffs at the ankles. I wondered somewhere in the back of my mind just exactly when
they might get chained together in those relentless diagonals.
Natalie Weir's Jabula was initially premiered by the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane, Australia in 1994. The costume concept is somewhere between Africa and the Japanese samurai
and the Hans Zimmer score from The Power of One provided the musical background. Whether
the "joy", the translation of Jabula, refers to the celebration of gender differences,or sexual conquest like a cheerful desert skirmish, was difficult to determine. It certainly evoked
on-the-make,sex-on-the-hoof, and proud of it at the expense of nuance and sensitivity in sexual relationships. The most striking moments in this exposition came with Sascha Radestsky's solo, very samurai like in quality, and given an intensity so thorough that I had the
feeling I could understand what Leonide Massine must have been like when he was dancing.
I wish the day of the genre ballet could be revivified with new subject matter and lots of nuance, but then I am dreaming. American Ballet Theatre is worth seeing and the dancing dazzles even when the subject matter is disappointing. Repeating,Kevin McKenzie made a thoughtful, absorbing presentation of the company's development through the three eras of artistic direction:Lucia Chase, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and after a hiatus, Kevin McKenzie. As newspapers have informed us, ABT has also recently resolved the matter of its administrative direction as well.