Dance Theatre of Harlem has done a lot of good things well, a lot of good things badly and a lot of bad things-it doesn’t matter how. Among the bad things is the new St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet , the centerpiece of the company’s recent season at the State Theatre, which was embraced by The Times and clasped to its bosom by an audience that cheered and hollered every time a rump bumped or a dancer tossed off a standard pirouette or an unsupported turn.
It was a hit, a palpable hit, and it was one big mess.
The original show called St. Louis Woman was a 1946 Broadway flop for which Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote some classy songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “A Woman’s Prerogative.” (Not even Pearl Bailey could save it.) It didn’t play any better when the “Encores!” series resuscitated it at City Center several years ago. Now, set in part to an orchestral suite that Arlen made of his score, and with a “New Concept” by the indefatigable Michael Smuin (whose A Song for Dead Warriors is an old D.T.H. standby-and another mess), St. Louis Woman is more disappointing than ever.
Here’s the story, from its first tired cliché to its last: A thuggish club owner, Biglow Brown, has a loyal and loving gal, Lila, but he throws her over for the gorgeous Della. Also hot for Della is Little Augie, a top jockey. Biglow goes for Augie, but is shot down-rooty-toot-toot-by the abused Lila. That’s it. However, there’s an hour’s worth of music to get through. The result is vamp, vamp, vamp. Everything is overextended-the interminable duets, the interminable solos, the tango that seems endless not just because it’s so long but because Smuin has nothing to say about tango; he’s just exploiting it. Everything is filler.
The “concept” consists of the carnival-like figure of Death-a big guy in white socks, the briefest of black briefs, black-and-white tails and splotches of white make-up. This Death is a real pest, rushing on- and offstage (he’s the filler inside the filler), flinging himself into splits and ominously fingering no-good Biglow Brown. Sure enough-bang, bang-Biglow’s a corpse and Lila’s led away by the cops, leaving Della and Augie to their happy ending. You think the ballet’s over, but hold on-Death is back, swirling around with half a dozen girls in black and bondage. Eventually they go away, and we’re in yet another new scene-or new ballet?-at the racetrack, with the boys doing jockey things and the girls strutting around with little parasols. Revelations , anybody? Everyone gets a cheerful new costume except the mysteriously acquitted Lila, the rooty-toot-tooter, but as a consolation prize she gets to do some fouettés.
The production is an overpowering assault on the eye. No expense has been spared. The redoubtable Tony Walton designed the glaring and discordant sets with Matisse on his mind; Willa Kim’s costumes are garish and overstylized and constricting. And then there’s the violent lighting-mostly a shrieking red-orange. It’s as if the designers had conspired to distract you from what the dancers are doing. And what are the dancers doing? Generic ballet steps crossed with generic social dances: It’s all “period” without being anchored in any given period. Augie gets to whip off the usual pirouettes and double-air turns and jetés. The two leading girls do all the things ballerinas do. But nothing is to any purpose, because Smuin doesn’t have dance ideas, he has concepts. There is exactly one amusing and original passage-not for the principals, but for a couple in yellow who emerge from the corps, show off some witty and amusing lifts and throws, and vanish back into the crowd. Who are they? Why are they? We’ll never know.
Some of the songs from the original show are sung as well as played-that helps a little, though when a ballet depends on words you know you’re in trouble. Other Arlen-Mercer songs-“One for My Baby,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “That Old Black Magic”-have been insinuated into the score (it’s not clear by whom). As for St. Louis Woman being a “Blues Ballet,” no: D.T.H. isn’t dancing the blues, it’s dancing commerce.
The dancers looked good in it, though, especially Tai Jimenez as Lila. She was equally impressive in Frederick Ashton’s Thaïs pas de deux, a piece of exotica that can register as camp, as it did a few seasons back when the Royal brought it to Washington. Jiminez is a lyrical dancer-something of an anomaly in a company that tends to hit hard rather than stroke or burnish. That tendency was apparent in the company’s refurbished Serenade . Staged with exemplary efficiency by Eve Lawson, until recently ballet mistress of the Balanchine-based Miami City Ballet, Serenade did credit to the company without being right for it. Andrea Long, who spent nine years at New York City Ballet, is a forthright, energetic dancer, but she’s anti-lyrical and lacks the tragic capacity the key role in Serenade demands-bizarrely, she keeps smiling. In The Four Temperaments , however, she was a galvanizing “Choleric.” Four T’s is a ballet that can be nailed, and D.T.H. nailed parts of it. (You can’t “nail” Serenade .) They also did honorably by Fancy Free , Jerome Robbins’ brilliant and timeless period piece, which came across as a rebuke to the fakeries and longueurs of St. Louis Woman . Even Robert Garland’s New Bach , an homage to (or rip-off of) Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco , gave some pleasure, if you forgave the cute little disco accents. Well, no one ever accused Dance Theatre of Harlem of excessive good taste.
Pilobolus Dance Theatre, a very different kettle of fish, just ended a rich and satisfying four-week season down at the Joyce. You may not like everything they do, but there’s an inescapable sense of active intelligence here-a sense of serious people working out their ideas and polishing the results to the highest shine. This deservedly popular company was founded back in 1971 (two years after D.T.H.) by a trio of Dartmouth undergraduates, encouraged by their teacher, Alison Chase. Chase and several of the original Pilobuli are still directing the company; their colleague Moses Pendleton has gone his own way, as has Martha Clarke, the company’s best-known alumna. It was Chase and Clarke who first performed the women’s roles in the 1975 Untitled , still a startling and unsettling work, with the two women towering over the scene as they float along, each one carried on the shoulders of a hard-working guy who, except for his bare feet, is shrouded beneath the woman’s billowing skirts. When these men eventually are birthed, as it were, they tumble out naked; two other men, strolling by, are clothed. Amazing images follow in rapid succession: the two women-monumental like Picasso’s beach women, only with wide-brimmed straw hats and picnicky white dresses-soaring high over the landscape; the four men sometimes in need, sometimes in contest. The movement is clever and convincing, but what you’re transfixed by are the images.
From the start, Pilobolus has been sculptural rather than musical. Its six dancers collaborate with each other and the choreographers to invent and refine striking poses, extreme situations for the body, intense configurations and confrontations, rather than to provide kinetic excitements. In Star-Cross’d , a piece new this year, Alison Chase has given us a superb example of what the company does best. When the curtain goes up, the stage is black except for the eerie red lighting concentrated on five bodies hanging on ropes from up above, and a sixth on the floor. They’re wearing skin-tight flesh-colored body stockings, and they look more naked than if they were naked. They swing through the air, they meet and separate, they descend to earth and rise again, they cling to each other and clash with each other-they’re astral bodies at play. The vocabulary is limited-Pilobolus dancers are always being swiveled on each others’ hips or being passed from one set of shoulders to another-but the emotional range is large. At the end, the central male dancer, dangling high above the stage, pulls his love up to him for a final star-lit, upside-down kiss. Despite its agitations, this is a tender piece; it may be set in the cosmos, but it never strives to be cosmic. Pilobolus is too smart to be pretentious.
A word about a dance phenomenon that refined my ideas about being stuck in hell: the Seventh New York International Ballet Competition. Twenty-four couples from all over the world turned up at Alice Tully Hall to attempt a duet by Jose Limón, Bournonville’s Kermesse in Bruges pas de deux and the grand pas de deux from La Bayadère . It was the lunatic notion of those in charge that the dancers not be told what they were to dance until they arrived in New York three weeks before the competition began. Except for a Danish couple, they were clearly all unacquainted with Bournonville’s style (it can take a lifetime to master), and because they were almost all minor-league talents, they were helpless before the exacting demands of La Bayadère . One night I watched 12 couples miss the point of the Bournonville, another night I saw 12 couples nervously pick their way through the notoriously difficult Petipa. Watching all this was like having formaldehyde dripped into your veins. What were the organizers dreaming of? And how embarrassing for the great Natalia Makarova, “chairperson” of the jury and famous both for dancing and for staging La Bayadère , to be presiding over this travesty.
The jury made the best of a bad situation, for the most part distributing the medals judiciously-not that there was much choice, given how few even modestly interesting dancers were in competition. (Tellingly, no gold medal was awarded to a woman.) The ceremonies at the closing-night “gala” were stunning in their self-congratulatory fatuity. And then came the big announcement: Because the competition was such a wonderful success, from now on it would be held every other year, not merely every third year. Forewarned is forearmed.