Happy Feet Taps into Joy; Stirrings at City Ballet

Who would have thought that a tap-dancing penguin would outpoint James Bond at the box office? And deserve to? Not that there’s anything wrong with Casino Royale. But Happy Feet—written and directed by George Miller—is a complete charmer, even if, in the way of most family fare, it can’t resist straying into the Inspirational. This isn’t the typical dance film of our day, in which an unlikely girl beats the odds to flower as a ballerina; it’s the much older story of the Ugly Duckling—the lad who’s “different”—coming into his own, triumphing over adversity, saving the community and (natch) getting the girl. And all by way of his happy feet.

Emperor penguins, you see, are singers—except for Mumble, who can’t sing for beans but whose feet just won’t keep still. And his feet, luckily for him, aren’t just any feet—they’re an animated, penguinized treatment of the feet of our most brilliant tapper, Savion Glover, who also provided the choreography. Glover is at his most accessible here, his most winning: Because he’s been morphed into a large bird, his usual glowering anti-audience attitude isn’t in evidence (ordinarily, he’s the Miles Davis of tap). This is tapping for the joy of it.

Happy Feet has many felicities. It’s beautifully designed, it’s frequently funny (especially the five Latino penguins, definitely not emperors, whose streetwise leader, Ramón, has the voice of Robin Williams), and it’s feel-goody without being nauseating. It manages to leaven a somewhat clichéd situation with a clever blend of young people’s music—hip-hop, rap, soul: Disney it isn’t. And it confirms what dance people have always known: Dancing liberates, heals, binds. When Mumble, jeered at by all those “normal” singing penguins, woos Gloria with his more and more assured tapping, and she begins to respond, you can’t help thinking of Fred wooing and winning a reluctant Ginger in the great “Night and Day” sequence of The Gay Divorcee. If you’re an Astaire, or a Glover, or a Mumble, dance can conquer all.

OTHER GOOD NEWS: The City Ballet opening-night gala, the usual grab bag of snippets, came up with some welcome surprises. Most tantalizingly, Christopher Wheeldon (who’s giving up his NYCB residency) cast Kathryn Morgan, a new girl—an apprentice—in the revival of his Carousel (A Dance). One of Wheeldon’s gifts is spotting new talent and trusting it. (He did it a couple of years ago at A.B.T. when he second-cast Sarah Lane in VIII.) The very young Morgan is simply the most persuasive lyrical dancer that City Ballet has unveiled in many years—she doesn’t show off and she doesn’t flirt with the audience; she’s just totally expressive and totally pleasing. Sure, we’ve hardly seen anything of her, but the signs of a major talent are there—and just in time, given that a new Romeo and Juliet is looming. Keep your fingers crossed.

Gala night also gave us the return, after a long absence due to ill health, of the odd but fascinating Janie Taylor, her long blond hair and native intensity intact. She turned up in a snatch of Peter Martins’ Ecstatic Orange, which I for one never needed to see again, but it was gratifying to have her restored to us, looking so sound. Also gratifying: the continuing progress of Maria Kowroski toward finally realizing her considerable talent. She was the heart of Middle Duet, the pas de deux by Alexei Ratmansky that was the lure that brought me almost directly from the airport (home from Paris) to the State Theater. Once again, Ratmansky shows a subtle and original musicianship: This piece is filled with witty tilts and off-balances and fascinating partnering (Albert Evans provided Kowroski with invaluable support) that suggests human connection rather than calculated ingenuity. For reasons known only to itself, City Ballet is not planning to repeat the Ratmansky during its regular season.

Middle Duet is eight years old, and it’s a worthy precursor to the other works by Ratmansky we’ve admired here: the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and City Ballet’s Russian Seasons. Who would have thought we’d be looking to the antediluvian Bolshoi (he’s the artistic director) to lead us out of the post-Balanchine doldrums? But that’s the tricky thing about choreographers: You can’t predict when they’ll turn up, or from where, and—alas—you can’t legislate them into existence.

FURTHER PROOF OF THAT SAD REALITY came with the world premiere, at the Paris Opéra, of a splashy new piece by Benjamin Millepied, the French-born New York City Ballet principal dancer who’s been choreographing all over the place for the past five years. He’s ambitious, he’s persistent and he’s trendy: Amoveo recycles sections of the Philip Glass–Robert Wilson Einstein on the Beach for its music, dresses its dancers in unattractive and unflattering costumes by Marc Jacobs, and as décor has a huge grid of constantly changing colors and patterns, by Paul Cox, hanging above the dancers. (Actually, it’s more interesting than the dance itself—a welcome distraction from the formulaic action.)

A sprinkling of City Ballet grandees turned up in Paris to support their boy, and they must have been pleased to see the Opéra giving Millepied the royal treatment, including two of its top étoiles, Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche, as his leads. The ballet lasts 42 minutes and has enough real stuff in it for about five. Like so many Opéra stars, Dupont and Le Riche are superbly trained but, to me, uninteresting instruments. Twenty other dancers mill about. It’s all efficient, intelligent and pointless, confirming one’s view of Millepied’s work, based on various pieces he’s made in New York, as anonymous, derivative and anodyne. No, Virginia, there is no substitute for talent.

I’ll spare you descriptions of the other two ballets on the Opéra’s program, one by the Canadian Édouard Lock, and the other— White Darkness—by that omnipresent European threat Nacho Duato. But I feel I should confess that I was utterly baffled by Duato’s particles of white powder flooding down into golden pools of light while Marie-Agnès Gillot suffered. Only when the curtain came down and I turned to the program notes did I discover that it was all about drugs.

THE BEST FRENCH DANCE I’ve seen recently was back in New York, at the Joyce, where the talented Angelin Preljocaj presented two pieces: Empty Moves (Part 1) from 2004 and Noces, his signature work from 1989. Noces is, of course, set to the great Stravinsky score entrusted by Diaghilev to Bronislava Nijinska in 1923. Her version has never been, and never will be, surpassed—it’s a masterpiece—but Preljocaj has rethought it in an exciting and persuasive way. Nijinska’s peasant wedding rite has been superseded by a fierce struggle between men and women (there are five couples) in modern costume. Preljocaj imagines a modern hell, aggression and fury replacing solemnity and communal ritual. There are five white bridal dresses flung about and desecrated, five benches deployed as dangerous objects. The dancers hurl themselves at each other, repel each other, collapse in exhaustion on each other. (The central girl, Natacha Grimaud, in red, reminded me in her all-out attack and intensity of Paul Taylor’s wonderful Annmaria Mazzini.) This is a driven work, but its exploding energies are carefully structured and controlled.

Empty Moves is elegantly and coolly inventive. Two pairs of dancers shadow each other in slow, deliberate rearrangements and manipulations of legs and torsos, only occasionally switching partners or breaking free of the formal patterning. The “music” is a taped “sound performance” by John Cage, in which he articulates (or semi-articulates) words, syllables and noises while an audience shouts, taunts, laughs. Empty Moves may sound pretentious and arid, but it isn’t. In both these pieces, you sense from the first moment a serious artist with a voice of his own. Like Ratmansky, he’s an original, not a facsimile. Once again: There is no substitute for talent.