Ballet’s Busy Spring Season

bird watching photo 1 small Ballet’s Busy Spring SeasonSwarms of dance events attack New York every year at this time. Can even The Times, with its four dance critics, cover all of them? Gamely, it tries—and a good thing, too. I can report on only three events from the past 10 days, beginning with the ambitious Lyon Opera Ballet, now 40 years old, under the direction of Yorgos Lourkos. Despite the word “ballet” in its name, it’s a contemporary dance company that boasts of having launched 42 premieres! But for its first New York appearance in more than 15 years, it presented works by three famous choreographers, none of them, as it happens, among the 42.

There was William Forsythe’s Duo (1996), in which two women, in semi-darkness and with see-through black-net tops, echo each other’s movement—except when they don’t. Since Forsythe’s vocabulary is too much an amalgam of other people’s, all that really holds your attention is how closely the dancers match each other, and when and why they diverge. It’s synchronized dancing—sort of like synchronized swimming, except portentous rather than silly.

Then there was Maguy Marin’s furious, feminist Grosse Fugue (2001)—four women in bright red flinging themselves around the stage, defiant, aggressive, exhausting. As usual, Beethoven—as Balanchine famously warned—throttles dancing; he’s so much bigger than it is.

But the Lyon season was redeemed by the brave decision to bring us Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds (1991), which entered the company’s repertoire two years ago. This is one of Cunningham’s most accessible works, its highly specific bird “language” something to hang on to for those like myself who usually have difficulty connecting to his always beautiful but implacably abstract art—not only no story but no real relation to music.

These are shore birds, evoking beach, sky and water in their lovely costumes (by Marsha Skinner): white unitards down to the toes except from the shoulder level upward, where everything all the way to the throat and out to the fingertips is fitted tightly in black. The way the birds wake, tilt, twitch their heads toward the sky, scatter and regroup is deceptively simple and deeply evocative. But the most important thing about Lyon’s Cunningham is that it exists at all. With Cunningham’s company withering away (according to his wishes), it’s important to know that dances of his can live on.

 

BY A LUNATIC COINCIDENCE, the Lyon company was followed into the Joyce Theater by Keigwin + Company with a world premiere of a new work by Larry Keigwin, titled Bird Watching. But his birds, unlike Cunningham’s, are more human than avian. Five dancers—three gals and two guys, but all in the same jokey-elaborate, black-and-white-and-glitter costumes with plunging necklines (by Fritz Masten)—constitute a coterie of self-pluming nouveaux-bling creatures whose carryings-on are set to the four movements of Haydn’s Sixth Symphony. (The four sections are called “Flocking,” “Flapping,” “Fluttering” and “Flying.”) The dancers are terrific—they understand Keigwin’s humor and his wit, and they respond to his very New Yorkish intelligence—but somehow this extended piece doesn’t catch fire. Maybe it’s the rather generic nature of this early Haydn piece: It keeps things moving along but doesn’t have a strong personality. I won’t forget, though, the huge rocks (as in rings) that the dancers flash, flaunt and flirt with.

Keigwin is one of the cleverest and most inventive choreographers around these days. This program emphasized the cleverness—as in the funny Caffeinated, in which the nine dancers dash back and forth across the stage, sipping or gulping from paper cups of coffee and growing ever more…caffeinated. They’re on a coffee high, and though you get the idea right away, you get a high from their high. It’s a perfect program opener.

Next came Keigwin’s more or less signature piece, Mattress Suite: “Dress”—that’s Nicole Wolcott as a bride in her floppy wedding gown, waiting anxiously for her groom (to a florid Alessandro Scarlatti aria); “Tuxedo”—that’s Keigwin himself, just as anxious in his tux (to “Caro Mio Ben,” maybe the world’s most ravishing song); “Straight Duet”—a big mattress has materialized, and Nicole and Larry don’t seem to know what to do with (on) it; “Sunshine”—Larry on his own, not happy about his non-performance; “Three Ways”—Larry and two guys down to their jockeys, rolling around on the mattress, until two of the guys get serious about each other and Larry dolefully walks away; and last, “At Last”—Etta James’ glorious soul ballad, with Nicole, alone with her mattress. Mattress Suite is sly, smart, sexy, shlumpy—a touch of Woody Allen, a touch of Jules Feiffer.

Finally, there was Runaway—his take on cosmopolitans as they walk, rush  and career around the stage and up and down the aisles—an equally appropriate closer.
Keigman is on the cusp of breaking into the big time, and I’ll be happy to follow him there or anywhere else.

Finally, in America for the first time, the Corella Ballet Castilla y León. It would have to be for the first time—Spain’s only classical company has been in existence for exactly two years. It’s the brainchild of ABT’s ultra-popular Angel Corella, he of the enchanting smile and lovable, sunny nature (at least onstage). His technique has begun to erode, but his fans don’t notice or don’t care, and they were out in force at the City Center to slather him with bravos.

What hath he wrought? A company not yet ready for New York. It’s a replay of what happened a few years ago when another beloved ABT veteran, Nina Ananiashvili, brought her new company from her native Georgia to BAM. Do these ambitious artist-entrepreneurs feel they need the validation of Our Town to encourage their respective governments to lend support? Is it to convince themselves and the dance world that they’ve arrived artistically? Alas, despite the participation of Corella himself; his talented sister, Carmen (also out of ABT); and the superb Herman Cornejo, another New York favorite, the company looked all too provincial.

It was a mistake to open with String Sextet, an extended piece by Corella (his first choreography, I believe). He simply doesn’t have the ability to sustain a ballet this long, particularly one set to Tchaikovsky’s lovely but difficult “Souvenir de Florence.” Corella’s piece is derivative. (Does it think it’s Balanchine’s great Symphony in C, with its four movements, four sets of principals and everyone-onstage coda?) And it’s endless. And it’s boring. And it’s danced by an underage corps with lots of spunk but not much polish. The whole thing looked like a school performance or perhaps a training ballet—but training ballets are rarely more interesting to interact with than training bras or training bikes.

Then came some Soviet shlock—a watered-down version of that old Bolshoi warhorse Walpurgisnacht. (Goethe has a lot to answer for.) It’s a trio, involving spectacular, virtuoso things—one-hand lifts, diving through space and the inevitable fouettés. The company’s trio was far from spectacular, though. Most irritating was the ballerina, Kazuko Omori, in flaming red and wearing a particularly obnoxious fake smile—yes, the smiling sickness has struck Spain. But why go on? The whole thing was a horrible embarrassment. Another piece of Sovietiana was replaced after the Times review appeared by a dreary Black Swan pas de deux, with Cornejo and company ballerina Adiarys Almeida—the kind of dancer who’s the product of the world of international competitions and galas. She’s completely proficient; she’s good-looking; and she works hard—a professional, but hardly an artist. And then there was something called Soleá, something sort of flamenco-ish, in which the Corella siblings whirled and postured, and were clearly very happy at being onstage together. And I was very happy for them.

Finally, came the major effort, DGV: Danse à Grand Vitesse, a big piece by Christopher Wheeldon created four years ago for England’s Royal Ballet. The music is by Michael Nyman, who was commissioned by the TGV, France’s high-speed-rail network, to celebrate the debut of a new high-speed line, so it’s all high-speed propulsive. But Nyman isn’t Philip Glass, his obvious model, and this music is irritating and not very dance-friendly. The piece, like Corella’s, has four couples and a corps, and of course it’s far more fluent and better organized than String Sextet. But it doesn’t add much to the usual highly-charged and effective Wheeldon mix.
It did, however, show us some promising dancers, in particular soloists Ashley Ellis (blond and strong) and Fernando Bufalà (musical and intense). Wheeldon has always had a real talent for identifying and nurturing good dancers, and if he stays around to help, maybe in a few years the Corella Ballet Castilla y León will be ready for the big time.

rgottlieb@observer.com