It’s been a bumpy ride-the fall season, that is. No doubt you remember how, a few months ago, I wished in these pages that I could see what the Kirov looks like in its Fokine repertory. That foolish prayer was answered-in Paris, in October-with a marathon Fokine evening at the Châtelet, where Diaghilev first unveiled Petrouchka in 1911. It was moving being in that wonderful theater to see this work again-but that was before the curtain went up, at 8 p.m. When it came down, at half-past midnight, Fokine was dead and buried, and I would have been, too, if my date and I hadn’t nipped out at the second intermission for some food, ruthlessly abandoning the Polovtsian Dances . (Forgive me.) We were back well in time for Firebird , given a demented performance by Irma Nioradze, who had given an equally demented performance three years ago in New York in the first movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C . (For whatever reason, and to my eternal gratitude, she was left behind on the company’s most recent New York season.) Nioradze was a manic Firebird, grimacing and contorting, flapping her wrists, and in general carrying on as if the fire department were after her. There were compensations-the superb character dancer Vladimir Ponomarev as Kastchei, and the charm and elegance of the young Prince and Princess-but they weren’t enough. The whole thing was terminally undercharged.
Which was equally true of Petrouchka , in which the three central figures had no dramatic energy-they just had the traditional costumes. A Petrouchka without complete conviction is only a lot of Russki peasants and townspeople, plus one performing bear, stumping around the stage in winter carnival drag. If the Petrouchka doesn’t tear at your heart, what’s the point? And is such a performance possible in this postmodern world? Nijinsky may have been mad, but he was never cool. As for Schéhérazade , not even Nijinsky could have saved this colorless husk of what we must assume was once an overwhelming experience-colorless despite the famous Bakst sets and costumes. As it was, two of the most irritating dancers in recent Kirov history assumed the central roles: the self-absorbed and neurotic Youlia Makhalina, who I thought had retired years ago, and should have, and the over-the-top and over-the-hill Faroukh Rouzimatov. Apart from anything else, there was absolutely no erotic charge between them; there wasn’t even polite interest. Oh, the relief when the Shah’s men rushed in and slaughtered them!
I’m sure that more starry casts were more effective, but how much more effective? The basic question remains: Is Fokine possible today? Loyal English critics think he is, but we know how loyal the English are to old favorites. Is the problem that Fokine’s heir, his granddaughter, is interfering? Or is it that the kind of dance-drama that Diaghilev and Fokine pioneered, and that thrilled first Paris and then the world for half a century, has run its course? The more abstract Les Sylphides can still hold the stage, but not many stages in the West are offering it. Does it signify that the most recent New York performances of Sylphides were by those invidious spoofers, the Trocs?
One way of dealing with Fokine and the Diaghilev period is to try to reinvent them. That’s what the Ballet Biarritz attempted recently at the Joyce, in a program presented as a “daring new look at four Ballets Russes classics,” of which three actually were from the Ballets Russes. (The fourth, Boléro , was something Bronislava Nijinska whipped up for Ida Rubinstein’s company.) Fokine was honored by Biarritz’s choreographer and artistic director, Thierry Malandain, with his take on Le Spectre de la Rose . His contribution was to transform it from a romantic vision into a humpy free-for-all. It’s not Giuseppe Chiavaro’s fault that he’s not Nijinsky: He dances hard, despite the ludicrous costume he’s been given-think of the red flocking on the walls of a cheap Chinese restaurant-but what can you do with a girl who’s got a red balloon in her mouth? Or was that bubble gum?
Malandain’s version of Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune featured a gigantic box of tissues-a bed substitute-into which the Faune, Christophe Roméro, eventually spasmed. It makes sense: If you’re a narcissist, that’s what Kleenex is for. Roméro is a sexy, hard-working guy; you could say he pulled it off.
I’ve never seen a version of Pulcinella I liked, not even the one Balanchine and Robbins made for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Ballet and commedia dell’arte make for an uneasy mix. Malandain’s attempt went on and on-endless flirting and flashing and comical adventures in faux-Neapolitan style. As for Boléro , a group of dancers, framed in an upstage area defined by four panels, kept moving around to no discernible purpose. Apparently, this kind of thing has brought success to “the most recent of France’s 19 National Choreographic Centers” (the Biarritz company is only four years old). Its dancers are attractive and talented, but that’s not a good enough reason to expose New York to this dopey repertory.
Across the river, B.A.M.’s New Wave just keeps rolling along. The latest import from Germany is the newest Berlin sensation, Sasha Waltz, a post-Bauschian who has landed the prestigious job as head choreographer of the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz. Sometimes you feel that if you’ve seen one modern German expressionist, you’ve seen them all, but Waltz-represented this season by her 90-minute work Körper ( Bodies )-is not so weighty as Pina herself, although she’s weighty enough. This piece involves intoned “stories” or monologues. Here’s a sample of “Grayson’s story”: “I undid the buckle on my pants, and I showed her the birthmark on my thigh. I wanted to show her everything, everything about me that makes me different from everybody else, the length of my limbs, the color of my eyes, my widow’s peak and the hair on my bum …. She tried to run, but her ankle twisted in the picnic basket, her bag caught me in the face, and my nose started to bleed.”
Multiple body parts are revealed. There’s some equal-opportunity full-frontalism, and there’s a hole or two in the set through which occasional limbs are extruded: an arm here, a leg there. Certain bodies leak fluid. Others combine to create, for instance, a man with his legs on backwards. A whole contingent of dancers in the raw or semi-raw is squeezed into a small space behind a see-through panel, and they squirm around and clamber over each other like a pailful of slithering eels. Everything goes on forever. Some of what happens is ingenious: You ask yourself how they do it. Then you ask yourself why they do it. Then you ask yourself when they’ll stop doing it. Ninety minutes can be a long time.
We’ve also had a season at the Joyce of that canny old pro, Garth Fagan. His two leading men-Norwood Pennewell and Steve Humphrey-are getting on in years, and it shows, but they’re still powerful performers. His leading woman, Natalie Rogers, is a blessing-a powerful, beautiful, dynamic woman. Everything she does is totally committed; every gesture is full. She’s the kind of dancer you fantasize about seeing in other repertories-in major Martha Graham roles, for instance. She doesn’t deserve to be trapped in the clichéd ethnicities of something like River Song , an excerpt from Earth Eagle First Circle . To begin with, good dancers should be protected from costumes like these, all feathers and fringe and skirtlets covered with clanking metal thingamabobs.
Fagan’s dance vocabulary depends heavily on endless balances and protracted spinning, and the company is up to their demands. His latest works are his most achieved, at least of those I saw. Even the obligatory tribute to “the victims and survivors of September 11, 2001”-it’s called In Memoriam: The Innocent, The Brave, The Hands, The Minds … All Mankind , to some interesting 16th-century music by Cristóbal de Morales-is acceptable. A piece to music by John Adams, a piece to music by the Jazz Jamaica All Stars-they’re interchangeable but competent, and they show off the dancers well. Fagan’s dance imagination isn’t large, but it’s honest.
The most astounding performance during these weeks came from the superb English baritone Simon Keenlyside, in a performance of Schubert’s tragic song cycle Die Winterreise , choreographed by Trisha Brown as part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performance series. That Keenlyside sings beautifully comes as no surprise to anyone who has heard his recordings. But that he so easily fulfilled the dance demands made on him was extraordinary-wouldn’t we be amazed if Ethan Stiefel or Peter Boal sang this well while dancing? The language Brown employs here is more gestural than kinetic: arms and hands that entwine, images that suggest rather than mimic birds or trees. Three of her dancers support Keenlyside with great tact-sometimes they literally support him as he falls backward, emotionally exhausted. I’m not sure that the world needed a danced Winterreise , but I’m happy to have witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of a master singer moving with such focus and intensity.