Sampling the Very Worst From a Sadly Mixed Season

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It’s been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times.

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The best included the recent triumphant Paul Taylor season, the highlights of the Martha Graham season, and for those of us who happened to be in Miami, Ballet Imperial at Miami City Ballet, the finest performances of this Balanchine masterpiece that I’ve seen in many years.

But dance critics are rarely spared the worst for long, as the last few weeks go to prove. And of the worst, what’s been the very worst? I’ve been disputing this point with a seasoned colleague. When I put it to her that Dwight Rhoden’s 7th Heaven, trotted out for us at the Joyce by Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, might be the worst ballet of the past five years, she countered with Boris Eifman’s Musagète. To which I argued that while Musagète was certainly more offensive, the Rhoden was more inept. We agreed to disagree.

7th Heaven is set to hunks of Beethoven’s Seventh (get the joke of the title?) interrupted by stretches of Bach called “Juxtapositions.” That idea alone would have doomed the project, but Rhoden’s inability to deploy dancers in groups would have undone a work made to any other music. A few of my notes: Hideous costumes. Ugly vocabulary-splayed legs and crooked knees. Unmusical. Pretentious. Confused. Dull.

Nor could anything be duller than the first ballet on Pittsburgh’s program, Kevin O’Day’s Sting/ING Situations. Another jokey title: The music is a group of songs by Sting. Those of us who have endured previous Kevin O’Day pieces accept that he’s one long yawn, that he just churns out yards of material, all of it formulaic. Sting’s music didn’t help-it’s not very danceable-and there were more hideous costumes. This serving of dance cliché went on for 35 minutes.

Pittsburgh’s third offering was Derek Deane’s Hungry Heart … “We all have one”!! to-yes, you guessed it-songs by Bruce Springsteen. This too lacked original dance moments, but at least it looked good in its cocktail-lounge setting, involved a group of identifiable characters and had some shape to it. But it’s time to get the word out to provincial companies that choreographing to rock music isn’t a sure bet in the Big Apple, even though it may be cutting edge back home. This company, under the direction of Patricia Wilde, a former formidable City Ballet dancer, had made a respected name for itself. Under new direction, it’s become a vacuum.

The Eifman vs. Rhoden debate took place before the National Ballet of Canada brought its production of James Kudelka’s The Contract (The Pied Piper) to B.A.M. On the Saturday night I saw it, the Lexington Avenue Express decided not to go to Brooklyn. Alas, something called the J line eventually got me there. At least I had a book with me for the ride, whereas it was too dark to read during the 80 intermissionless minutes of The Contract.

On the theory that if a ballet is going to tell a story, it should be able to convey it through movement, I didn’t bother with the plot summary in the program. As a result, although I grasped that the opening sequence was a play within a play-an amateur production, kids and all, of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” to a recitation of Browning’s text, set in what appeared to be a huge school gym/auditorium-I hadn’t the faintest idea until I was back on the subway that the boy and girl who dance a puppy-love duet were an engaged couple named Will and Dot; that a very distressed lady was Dot’s mother; that everyone became afflicted with a movement disease (I had thought that was just Kudelka’s normal vocabulary); that the gracious and lovely lady in flowing garb who suddenly turns up and contracts to cure them all by a laying-on of hands is named Eva; and that Eva is meant to suggest the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

I did understand that when Will and Eva find themselves alone together and he whips off his pants, standing there in nothing but his boxers-a first in ballet?-there’s going to be Passion followed by Trouble. The Elders of the community come upon them more or less in flagrante and are not amused. The leading one, who’s sporting something like a long black skirt and had his own eye on Eva, is particularly put out, but then you would be, too, if you had to rush around in such a clumsy schmatte denouncing people while a handsome young guy in his undies is grabbing the spotlight.

I leave it to the program notes to tell you what happens next: The Elder “separates the two lovers, striking Will to the ground and calling on the community to nullify Eva’s contract. Only Dot’s mother defends Eva. Eva fights back, but the contract is broken. [Where were her agent and lawyer?] The children, silent observers, weigh the arguments being acted out and cast Eva in the role of the wronged Pied Piper. As the community struggles to restore order, Eva leads the children away.”

The tedium of all this was close to unbearable, despite Michael Torke’s overexcited score featuring heavenly voices soaring ever upwards. There were 54 performers onstage, 18 of them children, and the kids seemed to be having a good time. At least somebody was. In its defense, I have to acknowledge that despite its pretensions and longueurs, at least The Contract made no use of dry ice, had no flashing red lights and wasn’t multi-media.

Neil Greenberg’s Partial View was. This was another intermissionless event (translation: There’s no escape), although there was a brief pause between Greenberg’s 12- or 13-minute solo and the far longer section featuring two couples and the video projections of John Jesurun. (There were no videos to distract us from the solo.) Neil Greenberg, now in his 40’s, danced with Merce Cunningham from 1979 to 1986, and Cunningham is clearly the big influence. But there’s none of Cunningham’s mastery on display in the solo-just endless exhibitionistic doodling. This from the man who recently told an interviewer that “being a choreographer was starting to feel a little bit like masturbation.”

If there was any reason for anything in the main body of Partial View to take place at any given moment-or at all-I couldn’t discern it. The four dancers were working hard, as dancers always do, but when everything appears random, nothing seems to mean anything. A huge split screen flashed video sequences of the dancers even as they danced (there were cameras strategically placed and then re-placed around the stage), so that we got to see the real thing and the filmed thing dwarfing it at the same time. And then there were other repeated images: a woman swimming, another woman walking down a path, bombs exploding over Baghdad.

Both Greenberg and Jesurun have enjoyed awards, honors, international careers. They’re very, very serious, and they let you know it. In an “Artist Statement,” Greenberg spells out what he’s up to: “I’m obsessed with the particular kinds of meaning-sensual, perceptual, ontological-that dance can provide …. I like performance that walks the tightrope between looking at ‘the thing’ and, simultaneously, being ‘the thing’-between an analytical cool and heart-on-sleeve expression. I’m attracted to the daringly experimental and the theatrically powerful. And to subtle virtuosity, elegance and humor.” He’s attracted to these things, but he doesn’t manage to exemplify them. To put it directly: He’s boring.

Large talent, of course, can’t be legislated into existence, and it’s not the fault of the Rhodens and O’Days and Kudelkas and Greenbergs that they don’t have it. But let’s not be deceived by the culture’s machinery of publicity and self-promotion or by our ardent longing for the real thing. That we have so few first-rate choreographers today is a sad fact; better to accept it than to lie to ourselves.

Sampling the Very Worst From a Sadly Mixed Season