Posing in Front of Baez, Vulgarizing Stravinsky

A.B.T. has just given us a wonderful season, so spirits (at least my spirits) have been high. But you can’t

A.B.T. has just given us a wonderful season, so spirits (at least my spirits) have been high. But you can’t win them all. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 78-minute solo performance at the Joyce, Once, and yet another New Wavelet at B.A.M., Aterballetto’s all-Stravinsky evening, have reminded me of a basic truth: All too much of the new dance on offer today is meretricious. However, the letdown of Once was of a different kind from that of the Stravinsky evening. So, as they used to put it in college exams, let’s “compare and contrast.”

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Exactly two years ago, De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, presented a large-scale work at B.A.M. called Rain. I expected the usual pretentiousness of High European Modern Dance—she had been trained in the school of Béjart, after all. Yet I found Rain, with its throbbing Steve Reich score, beautiful, harmonious, thoughtful. Her new work is far from beautiful or harmonious, but it’s certainly thoughtful. Too thoughtful. “I am obsessed by pure and taut lines, magnetized by the rigorous equilibrium of classical dance, but while I can formally execute this severity, beauty and certainty, it doesn’t mesh with me at an intimate level. So I put up resistance and use the resulting tension—between pride and fall, between charging forward and retreating, between certitude and doubt, between reaching out and withdrawing, between the straightness of a line and the meandering curve—to compose a clear exposé of the odyssey of introspection …. ”

Onto the stage—bare, except for a chair, an LP player and a few other objects—walks De Keersmaeker. She’s thin, her dark hair is pulled up, she’s wearing a black top and a black skirt and no makeup. She kicks off her shoes and steps downstage center. Silence. Stillness. But wait—standing foursquare, she looks to the side, looks back, looks about and says, “Welcome.” Then she dips, turns around, turns back and stares hard at us.

Are we being scrutinized? Challenged? Judged? No, we’re being bored.

The lights are still on. She’s down on her knees. She makes a few abrupt gestures. The lights dim, very slowly. She pivots on her heel. She’s in a squat. She shakes her head. She sways. Now she’s moving. It’s as if she’s trying out her steps, her poses.

More than 15 silent minutes go by like this—oh, the severity of it all, the probity.

And then she pretends to start the phonograph, and over the sound system comes a voice we recognize immediately: It’s the 1963 album Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2. If you were alive and sentient in the early 60’s, this voice in all its purity, its clarity, its beauty is still part of you. She starts with folk songs—“Once I Had a Sweetheart,” “Queen of Hearts,” “Jack-a-Roe”—then breaks your heart with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” For “We Shall Overcome,” she lowers the volume and sort of hums or sings along, very badly. Once in a while, she strums an air guitar. Then, “my favorite”: “Long Black Veil.” (“Ten years ago, on a cold dark night …. ”)

During all this she’s moving around the stage, trying out her limited vocabulary of gestures, wittily pointing her finger at us, pausing for long stretches. It’s a studied simulation of spontaneity. “I’m having a good time,” she announces; “if nobody objects, I’m going to take off my shirt.” Soon her undershirt is gone, too—we’re down to her breasts and her teeny black panties: the perfect look for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And then “With God on Our Side.” Her hair is down now, and she’s tossing it about. Suddenly there’s the voice of Dylan himself, the young Dylan, and the early 60’s are back full force. But only if you close your eyes. If you open them, you’re in the 21st-century dance theater of Europe.

We’re told that De Keersmaeker listened to the Baez album over and over when she was growing up (proving that she had good taste). But what can it mean to her? (She was 3 when it was first issued.) Certainly not what it means to us who were there—a hope, a promise, a release. Unfortunately, whatever meaning it may hold for her doesn’t emerge from her minimalist movements and gestures. The music is so strong and stands so powerfully on its own that her well-meaning dance doodlings add nothing at all to it: They’re not offensive, they’re just irrelevant. Still, we can thank her for reminding us of the glory that was Joan Baez.

Compare and contrast? If De Keersmaeker is muted, earnest, Flemish, Mauro Bigonzetti, the leader of Compagnia Aterballetto, is excited, overheated—and, yes, Italian. To be precise, the company is located in Reggio Emilia, and according to the press release, it’s “the principal Dance Company for production and distribution in Italy and the first permanent ballet producing body apart from Opera House companies.” (The “Ater” of its name stands for the Association of Theatres of Emilia Romagna.) Aterballetto, now more than 25 years old, has been under Bigonzetti’s direction since 1997.

We’ve seen his work before—the contortionist Vespro, although pumped up with Importance, was not the worst of New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project of 2002. The program at B.A.M. gave us the whole package—the ambition, the grandiosity, the energy. And the Concept—namely, reworking two of the most famous ballets ever made to Stravinsky’s music.

First came Les Noces, which we mainly know as Bronislava Nijinska’s masterpiece, choreographed for Diaghilev in 1923, and in the version Jerome Robbins created for A.B.T. in 1965. Stravinsky’s wedding cantata is fiercely primitive and powerful. Bigonzetti modernizes it and gives it a slick veneer: There’s a huge table the dancers love to jump onto and off of; there are strange constructions—are they chairs? Are they walkers?—that the dancers fling around and bang in unison on the floor. Yes, there’s Nijinska’s Bridal Couple, and other dancers have their chance, too, breaking out of the large corps to grapple with each other. The movement is convulsive, feet are almost painfully turned in, toes are curled, fists are clenched—that’s how Bigonzetti does “primitive.” But he has nothing original to bring to the mix, and his efforts add up to a work that’s mildly effective without being remotely interesting. On the whole, though, this vulgarized Noces is harmless—seen once.

His Petrushka is another story. Fokine’s iconic ballet has a score and a libretto—and a depth—that are embedded in our collective dance memory. Often today it doesn’t come across, partly because we don’t have strong enough dramatic dancers to take on the roles originally brought to life by Nijinsky, Karsavina and Bolm. But it’s indisputably a great work, and Bigonzetti’s concept of it is reductive beyond bearing—and hopelessly alien to Stravinsky’s music. The unmistakable Russianness of the score—the folk themes, the rich orchestration—doesn’t exactly suit a ballet that seems to be set in a large H&M stockroom, populated by racks of pastel dresses and pretty girls to hop into them. The relevance of four “guards” in uniforms and dark glasses (de rigueur for villains ever since The Matrix) totally escapes me. Worst of all is Petrushka himself, no longer a tragic figure, but an angry one—at once aggressive and masochistic. And busy, busy, busy. You can’t wait for his final collapse.

Classics are constantly being re-imagined and transformed, and the originals are none the worse for it; they endure. In cases like this one, it’s the distorting version that disappears in a year or two, and who cares? But the not-incompetent Bigonzetti raises a question: Why is his work so wrongheaded, given the combination of his (and his dancers’) irrepressible energy and the absolute—and unwarranted—confidence his work exudes? The answer: Like so many maximalists, he lacks judgment and taste. In this regard (and only this regard), he’s a minor-league Boris Eifman. Let’s hope he never makes it to the majors.

Posing in Front of Baez, Vulgarizing Stravinsky