Reviews

Fall for Dance

Alastair Macaulay, New York Times
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Men in Drag, Jetés by Puppets and Mime to James Brown

Of this year’s five Fall for Dance programs at New York City Center, the third proved the lightest and funniest to date and, as a complete program, much the best. The range demonstrated by the four works on Saturday was remarkable, as if the programmers were testing how diverse your taste could be, but all four were carried by enthusiasm for performance itself.

So, for example, the second half featured two all-male companies, but ah, how very unalike. Perhaps no member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the long-celebrated drag ballet company, is all male; but the part that’s female is central to the troupe’s legend. Peter Anastos’s “Go for Barocco” has no male role at all, and it is a many-layered masterpiece of parody. The performers of DanceBrazil’s “Culture in Motion,” an exhibition of capoeira in gradual crescendo from slow stretches to rapid-fire martial-art virtuosity, are all masculine yet all lyrical too.

The intense audience-consciousness of the Trockadero “girls” is enchanting in one way; the virile innocence of the DanceBrazil guys, matching testosterone with grace, is enchanting in another. Both works are delectably musical.

“Go for Barocco” is set, with timing that makes every beat matter, to Bach. A happily devout lampoon of the mannerisms and devices of Balanchine’s ballet classicism in general and of his “Concerto Barocco” in particular, it is so well constructed that jokes that refer, say, to specific details of “Apollo” and “Serenade” still work if you have no knowledge of those ballets. “Culture in Motion” is carried along, without particular precision but with tremendous atmosphere, by the live playing of one guitarist and four percussionists.

Fitting movement to music was likewise central to both items in the program’s first half. In these, however, musicality is more tentative. The first, Basil Twist’s “Petrushka Suite,” is a puppet version of the doll scenes of the famous 1911 Stravinsky-Benois-Fokine ballet, “Petrushka.” One of the most striking features of the second, Monica Bill Barnes’s “I feel like,” is how one set of movements looks peculiar when set to a Bach cello suite then natural to James Brown.

I find each work enjoyable but slight. The most remarkable puppet drama I have seen in this decade has been in British mainstream theater: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2004 staging of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” and the National Theater’s productions of “His Dark Materials” (2003) and “War Horse” (2007, still running), all full of extraordinary images of poetry, pathos and wit.

By these standards, Mr. Twist’s “Petrushka Suite” (which surely had more surrounding detail when shown in 2008 at Lincoln Center) tends to be merely cute. A striking feature of Mr. Twist’s theater is that he choreographs his puppet action to the specifics of a musical score. Here he follows the narrative minutiae of Fokine’s staging of the original Stravinsky-Benois scenario; he uses, too, miniature adaptations of Benois’s original costumes for Petrushka and the Blackamoor. The Elkina Sisters, playing grand pianos on either side of the stage, deliver a special four-hand suite from Stravinsky’s score.

The cuteness of the puppets won waves of laughter on Saturday night, rightly. The action is most memorable when it shows — too seldom — what puppets can do and dancers can’t. The Ballerina excels in this respect: in one grand jeté, she traces an ultra-slow-motion arc that lingers like a rainbow. Also marvelous, though too fleetingly seen, are the outsize surreal hands above the dolls. If you know the original scenario, these suggest the Charlatan who controls the puppets’ destinies (or the God who controls the love-jealousy-despair-death human story that these dolls enact).

So far, so sweet. But Mr. Twist’s action neither takes the pain in this music (or in his puppets) seriously nor finds any revelations in the music’s detail.

Ms. Barnes’s “I feel like” is part mime and part dance, and as lively as either. The introductory solo for Deborah Lohse is nicely wacky, a staccato array of often gawky and brisk pedestrian movements imposed onto slow music from a Bach cello suite. Then, as a James Brown song — “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” — takes over, Ms. Barnes and Anna Bass take the stage. Some of their movements are the same as Ms. Lohse’s, yet now they look judicious.

Like Ms. Lohse, who joins them later, they sometimes do vivid facial and gestural mime, alternately addressing one imaginary figure stage right (cheerfully) and another stage left (alarmedly). Elsewhere these two women also do some real dancing, through the whole body, as vividly and connectedly rhythmical in its use of feet and legs as in its gestures and torso movement. This is dance theater that entertains but, despite its oddities, doesn’t make any lasting impression of importance.

Unlike “Go for Barocco.” Although I first saw les Ballets Trockadero more than 20 years ago, I somehow managed to miss this Anastos 1974 work until Saturday. Within seconds I felt that this was the ultimate Trockadero ballet: the one that never relies too long on any one kind of humor but that has the most integrity as sheer choreography.

I loved the central fact that these men-as-women just love dancing and keep drawing to your attention their fanatically pointed affiliation to Balanchine style. The fifth positions! The pointed foot in battement tendu! The transfer of weight off balance while on point! These are articles of faith in Balanchine style, and nobody has ever worshiped the faith more emphatically than these Trockadero gals. Their joy in dancing is both the funniest thing in the ballet and the most moving, and it’s what connects them to those DanceBrazil men in “Culture in Motion.” In either case, irrepressible sweetness and naïveté keep bubbling up beneath the fixed gender stereotypes.

Fall for Dance runs through Saturday at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan; (212) 581-1212; nycitycenter.org.