Antidote to Year-End Blues: The Ever-Buoyant Trocks

Robert Gottlieb, The New York Observer
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Let’s face it, 2004 was a bumpy ride.
Antidote to Year-End Blues: The Ever-Buoyant Trocks

The year ended with a bang, not a whimper. The Trocks-O.K., fact-checkers, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo-turned up for two weeks of fun and games at the Joyce , and even though there were longueurs, they gave us a very needed shot in the arm. Because, let’s face it, 2004 was a bumpy ride.

But look at the bright side. First and foremost, the Ashton and Balanchine centenary celebrations underlined how lucky we were, those of us who’ve been around long enough to have witnessed the flowering of these two geniuses. Ashton, who has been bizarrely neglected these last 20 years (most conspicuously by the Royal Ballet, the company for which he did his great work and which he once ran), had been making a comeback even before the centenary. La Fille Mal Gardée is being recognized everywhere as a masterpiece; The Dream, Les Patineurs, Symphonic Variations, Monotones are entering various repertories; and the Royal has recently restored two of the greatest Ashton-Fonteyn triumphs, Daphnis and Chloe and Sylvia. (A.B.T. is promising us Sylvia in the spring.) This year’s Lincoln Center Ashton celebrations included Cinderella, Scènes de Ballet, Enigma Variations and A Wedding Bouquet, along with the resolutely tawdry Marguerite and Armand, a Fonteyn-Nureyev specialty that should be quietly reburied. (In regard to Fonteyn, I can’t refrain from mentioning a loving exhibition honoring her at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library in which I had a hand, as well as a biography, by Meredith Daneman, that is as close to definitive as we’ll ever get.)

The Balanchine story is more complicated. There were outpourings of his work wherever ballerinas get up on pointes. Balanchine repetiteurs were frantically racing from one country to another setting and coaching his ballets-in France, in Russia, in England, in China, in Japan. American ballet companies were cramming more and more Balanchine into their programs-Miami City Ballet alone added Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C and Ballo della Regina to its already strong Balanchine repertory, with La Valse and La Sonnambula coming up. Balanchine alumni from Suzanne Farrell and Helgi Tomasson to Ib Anderson and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux were featuring the work of their maître in their respective companies.

All very well, but in our town, the heart of Balanchine country, things were not so bright. The year-long celebration at New York City Ballet was trumpeted aloud in a blare of public relations, but onstage things were ragged (to put it kindly). There were stunning performances, particularly of Liebeslieder Waltzer, which has come to be cherished as one of Balanchine’s greatest masterpieces-in the early days, people would walk out halfway through. But a company deficient in real ballerinas and looking generally disheartened can only live up to Balanchine sporadically. Some ballets just vanished under the weight of his demands-the sublime Divertimento No. 15, created on five of his finest dancers, could hardly look like itself in the hands (or feet) of the low-level casting it was asked to endure. Concerto Barocco and Apollo were travesties. In Nutcracker, the children looked more animated and disciplined than the corps. Two telling notes: The Kirov/Maryinsky’s Diana Vishneva was far more brilliant in Rubies than any of the three girls City Ballet served up; and the company actually had to co-opt Angel Corella from A.B.T. to dance the demanding male lead in Theme and Variations. Perhaps it could borrow Gillian Murphy or Michelle Wiles next? The final straw, of course, was the disgusting Boris Eifman biographical “tribute” to Balanchine, Musagète. I can’t bring myself to discuss it again, but you’ll have a chance to avoid it at the State Theatre in the weeks to come.

There are flashes of hope at City Ballet. Wendy Whelan has grown into a world-class dancer-and artist. Ashley Bouder dances big, strong and all-out. Rachel Rutherford quietly demonstrates her intelligence and taste in whatever she undertakes. And Peter Martins’ gamble on the European Sofiane Sylve has paid off-just in time. But with the superb Jennie Somogyi still on the wounded list, Kyra Nichols receding into character roles and Darci Kistler terminally underpowered, it’s no wonder that a ballet like Divertimento looks so diminished. As for the men, they barely register. And now the company’s leading classicist, Peter Boal, is leaving to run Pacific Northwest Ballet. He’ll be missed, not only as a dancer but as a teacher and role model.

A.B.T., whose Balanchine gets stronger and stronger, is rampant with male talent, and is finally beginning to develop some young women. But the company is trapped all spring at the Met, with its insatiable demand for full-evening “name” ballets-Swan Lake, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, the new (and ultra-feeble) Raymonda-and it seems determined to give one performance each to almost every one of its principal women. So how are newcomers to grow? It’s the brief fall season at the City Center that offers them opportunities and reveals their potential.

At last the company is commissioning fewer hopeless “novelties” by proven second-raters which barely survive their first season, but the search for repertory grinds relentlessly on. VIII, by City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, was a modest success, considerably more effective than Shambards, his most recent work for his home company. Casting its nets backwards, A.B.T. has squeezed the Petipa repertory about as far as it can go and is now turning its attention to Fokine. Good luck! But A.B.T. has a happy air about it. The good-natured swagger of its boys makes everybody look (and feel) good.

As for the major modern-dance groups, they’re basically on hold. Merce Cunningham has said what he’s going to say, though his dancers go on saying it beautifully. Paul Taylor had a major work in Promethean Fire only two years ago, and his repertory is safe in the hands of his newest dancers. Twyla Tharp, without a company of her own, is focused on Broadway, but recently, and happily, she’s made her major dances available to other companies. Everything Mark Morris does is interesting, but unless it’s his new and highly praised Sylvia, which hasn’t been seen on the East Coast, nothing he’s done in the last several years has been on the level of his most important work. The Martha Graham company, out of the courts and onto the stage, is effectively reviving her famous pieces while exploring some of her forgotten ones. The Jose Limón company made an earnest and worthy reappearance, while Doug Varone, a Limón descendant, provided the year’s best new work, Castles. As for Alvin Ailey, how often can one say it: overwhelming dancers, underwhelming rep.

The most amusing and maddening event of the year was the City Center’s six-performance, 30-company “Fall for Dance” Festival. Ballet, modern, hip-hop, ethnic, avant-garde, acrobatic-you name it, they did it. There were some happy discoveries, some horrible bores, some pure nonsense, some pure pretension. A good time was had by many much of the time. But the very success of this ambitious undertaking emphasized the basic truth about dance today: There may be 30 companies worth taking a look at, but there isn’t a single huge new talent on the scene. There are no Grahams, Balanchines, Ashtons. There are no Fonteyns, Farrells, Nureyevs, Baryshnikovs. (At least the Sylvie Guillem plague that swept over Europe passed us by.) Dance is everywhere, but it’s flattened out. Russia is scrambling to catch up; France is relentlessly nouvelle vague (and old hat); America is once again a melting pot-this time of dance styles, as ballet and modern and pop infiltrate each other’s realms. But when will a major talent come along to dominate and discipline this wild ride?

Even the Trocks are on the move. Their trajectory over 30 years from pure parody to serious reconstruction was confirmed this season with their most interesting (by far) new offering, the underwater scene from the Russian Humpback Horse (usually known as The Little Humpbacked Horse), which premiered in 1864 and has survived through many revisions. The Trocks’ current version has been staged by Elena Kunikova from elements by Petipa and Gorsky, and it’s a glorious commentary on the tradition of vision scenes and divertissements which is so central to classic Russian ballet. The music is by that old Maryinsky house composer Cesare Pugni-it’s not only sub-Tchaikovsky, it’s sub-Minkus, but it works. This piece is pure pleasure: There are two starfish (you can tell what they’re meant to be because the dancers sport rubbery starfish on their heads), a flashing goldfish, two hunks (and they are hunks) of coral, a genie, a corps of Medusas and the Queen of the Underwater, rightfully assigned to the company’s ballerina assoluta, Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter in real life). As has always been the case with entertainments like this, a series of duets, trios and ensemble pieces builds to the Queen’s big solo-all those flashy pirouettes and fouettés at which Olga S., as always, triumphs. Carter is an extraordinary dancer-hefty yet delicate, with an enchanting Toni Morrison smile. He’s not only a brilliant technician, he has the artistry of a major dancer: Every movement and gesture is full, and felt. If he and his colleagues don’t have the final polish of the old Russian dancers they parody, it’s only natural; they’re men who haven’t made it to the top in leading “normal” ballet companies, not ballerinas trained at the Maryinsky. But they’re more than good enough.

The Humpback Horse is only marginally jokey, just like Kunikova’s Paquita two years ago. This is the real thing ? sort of. And it’s a thing to treasure, because it’s so illuminating to watch Petipa assemble a ballet and keep it interesting and alive through classical variations. Watching this performance is like being given a surprise look back into a world that’s gone forever yet still has value. It’s a happy reminder of what ballet was once like-and of what we’re missing today in terms of sheer competence and vitality.

The season’s other new-to-me works were less happy. A tango parody called I Wanted to Dance with You at the Cafe of Experience had nothing at all to offer except the fabulous singing of Carlos Gardel, but you don’t have to go to the ballet to hear him. This piece, we’re told, was “after Pina Bausch,” but it misses its target by a mile-and Bausch is a big target. Peter Anastos brought back L’Ecole de Ballet, an homage to the Academy and to the tradition of the Recital. It’s cleverly put together-no surprise-and individual moments come to life, but it’s essentially ungalvanized. And there was a Tarantella “after George Balanchine” that’s less parody than carbon copy, except for some ingenious new ways to tap that tambourine. The old standbys were on hand-Swan Lake, Act II, with the witless Pavel Törd as Prince Siegfried (he’s even more witless in Les Sylphides) and pint-sized Igor Slowpokin as the much-put-upon Benno. Slowpokin’s female avatar is Fifi Barkova, whose Don Quixote Pas de Deux remains a masterpiece of comic restraint, whose message is “Don’t mess with Kitri.” Slowpokin/Barkova’s real name is Manolo Molina, and he’s the company’s truest comedian. The others all do funny things, while Molina simply is funny.

With every passing year, the Trocks’ endless routine of pratfalls and dancers bumping into each other and ballerina hissy fits looks more dated, while the supposedly dated Russian ballets they’re reviving look more and more alive. The company’s aesthetic is stretched in two directions at once-toward in-your-face jokiness and toward the fascinating spectacle of capable men performing serious dance as women. Let’s hope they can maintain the balance, because we need them alive and kicking-not as borderline camp, but as curative and corrective.