Urbanities

Terry Teachout
Dancing on the Edge
Spring 1991

Whenever a New York dance company sails into heavy weather, dancegoers the world over sit it up and take notice. They’ve had a lot to notice in the last couple of years, with all four major ballet companies in this still undisputed dance capital of the world racked by internal difficulties.

In the fall of 1989, Mikhail Baryshnikov, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, resigned from the company after losing an angry battle with the ABT board over budgetary constraints. At the same time, New York City Ballet was torn by an internal power struggle whose climax was the abrupt retirement of resident choreographer Jerome Robbins, who took his leave of NYCB in a manner so chilly that it attracted the attention of gossip columnists. Last spring, Dance Theatre of Harlem ran out of money and had to cancel its New York season altogether; last summer, the Joffrey Ballet nearly went under as a result of a violent clash between artistic director Gerald Arpino and the Joffrey board.

These crises were, to all outward appearances, more institutional and financial than artistic. Yet such institutional problems may be symptoms of a deeper malaise. There is no question that dance in New York is artistically adrift.

One revealing sign of the current malaise is that none of New York’s four major ballet companies has been under the active direction of a major choreographer since 1983, the year in which George Balanchine died. Balanchine, the founder, ballet master-in-chief, and resident genius of New York City Ballet, was by common consent the greatest choreographer in the world. For three decades, “Mr. B” (as his dancers called him) was the glittering star around which dance in New York revolved. Some admired him, others rebelled against him, but everybody acknowledged his supremacy. An artist of phenomenal range, Balanchine choreographed everything from Swan Lake to “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” He single-handedly reshaped the modern conception of classical dance, and his long shadow extended far beyond the boundaries of ballet proper. Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, the most important modern dance choreographers of the postwar period, both bear the unmistakable stamp of Balanchine’s influence. As Mikhail Baryshnikov said during his tenure as czar of ABT, “Mr. B doesn’t just look out for the company across the plaza. He looks out for us and for all companies.”

When Balanchine died, the sun went out, and the planets slowly began to drift out of their orbits. His own company, New York City Ballet, showed the earliest signs of decay. After Balanchine’s death, artistic control of NYCB passed to Peter Martins, a distinguished danseur noble and a choreographer of promise whom Balanchine himself had singled out as heir apparent. Jerome Robbins, the only other possible candidate to run the company, was not interested in taking up the reins of power; the only thing that mattered to him was the care and feeding of the Robbins repertory. So Martins moved into the front office, sharing the official title of ballet master-in-chief with Robbins, and things ran smoothly enough at first. But Martins, for all his gifts, was no Balanchine, and he began to act erratically when forced to take over the role. His own ballets became increasingly uneven. Genuinely imaginative works such as Poulenc Sonata and Concerto for Two Solo Pianos gave way to monotonously glitzy confections such as Ecstatic Orange, Echo, and last year’s Fearful Symmetries, a truly appalling exercise in unrelieved trendiness. The Balanchine repertory has deteriorated noticeably under his stewardship, and his casting decisions (particularly those centering on ballerina Heather Watts, Martins’s on-again-off-again girlfriend) have been controversial at best.

Rumors of dissatisfaction within the company became widespread three years ago. The dissatisfaction became a full-scale crisis when Jerome Robbins announced his retirement in the fall of 1989. It was no secret that Robbins’s departure was a direct result of his displeasure with Martins’s artistic direction. It was widely assumed that Robbins quit as a warning, if not to Martins then to the board of directors, that something had to be done about NYCB. To date, his warning has gone unheeded, and the company continues to drift.

At its best, the dancing at NYCB is still remarkable. One cannot hope to see anything more exciting than Maria Calegari’s desperate passion or Kyra Nichols’s incandescent purity. But with Robbins gone and Martins gone to seed, one no longer expects new works of quality from NYCB, and Martins has shown no inclination to turn the company into a “museum” existing solely to provide life support for the Balanchine-Robbins repertory; he continues to grind out ballets that please a few well-placed critics and shock just about everybody else in town. New York City Ballet is still the greatest Balanchine company in the world. Nobody else is even in the running. But NYCB under Peter Martins is not the same as NYCB under George Balanchine, and the morale of the New York dance scene has fallen sharply as a result.

One might have expected another ballet company to have taken up the artistic Slack, treating NYCB’s abdication as an opportunity. In the case of Dance Theatre of Harlem, however, it was never possible for that excellent little company to become a standard-setter for New York dance. Founded by Arthur Mitchell, an ex-NYCB star and an admittedly indifferent choreographer, the DTH repertory is a straightforward mixture of well-staged Balanchine war-horses and other works of variable interest. With little to offer in the way of new choreography, the company is unable to establish a distinctive creative profile.

The Joffrey Ballet, by contrast, always has plenty of new choreography to offer, just about all of it bad. Gerald Arpino, co-founder and principal choreographer of the Joffrey, has spent the last 35 years tirelessly assimilating every passing choreographic and cultural trend into an instantly recognizable and utterly undistinguished style. Arpino took over the company after Robert Joffrey’s death in 1988, but there is no reason to think that he has any intention of changing the basic mission of the Joffrey, which is to serve as a “museum” for a wide variety of important older works, with Arpino’s ballets scattered over the schedule like fistfuls of tinsel. Except for the tinsel, this mission is admirable, and the Joffrey Ballet carries it out faithfully and with infectious enthusiasm. The Joffrey dances more ballets from the repertory of Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russe than any other company in the world; its reconstructions of two historically important “lost” ballets, Balanchine’s Cotillon and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, have stirred up more excitement than any other dance events in recent memory. Arlene Croce, the most influential dance critic in New York, remarked in 1974 that the Joffrey Ballet “is first-rate at being third-rate.” The Joffrey has improved considerably since then, and its dancing is often quite good. But the underlying weakness of the company, its lack of a first-rate resident choreographer, remains unchanged.

This leaves American Ballet Theatre, founded in 1940 with the stated intention of providing New York with “an art gallery of all the great works of ballet.” In keeping with this deliberately eclectic policy, ABT has never allowed a choreographer of stature to direct its operations; in the long run, this decision has proved artistically damaging. After Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins stopped making new ballets for ABT in the Forties, the company produced no more than a handful of ballets of lasting interest. From the Fifties onward, dancegoers went to ABT chiefly to see a few fondly remembered works from the Forties and, more importantly, to ogle the latest foreign superstars. It was a recipe for artistic irrelevance. With Balanchine and Robbins setting off choreographic explosions year after year at New York City Ballet, ABT’s overly familiar repertory soon seemed tired.

When Mikhail Baryshnikov moved across the Lincoln Center plaza from ABT to NYCB in 1978, the ground shook; when he returned to become ABT’s artistic director in 1980, huge cracks opened up in the concrete. Arguably the greatest male dancer of the century, Baryshnikov is also an intensely serious artist and a true believer in the Balanchine aesthetic. As soon as Baryshnikov took over ABT he fired all the guest stars and devoted his formidable energies to welding an artistically aimless collection of dancers into an ensemble with a coherent, Balanchine-derived vision of excellence. He worked hard to improve the company s indifferent dancing and revamp its aging repertory, replacing poorly staged war-horses with Balanchine masterpieces and engaging new choreographers. He hired Twyla Tharp, a prodigiously gifted modern dance choreographer who had long been moving in the direction of ballet, as “artistic associate”; he invited Mark Morris, enfant terrible of the modern dance world, to create a work for ABT.

Baryshnikov’s interest in new choreography is the innovation least likely to survive his departure. After Baryshnikov quit in the fall of 1989, ABT was handed over to Jane Hermann, formerly the Metropolitan Opera’s director of presentations. (Oliver Smith, a famous scenic designer who was ABT’s codirector from 1945 to 1980, was brought back as Hermann’s codirector, but his role is largely symbolic.) One of Hermann’s first official acts was to give an interview to Stagebill in which she gracelessly pulled the rug out from under Twyla Tharp. “I hope that Twyla continues with us,” Hermann told Stagebill, “but it depends on how her dances fit with our assessment of the full repertoire.” Tharp is no longer formally associated with ABT, and no new Tharp works have been commissioned for the 1991 season, the first to have been planned by Hermann. Judging by the upcoming season, Hermann’s plans for ABT consist primarily of bringing back famous guest stars and familiar nineteenth-century classics, with a revival by Dutch choreographer Jiri Kylian, a notorious purveyor of Eurotrash, thrown in for bad measure.

Oddly enough, even Jane Hermann seems to realize that what New York needs more than anything is an exciting new ballet choreographer. She recently told the Washington Post that her “main quest” would be “to find a choreographer who we feel we can commit to and who can commit to us over a long period of time, to give us a new choreographic voice.” No candidates have come forward. New York dancegoers are hungry for a vital young choreographer with the power to startle; sad to say, there appears to be no such figure at large in the ballet world today.

It may well be that, as Arlene Croce has suggested, George Balanchine was so protean a genius as to have temporarily exhausted the possibilities of the classical ballet vocabulary: “Balanchine’s progeny rework his accomplishments; they can honor his precedents, but they can add nothing to what he has said.” If this is true, it suggests that the next great choreographer will emerge from the world of modern dance. Unfortunately, modern dance in New York is politically correct to a numbing degree, and most of its leading figures are obsessed with “issues” like racism and AIDS to the total exclusion of such bourgeois notions as imaginative choreography. The most representative modern dance creation of 1990 was Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, a work whose title explains the choreographer’s intentions so fully that actual attendance is unnecessary.

The only New York-based modern dance choreographers of unquestioned distinction who have consistently managed to stay out of the political slough are Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, and both men, like Jerome Robbins, are getting on in years. Taylor is probably the greatest living American choreographer, but he is too much the elder statesman to provide the sense of artistic adventure that the New York dance scene so badly needs.

Ironically, the most exciting news to hit New York in years was the recent announcement that the Mark Morris Dance Group, having been booted out of its cushy state-subsidized berth in Brussels, is moving to New York. The irony is that Mark Morris’s work is as wildly uneven in quality as his politics are rigidly correct; he can always be counted on to take note of the latest harebrained cultural fad, be it structuralism, multiculturalism, or gender confusion. But Morris is also a hugely talented modern dance choreographer whose work brilliantly refracts the influence of Balanchine and Paul Taylor. His Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, made for ABT at the invitation of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and dropped by Jane Hermann from this year’s repertory, was the most original new work introduced by ABT since Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. His choreographic version of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, was an exasperatingly campy, bracingly vital production that left audiences pulling their hair and cheering at the same time.

The return of the Mark Morris Dance Group to New York is a no-lose proposition. At the very least, it will give frustrated dancegoers something to talk about besides how awful Peter Martins’s last ballet was. At best, Morris and his dumpy-looking dancers may provide New York with something it has not had for a very long time: A dance company whose every premiere is a must-see event.

Morris’s storied ability to make even the trendiest choreographers look dowdy is likely to receive its first test quite soon. Plain Jane Hermann has announced that ABT’s chief new venture for next season will likely be a new production of The Nutcracker to join the annual productions of New York City Ballet and the Joffrey. You can’t play it much safer than that. Coincidentally, Mark Morris said farewell to Brussels in January with his very own Nutcracker, a lunatic affair designed by comic-strip artist Charles Burns, choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov and entitled The Hard Nut. Is there really room for four Nutcrackers in the dance capital of the world? Fasten your seat belts, balletomanes—it’s going to be a bumpy season. About time, too.

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