Given the sophistication and diverse origins of all ballet, the title for Boston Ballet’s current " American Trilogy " seems simplistic. The pieces have almost nothing in common, but the rubric does invite us to reflect on George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Corybantic Ecstasies as artifacts of, for, or about American culture.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a product of what any choreographer but Balanchine would consider a dry period in a career. Newly arrived in America, he had a school but no properly organized company. He took ballet commissions where he could get them, but mostly, during the late ’30s and early ’40s, he worked in show business, supplying dances for a long string of Broadway shows and movies. If he considered this a comedown, as many of his contemporaries did, he adapted to the situation with wit, style, and an astonishing lack of condescension. He even seemed to enjoy having fun with the ballet itself while he was going all-out for entertainment values.
High art versus low art was a hot debate then, and Slaughter is one of several occasions where Balanchine depicted the argument in action. A modern jazz ballet that’s being presented by a snooty Russian ballet company, it actually furthered the plot instead of just decorating it — perhaps for the first time in a Broadway musical (On Your Toes).
Slaughter can also be seen as a comment on Balanchine’s muses. Choreographed on Tamara Geva, his first wife, from whom he was separated at the time, it was danced in the 1939 Warner Brothers movie by Vera Zorina, whom he’d just married. He revived it in 1968 at the New York City Ballet for the 23-year-old Suzanne Farrell, with whom he was infatuated. A curious gift for these gorgeous ballerinas, because the heroine is a floozy — a stripper in a cheap underworld nightclub.
Aside from its possible insight into Balanchine’s love life, Slaughter operates on several layers of representation and irony. A show within a show, it’s the climax of a story involving a tapdancer who somehow finds himself working for an elitist impresario resembling Diaghilev. He’s staged this jazz ballet starring himself and the ballerina he’s in love with. The impresario and the hoofer’s ballet-danseur rival connive to have him bumped off just when he’s supposed to kill himself in the ballet. Mid-performance, he gets tipped off that the cops are on the way, and he signals the orchestra to keep playing choruses of his tap dance to delay the murder.
Well, it’s all very silly, but the audience is supposed to know this and appreciate the corps de ballet’s bumps and shimmies, the sexy allure of the ballerina-as-stripper, and the choreographer’s digs at formulaic honky-tonk show numbers. Boston Ballet doesn’t provide any program information to help the audience see Balanchine commenting on the pomposity of the old Russian ballet style — which of course he intended to reform, but not by larding it with tapdance steps. He was also celebrating the integrity and courage of the down-to-earth vaudeville dancers and ridiculing the ubiquitous cops-and-robbers intrigues of stage, screen, and fiction.
What the audience here does see is an amusing cliché: leggy, hip-twitching chorus girls in sleazy, scanty costumes; an unlikely pair of lovers who seem doomed until Fate saves their romance; and the usual barroom characters — waiters, a pimpish manager, and dopy cops who arrive to the music of " Three Blind Mice. " The Boston cast, with April Ball as the Strip Tease Girl and Michael Johnson as the Hoofer on opening night, looked okay on the surface, but they didn’t succeed at being sincere, naughty, and knowing all at the same time.
Boston Ballet is not alone in having a low priority for characterization, but this was a real handicap in Slaughter and the other story ballet on the program, Rodeo. De Mille’s work is thought to be a cornerstone of Americana, but to me it looks phony and hopelessly retrograde. The dancers didn’t seem comfortable either, having to put across the story of a tomboy who discovers that she’d really rather wear a dress if it helps her get a man.
For Rodeo, de Mille used a loosely classical vocabulary, together with vernacular American dance forms: waltzing, square-dancing, and even a showoff tapdance with which the Champion Roper wins the Cowgirl from the Head Wrangler. Taking a cue from her idol Martha Graham, de Mille also used both literal and abstract gesture to modify steps and delineate character. The men mime horseback riding with splay-legged cantering and straight arms circling in the air with imaginary lariats. The pretty town girls affect preening hands and fluttery, gossipy chit-chat. The most naturalistic gestures, like the Cowgirl hitching up her pants or embarrassedly swatting an admirer in the solar plexus, looked the least casual. Frances Pérez-Ball and her eventual suitors, Simon Ball and Reagan Messer, all seemed to be working the surface of roles that need utter conviction to save them from tintypery.
Both the music and the choreography of Corybantic Ecstasies rebound off the many Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations, principally Apollo and the late, dissonant works like Symphony in Three Movements. Wheeldon created this fine, classical ballet for the Boston dancers, and they still look well-suited as its demigods of the passions. Paul Thrussell was a majestic Eros, with an ethereal Larissa Ponomarenko as Psyche, Tara Hench wafted in vain between Narcissus (Gaël Lambiotte) and his reflection (Patrick Thornberry clad in watery strips of silver), Pollyana Ribeiro and José Martin streaked through as a duo-Hermes, and Adriana Suárez and Yury Yanowsky led the Dionysian revels. They didn’t have to emote or characterize, they just did the movement that was beautifully arranged in simple but elegant patterns by Wheeldon.
ACROSS THE STREET at the Shubert Theatre, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s weekend program displayed another brand of Americanism — a personal dancing style that can be humanistic, democratic, and free from external codes or æsthetics. Morris is a classicist to the core in his affinity with music and his sense of choreographic form. His new V, set to the E-flat Piano Quintet of Robert Schumann, was played, along with the rest of the program, by guest cellist Matt Haimovitz and the MMDG Music Ensemble.
The title V refers both to the five musicians and to the seven-dancer floor formation we see at the beginning. After a grand, expansive welcome, a second group takes the place of the first and repeats its sequence. The dance embarks on a process of inventions and variations that seem inexhaustible but are repetitive enough to trigger off jokes, optical illusions, role reversals, and group exchanges that the audience can romp along with and savor. The patterns keep shifting right up to the last musical hurrah, but we know that everything is going to turn out all right in the end, just as there’s never any doubt that Schumann’s last chord will sound in the right key.
The dance often seemed hermetic to me, locked into depicting Schumann’s music. But I realized two things I hadn’t noticed before in Morris’s work, and they showed up in the other group pieces on the program, The Argument (1999) and The Office (1994). One is how short his movement phrases are. In V, subgroups of the 14-member ensemble streak in and out, each making a miniature statement that’s echoed or continued or overlaid by another small group. Sometimes a couple people arrive just to show one pose or movement that will be enlarged upon by others. The effect of this is communal: no matter how effective some fragment is alone, it takes the whole ensemble to complete it, and because Morris crafts it all so firmly, it doesn’t make you feel jittery.
The dancers are wonderfully accomplished, and they look extra animated in V, but they perform in a different way from ballet dancers. Morris’s movement now can be quick and extended, but it isn’t ballet movement. Nothing in a dance of his ever seems to happen without an expressive reason, and though the movement might turn awkward or goofy, the dancers don’t look apologetic about it.
Morris has remained a modern dancer despite the balletic tilt of so much other contemporary dance. His new solo, Peccadillos, to the toy-piano music of Erik Satie (as played on stage by Ilan Rechtman), was a series of tiny portraits, a whole Coppelius’s workshop of characters tumbling out to play when the shop is closed. He’s a wooden soldier, a Petrushka, a young girl at a dance, a yearning poet, a boulevardier, and a lot of other things his imagination seems to be conjuring up spontaneously. Never has a big man danced with such confident, elfin musicality.