The Beautiful and the Damned
Author: ROBERT GRESKOVIC
Date: March 12, 2012
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal
Before this month ends, players big, small and in between will have offered dance performances hereabouts in the latest version of Terpsichorean March Madness. At the start of the month, the Mark Morris Dance Group played the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a felicitous double-bill of Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "A Choral Fantasy" (to Beethoven), notable examples of Mr. Morris's music-driven dances. A week later, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg brought "Rodin," Mr. Eifman's latest multiact ballet inspired by the life of a famous historical figure, to New York City Center.
Mr. Morris's dances, accompanied by the MMDG Music Ensemble and Trinity Choir, graced BAM's opera-house stage with a potent blend of musical acuity and theatrical poetry. On the City Center stage, Mr. Eifman's narrative-based dance, accompanied by a musical collage heard on tape, featured only isolated moments of theatrical flash and extended scenes of pulp-fiction-style dramatics.
The newsmaker of the Morris run was the world premiere of "Choral Fantasy." Choreographed by Mr. Morris for 15 of the company's 19 dancers, the about 20-minute dance had a deep-green hue supplied by Michael Chybowski's pervasive lighting and Isaac Mizrahi's costuming. The seven women and eight men were dressed in unisex, militarylike uniforms of forest-green with gold X's on their sleeveless tops and rick-rack-like stripes on their stirruped pants' side-seams.
With a bolting leap into the wings by the first of the dancers seen onstage (statuesque Amber Star Merkens), "Choral Fantasy" took off as if shot from a gun. Its onrush of dancers and dancing rode the crests of Beethoven's composition, initially led by solo piano and eventually by the music ensemble and choir, as if born of the same impetus. However Mr. Morris finds notable dance moves to echo his music's moods, he's never formulaic.
The Mark Morris Dance Group
While this work is likely to reveal further riches over time, this initial outing left me with striking impressions of the marvelous permutations and recurrences of sequential one-, two-, three-, four- and five-unit arrangements of its dancers. Variously timed and sent over the stage throughout "Choral Fantasy," this repeated numerical presentation presented a formal structure as simple as it is distinct.
Likewise, marching strides with variously held swinging arms, as well as postures capped by hands crossed high overhead or clasped to form a point like a church steeple's, give Mr. Morris's work further graphic beauty. It's been suggested that the text (of unidentified authorship) sung by the chorus in Beethoven's composition, with its paean to the union of "love and strength," refers to the Masonic rite's aim of enlightenment. Mr. Morris offers no notes about his reading of the lyrics other than through the dancing. As is usual with compelling works of art, this one will likely suggest meaning upon meaning as it continues to meet audience's eyes.
Mr. Eifman's "Rodin," given in two 45-minute acts and first performed in St. Petersburg last November, takes a specific artist for inspiration. Actually, two artists, as sculptor Camille Claudel—increasingly known since her death as August Rodin's tortured lover and possibly his overlooked artistic influence—becomes what can seem to be the dominant subject of "Rodin."
Music serves Mr. Eifman as the equivalent of a movie soundtrack—secondary support. For "Rodin" this means selections from the works of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Camille Saint-Saëns and Jules Massenet. As he's shown with his previous dances focussed on composer Peter Tchaikovsky and ballerina Olga Spesivtseva, Mr. Eifman goes for the surface of his characters' stories despite stating in program notes that he strives to reveal their inner, often tortured, lives.
There is much twisting and turning and contorting to Mr. Eifman's choreography. Though his company invokes ballet in its name, his dancemaking is probably best described as what is now called "contemporary dance." There is none of ballet's pointework in "Rodin."
Mr. Eifman's company is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and by now his ballets have an established formula. Spare, slightly changeable unit settings (those for "Rodin" are by Zinoviy Margolin) and similarly reductive costumes (for "Rodin," Olga Shaishmelashvili details basic dancewear to resemble period costuming) establish the look of Mr. Eifman's "worlds." Two or three main characters tend to dominate his choreographic renderings with what Mr. Eifman calls "the unique body language of the modern psychological ballet."
The "psychological" aspects of Mr. Eifman's Rodin character were manifested as a wringing of hands, arms and legs to indicate the tortures of turning one's love of the sensual and one's devotion to the dependable into sculpted figures. Some of this depiction took shape as the pulling and pushing into place of a dancer's pliant limbs; while some of this had a vivid, theatrical intensity, other times it came across as all but literally torturous.
There are essentially no carefully delineated characters in Mr. Eifman's dramatic views of personalities and society. Instead, the central figures are broad types—heartless egotists, wounded victims, jealous rivals—surrounded by one-note group work from supporting players. The overall tone is one of emphatic, declamatory presentation interwoven with busy, incidental activity.
"Rodin" ended with depictions of the title figure hammering away at a sculpture while a deranged Claudel crawled off. It turned the lives of artists and their art into simplistic anecdotes of hollow impact.