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These Foolish Things

American Ballet Theatre's fall season at City Center, begun three years ago, was intended to bring old fans back into the fold -- but now it's alienating them.

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To give the obligatory aura of excitement to its recent two-week run at the City Center, American Ballet Theatre produced a pair of new works. Christian Holder's Weren't We Fools?, to familiar and newly unearthed Cole Porter songs, was clearly intended to fill the glamour-and-romance slot. A quartet of woeful lovers -- billed in the program as The Woman, Her Husband, Her Former Lover, and His Mistress -- enact, via balleticized ballroom dance, an unlikely narrative of desire, infidelity, and conciliation. An onstage vocalist called Her Voice interacts with the dancers. It would take the combined skills of Antony Tudor and Martha Graham to bring off these theatrical devices; Holder can't begin to cope. His choreography is banal to the point of insipidity, and the acting he requests from his dancers is utterly unconvincing. Even the evening dress, which he designed, lacks flair. The results are so feeble as to be embarrassing.

The second novelty, Natalie Weir's Jabula, created some years back for the Queensland Ballet in Weir's native Australia, is respectable -- just. Set to a faux-primal score by Hans Zimmer, it's one of those tribal-ritual numbers, in which the men, bare-chested, in floor-sweeping culottes, look fabulous. The movement for both sexes is insistently robust. The vocabulary, as much mid-century modern dance as ballet, emphasizes gutsy falls, the bodies tumbling to the floor and spilling out along it as if both flesh and bone had become viscous. Unison work provides Jabula with a certain force, but that very reiteration -- devoid of inflection, let alone variety -- grows numbingly dull. Every single thing in Jabula is predictable, the passages dealing with (what else?) initiation and copulation not excepted. The noble-aborigine genre is tiresomely dated and politically offensive to boot. If ABT nevertheless needs to give it a second coming, it should look to more sophisticated practitioners like Glen Tetley and Jirí Kylián.

Mind you, I have no quibble with these ballets per se, though I find it ominous that neither of them advances or even upholds the cause of classical dancing. Still, every season brings its share of forgettable stuff, which obligingly vanishes from view, and then from memory, with marvelous dispatch. This season's disposable novelties, however, point to a larger, graver problem -- the inadequacy of ABT's offerings overall. In 1997, the company added the modest fall engagement at the City Center to supplement its longer, gaudier spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, both to continue as annual features. The audience cultivated at the Met, a public able to purchase the high-priced tickets typical of the major Lincoln Center houses, favors multi-act story ballets with lavish costumes and scenery. But this extravagant genre flourished back in the nineteenth century, and only a handful of great ballets on an opera-house scale have come down to us from that era. So ABT supplements masterpieces like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty with latter-day works that operate in the same mode, without benefit of the genius of Petipa and Ivanov (and scores by Tchaikovsky). The most substantial of this retrograde lot are Kenneth MacMillan's sex-and-death melodramas, notably Romeo and Juliet (the play may be a tragedy, but the ballet is a melodrama) and Manon. A third tier consists of the trite, the hapless, and the unspeakable and ranges from diversions that have all the rigor of a meringue, such as Ronald Hynd's Merry Widow and Ben Stevenson's Snow Maiden, to Lar Lubovitch's disastrous Othello -- an example of reach exceeding grasp if ever there was one.

The City Center season was conceived, or at least touted, as an alternative to the conditions prevailing at the Met. It was ostensibly created to revive the kind of programs with which ABT first made its mark in the forties and consolidated its popularity: a cluster of pithy, contrasting works by the likes of Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins -- to name just three of the master choreographers whose careers were closely associated with the company. The "old" ABT audience, alienated by the programming and prices at the Met -- to say nothing of the vast distance from the stage of all but the most costly seats -- could be served at the more intimate, more economical City Center. That was the idea. The reality has been increasingly disappointing; this past season had the erstwhile fans grumbling just from looking at the announcement brochure. And they had cause for complaint.

The repertory was limited, and shamelessly padded out with pas de deux -- both the little showpieces that can enliven programs when used sparingly and more poetic excerpts that look lamentably torn from the contexts that give them their resonance. Modern dance (Martha Graham's Diversion of Angels) and crossover choreography (Lar Lubovitch's Meadow) seemed to have usurped the place of robust character pieces of yore, like De Mille's Rodeo and Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, and, most lamentably, of Tudor's poignant dramatic ballets. There was only one Tudor work -- Jardin aux Lilas, in last year's inadequately studied staging -- no De Mille, no Robbins, and, for that matter, no Fokine or Ashton, though works by these landmark choreographers have undeniably contributed to ABT's luster.

It can be argued that the choreographers so conspicuously absent from the repertory were ignored because their ballets no longer sell tickets. (While not true of Robbins, it's certainly true of Tudor, and probably of Fokine and Ashton.) On the whole, today's paying public -- the Merry Widow crowd -- cares little for the historical repertory. The less ABT dances the classics of its past, however, the less it's able to retrieve the style in which they need to be danced, to say nothing of the very ethos of these ballets. Then when the company does, on occasion, reach backward to resurrect its golden oldies, its renditions are shallow, wrongheaded, unconvincing. And everyone looks at the revival production and says of the choreography that once meant so much, "See, there's nothing there." Ballets are fragile; neglect them for a time -- less than a decade will do it -- and there is, indeed, nothing there.

Don't blame ABT for this state of affairs. Blame contemporary American culture, with its deplorable and utterly impracticable notion that art must be commercially viable -- better yet, profitable. It's this misguided vein of thinking that leads to the idea that the "product" offered by an arts institution, instead of being shaped by the vision of the artists at its helm, should be dictated by the tastes of the paying customer, or what hard-headed managers, slaves of polls, and believers in the power of advertising can predict about such matters. Had the current situation prevailed half a century ago, George Balanchine -- ironically, the only major classical choreographer well represented in ABT's City Center season -- wouldn't have stood a chance.


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