The Stuttgart Ballet – the company John Cranko put on the map in the sixties – is on a coast-to-coast tour with a repertoire of short ballets mainly of newer vintage. I caught the troupe at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center – one of those dismaying latter-day culture malls where, blessedly, the audience still dresses up, with understated elegance, for the theater. The more rakishly disheveled New York audience can greet the troupe at the City Center (venerably redolent with dance history) January 19 to 22.
The two contemporary works I saw were Christian Spuck’s Dos Amores and Mauro Bigonzetti’s Kazimir’s Colors. You’ve never heard of these choreographers? No matter. You’re being steeped in the products of others just like them; they’re typical of their times. All art, whatever its bid for eternal relevance, reflects its era. And what the Zeitgeist is producing these days is work that is close kin to advertising – the façade glossy, the content erotically provocative and/or violent (today’s two main selling points). All surface, such material futilely aims to titillate and startle the already benumbed. It blithely ignores three elements that once lay at the heart of choreography: dancing for its own sweet sake, musical responsiveness, and the dimension of the spirit.
Bigonzetti employs only a narrow segment of the classical vocabulary, Spuck an even smaller one. Interestingly, ominously, the performers look fabulous in the stuff. Their inadequacies of strength and precision are revealed only in more challenging work. By which I mean merely Cranko’s, the notion of these practitioners’ attempting Balanchine or Petipa being ludicrous. Throughout, the focus is on pose rather than on continuity of motion; grotesque virtuoso exaggerations of anatomical possibility are the norm. Any intimation of real human feeling has been banished. No doubt it’s considered passé. It is hardly astonishing that the musical accompaniment is merely atmospheric.
Cranko was represented by the 1972 Initials R.B.M.E., a work that celebrates the choreographer’s passionate relationship with the stars – Richard Cragun, Birgit Keil, Marcia Haydée, and Egon Madsen – of the company he shaped to his vision. Only one member on the present roster has the force of temperament that characterized those powerful, idiosyncratic creatures of the stage. He is Ivan Cavallari, who played what I take to be the Cranko figure in the third movement, opposite the appealing Bridget Breiner, incarnating “Marcia.” The amorphous and anonymous quality of the dancing preceding Cavallari’s appearance mercifully faded away before a figure who left no doubt that he was thinking something, feeling something, embodying a meaningful state of affairs. Cavallari evoked the aspiration to ecstasy on the part of a leader who is, by the nature of the situation, utterly dependent on his acolytes. When the ensemble spilled onto the stage in that third movement, the figures seemed to be pouring from his gut, as if he were birthing them. Breiner couldn’t be more unlike Haydée (who led the Stuttgart for two decades after Cranko’s premature death). The dramatic dancer of her day, Haydée was a neurotic-looking figure (pinched, worried face; body both slight and knobbly). Breiner is all innocent, luminous loveliness. What she captures in her incarnation of Haydée is the mutual dependence, central to choreography and its execution, of Pygmalion and Galatea.