Undisciplined Children

The evolution of Eliot Feld’s successive dance companies into the present Ballet Tech (at the Joyce through April 26) is sadly ironic. Feld began – brilliantly – as a choreographer firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary yet with a yen for the romantic, the expressive, and the colloquial. His own training was classical, with infusions of modern dance and jazz (Broadway-style) as his performing career unfolded. This story has its precedents in the career of Jerome Robbins, with whom Feld shares temperamental characteristics as well – notably an obsessiveness that stymies the creative impulse. Feld famously (or infamously) not only has to have his own way but also had to have his own group – as did Robbins for a time – and then his own school.

This school, now a huge enterprise, was a swell idea from its modest beginnings twelve years ago. It auditions an enormous number of 8- and 9-year-olds in the public schools, offers the successful candidates free dance classes, and, for those whose gifts and commitment are still evident when they reach sixth grade, provides an academic education tailored to their increasingly demanding dancing schedules. Feld’s ingenious venture can be counted a success in drawing on a large, previously neglected talent pool, opening a window on the arts for underserved kids, and recruiting a large number of blacks and Hispanics into a part of the dance world that has remained stubbornly, absurdly white.

When the school’s most successful graduates began to join the company in significant numbers, Feld went one bold – and perhaps foolhardy – step further. He released all of the mature company dancers who had not been formed under his aegis, leaving only his fledglings in their place. The young artists and adolescent apprentices who now constitute Feld’s troupe are full of physical and theatrical verve. But they lack a classical-dance grounding rigorous enough to enable them to perform much of the early Feld repertory, let alone the traditional and modern classical works that form the canon danced by top-notch companies like American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. Meanwhile, Feld – ever prolific, ever convinced of his mission of the moment – has been creating new dances to showcase his protégés. In interviews, he claims these pieces represent the direction in which his art is moving. Taken as a group, however, they offer very little to stimulate the seasoned dancegoer or to extend the accomplishments of their youthful performers.

Here’s where the irony comes in: If Feld wanted to inject new life into classical ballet with the children of the people, he has failed to do so, because his repertory is no longer centered on classicism. If he wanted to offer these kids the skills that would enable them to join a first-rate classical company, he has, so far, failed to do that as well. What he has now is a group of vividly attractive mid-to-late adolescents doing a slick, high-powered version of their own thing. Watching Feld’s recent work is like viewing an amalgam of vernacular dance forms souped up by elements of ballet, theatricalized by a deft hand, and performed with panache. So the new name Feld has given his group, Ballet Tech – with its arch reference to high schools that teach a practical trade along with academic basics – is misleading. Ballet (classical ballet) and the rigorous, specific technique it requires for professional performance are just what’s missing from the picture.

Of the three works new to New York this season, Simon Sez was the most inept. Presumably, its title, taken from the children’s game, refers to the fact that dance skills and choreography are most adroitly passed along by physical demonstration and imitation. Set to Steve Martland music, the piece appends a ballet barre to the back brick wall of the bared stage – a reminder of the classical dancer’s obligatory and unglamorous daily exercise ritual. What looks like the round pipe of a barre turns out to be a narrow ledge that allows for the pointless acrobatic shenanigans that dominate the proceedings. Young, leggy sprouts from the Ballet Tech school are recruited to construct a ceiling-to-floor gizmo that might represent arms and legs taking various positions; at one point, some of the kids link up to become a multi-limbed human construction, à la Pilobolus. Eventually, stagehands are co-opted to erect a jungle gym that the youngsters climb and lean out from in look-ma-no-hands postures. Both constructions are set awhirl for the finale. The only significant point this dopey piece makes is inadvertent: The children, presumably the emblem of the Feldian future, do no actual dancing.

Yo Johann, a duet for Jason Jordan and Jassen Virolas, is a sequel to last year’s more compelling Yo Shakespeare, which showcased this pair. (Feld can rarely devise a dance and then let its content go; he seems to have a compulsion to deal with the same matter again and again without gaining any ground.) Jordan and Virolas, 19 and 18 years old, respectively, have been forceful stage presences from their earliest appearances, and they make an effective pair. Trained together, they apprenticed together and turned pro at nearly the same time; it’s likely they’ve been friendly rivals for at least half their lives. Feld gloms on to this bonding and slight tension, along with the young men’s contrast in type: Jordan is the more stockily built, with the quirkier face – a demi-caractère sort of fellow. Virolas, physically slighter, his expression neutral, is suave and lyrical – a potential danseur noble.

More obviously balletic than the Shakespeare piece – though it disregards key elements of the academic vocabulary, such as small, quick beats of the feet – Johann unfortunately reveals that the dancers’ turnout doesn’t hold firm and that their execution of the traditional steps is nowhere near as sharp as one would hope. A viscerally intimate pas de deux allows the viewer to give the relationship depicted a homoerotic gloss, though Feld wisely keeps that issue ambiguous. Otherwise, the piece contains far too much sophomoric fooling around; Papa Feld may not have noticed that these guys have grown up.

The last of the season’s ostensible novelties was The Last Sonata, a long, meandering solo to Debussy, for Patricia Tuthill. The most recent of Feld’s homages to woman-as-goddess, it’s also the vaguest – in terms of structure, vocabulary, and sheer meaning. Its decoration with commedia dell’arte-style theatrics makes it all the more baffling. We come away merely instructed that Tuthill is a force of nature, but we knew that already.

Undisciplined Children