Eliot Feld’s children’s crusade, Ballet Tech, holds forth at the Joyce through May 9. The average age of the eight full-fledged company dancers is under 19. The apprentices and “student dancers” are at even earlier stages of adolescence. Weekend matinées are taken over by the very junior troupe Kids Dance, many of whose members have only a few years of ballet classes under their belts. All these performers have been recruited from New York’s public schools and trained tuition-free, getting their academics, from sixth through twelfth grades, at a special branch of the public-school system formed to dovetail its agenda to theirs.
Despite the sociopolitical worth of opening the doors of the dance profession, often lamentably elitist, to a wider group of recruits, and despite the naturalness and verve of Feld’s current protégés, I have two grave reservations about what these youngsters are learning. My first concern is ongoing and comprehensive: Clearly they are not being instructed with a rigor that would admit them to the first (or perhaps even the second) rank of classical-ballet companies. Their alternative to dancing for Feld appears to be Broadway, modern dance – for which they’ll need to be re-educated – or, ironically, college. Evidence of their deficiencies in the classical vein is blatant and pervasive. Their turnout – ballet’s very basis – is meager and weak. Their response to a shift of impulse or shape is sluggish (classical dance requires reflex action as swift and dazzling as lightning). The young women’s pointe work, rarely called upon, is primitive. The repertory showcasing these performers, much of it made to order for them by Feld and encompassing few of the more technically demanding works of the choreographer’s earliest years, offers little in the way of classical ballet’s challenge when it comes to matters of precision, speed, buoyancy, and sublime elegance.
The repertory itself ranges in quality from passably entertaining (in works enhanced by Feld’s sense of form) to utterly pointless. The big group piece created for the current season falls into the latter category. FELIX: the ballet (set to Mendelssohn music, you see), is a disheveled free-for-all emphasizing paraphernalia that dictates the nature of the movement – gimmickry for which Feld has an unfortunate weakness. Here, the dancers become exotic fish “swimming” and copulating (a biological error) on oversize skateboards and street athletes jumping on and diving over gaudy giant beach balls. Without benefit of props, the ghostly Wilis from Giselle, doing their famous traveling arabesques, transmute into a bevy of waterfowl from the fourth act of Swan Lake, then into a devout clutch of Martha Graham acolytes doing that famously ecstatic contraction in which the only part of the body touching the floor is a single buttock. Periodically, a marine monster whose lair lies just offstage reaches out to seize a hapless but lustily screeching maiden. Obviously, this piece desperately needs a literal and aesthetic traffic cop.
I mentioned a second reservation about what the Ballet Tech crew is learning. It’s a specific one and has nothing to do with art but with history and, yes, morality. Among the kaleidoscopic antics of FELIX, a “German” episode crops up. Feld himself sits on the edge of the stage in a mad-scientist wig, conducting a Wagnerian diva with armored breasts. A glamorous young femme impersonates Marlene Dietrich in a Blue Angel tableau, and a group of guys come goose-stepping on as Nazi soldiers – affable to the point of returning with frilly red garters on their thighs and forming a chorus line. Hah, hah, we’re just kidding around? For an exterminating army to become an effective – if still cruel – joke, the humor would have to be brilliantly bizarre, as outrageous as the truth about these elements in real life. Has Feld, whose background, like mine, is Jewish, become immune to human sensitivity about the Holocaust? What with so many of his fledglings under the age of consent, he might at least be mindful of what he’s teaching them.