Gong Show

To open its eight-week spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House – that prestigious stage that’s too cavernous for dancing – American Ballet Theatre offered a program of three works by choreographers whose roots are planted in the modern-dance world. Twyla Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations, new last year, was back; Paul Taylor and Mark Morris weighed in with new pieces created for the company. Each of these dances would have been better coupled with a ballet from the standard classical repertory – specifically a filmy-skirted job like La Sylphide or Giselle. As it stood, the crossover-choreographers program underlined the fact that today, there is conspicuously more talent and intelligence at work among the moderns than can be found in practitioners taking their cues from conventional balletic tradition.

Taylor’s Black Tuesday is a suite of dances set to popular songs from the Great Depression. The selections, from the likes of Irving Berlin and “Yip” Harburg, provide a welcome variety of moods, speaking of spunk under adversity along with the expected “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” pathos. The facile sentiments of these pop songs lend themselves handily to the vaudeville Taylor has fashioned, incorporating contemporaneous social dance and music-hall conventions. Two upbeat numbers clearly aspire to be instant hits: “Sittin’ on a Rubbish Can,” with – in the cast I saw – Michele Wiles, a big, bold blonde on her way to stardom, playing an ebulliently unrepentant gal who’s gotten herself knocked up, and “(I Went Hunting) and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead,” led by the petite bombshell Jennifer Alexander. The only passage with some interesting ambiguity involves a pimp and his three-whore ménage. When the coolest lady of the night (the marvelous Gillian Murphy) finally rebels, she’s immediately set upon by a gang of thugs, and then – in a blink-of-an-eye action you might even miss – rescued by a prince of a guy who just happens by.

These days, even with his own group, Taylor fails to summon up the invention, the expressive power, and the ironic subtlety that made his name. Black Tuesday is entertaining, deftly crafted work that you’d be abjectly grateful to see in the context of a Broadway musical. (A brief reasonable facsimile is actually available in 42nd Street.) Presented in the world of concert dance, the piece reveals its lack of original impulse and poetic suggestion. It’s as bright as poster art and similarly devoid of resonance.

Mark Morris’s Gong shows the choreographer at his fertile best, creating a self-contained imaginary world, full of beauty and pathos, with implications of a social structure and prescribed code of behavior that elicit immediate, utter belief. Set to a score by Colin McPhee, whose work is imbued with his absorption in gamelan music, the dance is a cousin of Balanchine’s Bugaku in its suggestion of a formal Eastern court seen alternately at a distance, displaying its public face, and close up, in private vignettes that reveal a man and woman, bred within the strictures of this aristocratic world, attempting intimacy. The two prince-and-princess duets, as I think of them, danced in silence in a great black void, are marvels of the grace to be found in awkwardness, of the eloquence that can be implied by the unsaid.

Gong incorporates many motifs of Indonesian dance, which has long fascinated Morris, without succumbing to ethnographical condescension or even the picturesque. The choreography, like Taylor’s and Tharp’s, is architecturally brilliant, keeping the eye alert through its intricacy and the mind satisfied by its sound resolution of the puzzles it proposes. Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes are witty and pretty. The women’s buoyantly rippling tutus – with soloists getting deeper colors and more yardage than the ensemble – may be a sly reference to Oskar Schlemmer’s creations in the Bauhaus era, but they’d wow ‘em on the street today.

Angelin Preljocaj ranks as a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in his French homeland. In the States, his choreography copped a Bessie award – given for contemporary dance and dance theater. He’s had his own company, now based in Aix-en-Provence, for seventeen years, and his sleek creations figure in the repertories of big-timers: the Paris Opéra, Bolshoi, and New York City Ballets. The man is clearly appreciated. Me, I don’t understand a move he makes.

Preljocaj’s Paysage après la Bataille, shown at the Joyce, was an important entry in “France Moves,” a two-week citywide onslaught of the avant-garde from the country that invented the term. The piece claims – in its program note, at least – to be a confrontation between instinct and intellect, as exemplified, respectively, by the works of Joseph (Heart of Darkness) Conrad and Marcel Duchamp, who held that art is all in the mind. We hear the latter on tape, theorizing with his signature charm and perversity, between bouts of Goran Vejvoda’s New Age Muzak.

What we get to see is an all too familiar anthology of eroticism and violence (a date rape in triplicate, for starters), coupled with generic antics (throwing chairs around, wearing wild-animal disguises, screaming in more than one language) derived from the theater of the absurd. The obligatory passage in which the ladies of the company are clad in noirish mini-skirted suits, sheer jet stockings, and high-heeled pumps tells us no more than that such an outfit can be worn with panache only by women who speak French. Actually, the chic factor governs the piece. Even the movement – athletic and unnuanced – seems to be part of the décor.

This stuff, which has the effrontery to propose itself as dancing, is like nothing so much as those recent Versace ads in which fashion mannequins whose gorgeousness has more than a tinge of the dangerous and decadent are arranged in tableaux suggesting transgressive sex. The viewer is snared through the simultaneous effect of mild shock and titillation, along with the proposition that buying into the high-gloss image puts one on the cutting edge.

American Ballet Theatre
Twyla Tharp, Brahms-Haydn Variations; Paul Taylor, Black Tuesday;Mark Morris, Gong. At the Metropolitan Opera House.
Anjelin Preljocaj
Paysage après la Bataille, at the Joyce Theater.

Gong Show