Rat Poison

Lock up your children! American Ballet Theatre, holding forth at the Met through June 23, has, to extravagant fanfare and expense (over half a million), come up with a production unabashedly devised to lure the rising generation into its halls. “Give them what they want and they will come” is the watchword of the tawdry muse who inspired David Parsons’s The Pied Piper, a gimcrack affair that provided me with one of the most demoralizing hours I’ve spent in the theater.

Based (loosely) on Robert Browning’s poem, a work noted for its compelling rhythms, it is set to program music by John Corigliano, which offers no viable dance rhythm at all. The arrantly commercial worlds of Broadway, movies, and Disney parks were summoned to bring their technological pizzazz to the ostensibly benighted realm of classical ballet, which had been creaking along relying on scenic investiture based on painting and carpentry. On these grounds, ABT touted The Pied Piper as the ballet of the future. It doesn’t even deserve to be called a ballet. It’s an extravaganza that panders to an audience enchanted only by mechanical glitz and the sort of sentiments to which every heart is supposed to return an echo. What’s worse, even as that it’s a flop.

The scenario (concocted by Parsons and Mark Adamo, famous for turning Little Women into an opera) can’t be understood from the stage action and is dependent on concepts no child could fathom, beginning with the idea of the Pied Piper as a tripartite character: mentor dying after he passes on his magic skills, stripling Piper maturing to manhood as he learns to control his inherited gift and work for the good, little-boy protégé clutching his stuffed dog and looking like nothing so much as Dorothy with Toto. The popular tale, as rendered here, is gluey with preaching about a society, dominated by greed, megalomania, and more than a touch of concupiscence, that predictably neglects its offspring. The rats become heavy-handed symbols of social malaise.

After dealing with the grown-ups’ extermination problem and being bilked of his promised fee, our hero turns into a one-man Department of Social Services. He blithely kidnaps the wee ones – what are we dealing with here? Peter Pan? Pedophilia? – takes them to an amorphous Safe Haven where they skip around in their limp blue pajamas, playing on mini-pipes, and then turns them into stars in the sky. Are we supposed to think they’re happier dead, or is this just another one of those metaphors the kindergarten set is sure to appreciate?

The projections are almost laughably feeble. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes for the nasty folk of Hamelin would fascinate in a highly stylized picture book, but they stifle any attempt at dancing. I mention the choreography last because, in terms of classical ballet, it barely exists. Parsons, once a marvelous performer with Paul Taylor, has made his choreographic career designing simplistic, gimmicky works for his own troupe. For the millennium, he staged the spectacles in Times Square; in retrospect, that looks like a stepping stone to the ABT gig.

Best in show: Michael Curry’s rats are evocatively done and particularly sinister in the gloomy light that veils their scenes. Swarms of juvenile rodents with glowing red eyes are manipulated on long, flexible sticks by dancers shrouded like Japanese stagehands, while the full-grown rats consist of soft sculptures attached horizontally to the bodies of dancers who make the furry flesh writhe to splendidly horrific effect. They and the two dancers I saw in the title role – Angel Corella, projecting a wild sweetness, and Herman Cornejo, all airiness and fluidity – provided the only poetry in this deplorable enterprise.

American Ballet Theatre
The Pied Piper, by David Parsons; at the Metropolitan Opera House; through 6/23.

Rat Poison