Forward Glances

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project touched down lately at BAM with the canny new program it’s touring, “PastForward.” The punning title proposes the relevance today of the Judson Movement, commonly held to mark the birth of postmodern dance. Working out of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village in the sixties and early seventies, a symbiotic bunch of radical artists rejected the kind of highly wrought artifice essential to, say, classical ballet and the dance theater of Martha Graham in favor of the pedestrian. Fascinated by the ordinary (and not a little self-righteous, once their explorations became a crusade), they turned their back on refined codified technique; obligatory musical accompaniment; storytelling; the opera-house luxe of elaborate costumes, scenery, and lighting; the desire to please and entertain – indeed, almost all the blandishments that draw the general public into the theater. And this is where Baryshnikov’s problem lay when he attempted to resurrect the iconoclastic material that so appealed to his rebel streak.

While it’s true that a number of the dances preserved from those revolutionary times still seem inventive and refreshing, lots of them were dumb and dull in their day and remain so, their self-indulgence evident all these years later. What’s more, a goodly percentage of the pieces that remain thrilling are likely to thrill only that segment of the audience susceptible to dance that is as much intellectual as it is visceral – athletic and sensuous. Well, Baryshnikov is a helluva smart guy, and he did the only thing there was to do with this stuff. He packaged it. He took works by key Judsonites – Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer – persuaded some of them to make new works to stand alongside the historical evidence, and got the best folks in the business to turn the stuff into a show. Gordon shaped and directed a production that set the specific dances in a matrix of old film, videotape, and photos, adroitly designed by Charles Atlas and accompanied by voice-over from the artists that is both informative and fun. The result is new-minted, bright, and zippy, ready for a TV special, which may well be coming.

If “PastForward” – of necessity – commercializes its subject, it romanticizes it, too. Like the dance scholar Sally Banes, who has written exhaustively and marvelously on the Judson Movement, Baryshnikov first knew it as history. He wasn’t there while it was actually happening, and his distant perspective intensifies the glamour factor. He also celebrates Judson as a sociological phenomenon. Beyond its specific correctives and innovations, most of which have since duly been incorporated into mainstream theater, Judson appeals as a group effort, a spontaneous collaboration of people with talent, energy, and daring earnestly serving a common cause. With “PastForward,” Baryshnikov offers us Judson – in all sincerity, I think – as a piece of American mythology.

The hero of this year’s School of American Ballet Workshop Performances – apart from George Balanchine, without whom the whole enterprise wouldn’t exist – was Suki Schorer, who staged the program’s most compelling entry, the master’s Divertimento No. 15. Schorer is one of the two most adept custodians of Balanchine’s choreography (the other is Suzanne Farrell) and, not coincidentally, a key instructor of the dancers SAB breeds for the New York City Ballet and other companies worldwide.

Schorer’s reading of Balanchine’s exquisite Mozartian excursion mates the rigorous virtues of precision and clarity with the lush merits of high energy and plasticity. It is, above all, musical, and displays – despite the reckless attack young dancers are prone to – a beautiful finish in matters large and small. The production brings both the aspirants performing in it and the audience watching it just about as close to Balanchine as one can get.

The Workshop tradition of including a piece by the nineteenth-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville was maintained by Nikolaj Hübbe, formerly of the Royal Danish Ballet, now a principal with the NYCB and an instructor at SAB. Hübbe was more successful on this occasion, with the ebullient pas de six and tarantella from Napoli – where liveliness of attack can override many a gaffe – than he was last year with the dancing-school section from Konservatoriet, which exposes lapses as mercilessly as the classroom mirror. This time round, Hübbe got his dancers to look more at home in a style that is, in many ways, alien to their basic training. Intermittently they even achieved the Bournonvillean ideal of radiating unaffected charm while executing fiendishly intricate and taxing feats.

The novelty of the program was Telemann Overture Suite in E Minor, choreographed by Melissa Barak, a 21-year-old member of the NYCB corps de ballet who is fairly new to dance-making. Working in school-of-Balanchine style, Barak adeptly managed a large-ish group of dancers in formal configurations with a gracious air – highly suitable to the Baroque music. The piece is pleasant but dull, being too symmetrical and almost eerily predictable. Barak suffers, too, from the neophyte choreographer’s delight in what the elements of the academic vocabulary can be made to do. This ingenuous enthusiasm results in a ballet that has too many steps in it and not enough dancing.

Workshop is considered an occasion for spotting the stars of tomorrow. I didn’t see many safe bets this year. I liked several of the men, particularly Lucien Postlewaite, who offers clear, juicy, large-scale dancing in which the body seems to be in a state of natural harmony. Among the young women, Ashlee Knapp, with her cool poise and her appetite for performing, appears to be the Chosen One. Considering her youth (she’s only 15), her technique is remarkably clean and deft, but it needs considerable strengthening. One hopes, too, that time will change her from a creature who seems to have been formed, meticulously, in the studio to a dancer who brings to the stage a sense of real, intensely felt life.

White Oak Dance Project
“PastForward”; at BAM.
School of American Ballet Workshop Performances
At Juilliard Theatre.

Forward Glances