Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Was He Thinking?

While we were on the east coast, I took my mother to the New York City Ballet. My uncle Sonny, who has more connections than I can describe in the theatrical community, had offered to get Met tickets for me, but the schedule for the last 12 days was all operas I had seen and had no particular desire to see again, plus I was concerned about accessibility issues for my mom. So, no opera, but the Jerome Robbins program at NYCB looked promising.

Well, I liked it about as much as I usually like ballet, which is to say, I'm fascinated by the freakish things the dancers can do with their bodies but prone to getting bored. This particular program was more interesting than most, perhaps because the middle work was Fancy Free, which has a great Bernstein score, a story of sorts, and a whole lot of style, even though the 40s sexism gets tiresome quickly.

The last piece on the program was a huge problem, though. It's a ballet called I'm Old-Fashioned, which is also the title of a Kern & Mercer song. The ballet, to music of Morton Gould, is a set of variations on the dance that Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth do in the following film sequence:

Gould's music is a set of variations on the Kern song, without singer, naturally.

First off, I'd say the ballet is about 30% longer than it should be, even accounting for my own comparative disinterest in ballet. I mean, the music overstayed its welcome, though there's a suitably amusing fugue with pseudo-Baroque choreography.

But the bigger problem is the structure of the ballet. It starts with the film sequence projected on the stage backdrop, then the ballet dancers come out and do their thing for, I dunno, 20 minutes? Longer? I didn't check my phone for start & end times, since it was turned off, and I'm not going to dig up the program.

Then, for the last variation....god help me, the film is projected again and about 20 or 30 NYCB dancers are on stage doing a variation (I think) of what Astaire and Hayworth are doing, 40 feet tall, behind them.


Fred Astaire was one of the greatest and most famous dancers of the 20th century. The man was a genius, poetry in motion, a dancer with the kind of eye-drawing power that I have seen only in the greatest of opera singers. Think Rysanek, LHL, Chris Merritt (that is not a mistake) in his last two SFO appearances. You could not take their eyes off them and you hardly noticed anyone else on stage.

Those poor NYCB dancers, set up as miniature Astaires and looking, ah, stylistically a good distance from him. Ballet is a highly artificial and stylized style, while what Astaire is doing looks completely natural and easy even though only a handful of dancers could possibly do what he did. And Astaire had about four times the charisma of the NYCB dancers.

It was not fair. I felt so sorry for the ballet dancers. It's not right to create a ballet that makes your dancers look so totally outclassed.

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