writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Blues at the Ballet

The Four Temperaments, St. Louis Woman
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Opera House
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
June 11, 2004

by Clare Croft
copyright 2004 by Clare Croft
published June 14, 2004

Trying to make sense of all the contemporary arguments about the “right” way to dance George Balanchine’s choreography is an unmanageable task. It seems every former dancer and critic has their own interpretation, but watching Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) perform Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, I think I saw, for the most part, a version of Balanchine that deserves to be placed in that ambiguous “right” category. The dancers, particularly the women, drew my attention to the marvel of the choreography, the way Balanchine moved bodies into and through different planes, making classical vocabulary sing with a new voice.

From the early entrance of four women thrusting their hips forward, then whipping their legs into a nearly nose-touching battement, to the same movement’s final repetition for the full corps, I was fascinated. Classical ballet accentuates the vertical, yet here Balanchine found a way to simultaneously accentuate both the horizontal, through the jagged, jutting hips, and the vertical, through the battement. DTH’s steel-like performance allowed the abstract clarity to radiate.

Beyond the stunning corps, certain soloists approached the The Four Temperaments with a beautiful simplicity. Akua Parker’s port de bras in “Sanguinic” balanced a taught physicality with a dramatic softness; her body spoke the character. In “Choleric,” Andrea Long danced her entrance with such ferocity, she nearly fell over. But her ability to dance to the edge gave the piece a fitting climax. In the second theme, Dionne Figgins showed promise of developing a similar attack.

But, as in Tuesday night’s all Balanchine program, superficial facial dramatics marred moments. In the second theme, Mark Burns began the trend of odd, distracting emoting. Then Kevin Thomas followed in “Melancholic,” orgasmically opening his mouth has he lunged over the women’s legs. Balanchine’s so-called black and white ballets like The Four Temperaments and Agon (which the company performed superbly earlier this week), do not tell stories through anxious eyebrows or open lips, but through arms, legs and hips.

Telling a story through movement, not superficial spectacle, would seem an appropriate goal for a ballet choreographer taking on a balletic re-making of musical theater. Not so in Michael Smuin’s St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, which filled the bulk of Friday’s program. The work suffers greatly from poorly linked choreography and glaring costumes and lights. Thank goodness DTH’s dancers, particularly Caroline Rocher as the vampish, but sweet-hearted Della Green, and light-foooted Ikolo Griffin as her horse-riding love interest Little Augie, look gorgeous no matter what steps they perform.

The ballet, based on the musical by Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen, tells the story of gangster/club owner Biglow Brown (Donald Williams), who discards his girlfriend Lila (Tai Jiminez, another of Friday’s standouts), to vie with Augie for Della’s love. Della eventually ignores Biglow, choosing Augie, and Lila’s infuriation leads her to shoot Biglow. The murder would be a fine end for the ballet, but instead, Smuin continues through a strange duet between two figures who represent death, then shows Augie’s next horse race, which he wins, giving everyone a chance to celebrate by doing the same high-kicking horsey step that they do repeatedly throughout the ballet.

Smuin’s attempt to merge ballet with musical theater fails because he puts raditional balle together with musical theater, but with little regard to how each must reshape the other. All the women wear pointe shoes, which suit a tango-based duet between Biglow and Della, accentuating her legs weaving through his and her slicing kicks. But, when the corps does Charleston-based steps, the pointe shoes make them look odd. A natural foot position is plain ugly in pointe shoes, which usually are utilized to accentuate form and line. Some social dance, particularly the fun, slightly floppy Charleston, gained popularity because it disregarded an overarching form made for all bodies. Therefore, the shoes make the dance and the dancers look awkward.

Poor Ramon Thielen as the Conjure Man looks the most bizarre of the cast. Thielen, whose character the program says is also known as “Death,” wears a tuxedo jacket with metallic silver strips for tails and a pair of very small black biker shorts, so he looks like a Chippendale version of a circus ringmaster. Worse, Smuin has given him choreography that makes him look like an escapee from a bad jazz dance competition and his character never really serves a narrative purpose.

Smuin is at his best in a few duets, notably the final, sexy duet among the corps’ couples (until he starts drawing from strip club vocabulary—why ask a talented artists to grind her hips as she plies in second position on pointe?). He also somewhat interestingly twists usual balletic lovey-dovey partnering into a dance of violence between Biglow and Della. But mainly the ballet features, as my companion for the performance described it, “pose-and-catch” choreography. Transitions are non-existent in the ballet, but it is replete with gymnastics.

What’s worse than having sat through St. Louis Woman on Friday? Seeing that DTH is bringing it back to the Kennedy Center next year. Please let it be surrounded by DTH’s wonderful Balanchine repertory.

First:  Dance Theatre of Harlem's Carolie Rocher and Donald Williams in St. Lous Woman, photo by Joseph Rodman.
Second:  Dance Theatre of Harlem's Preston Duggger and Melissa Morrissey in St. Louis Woman, photo by Joseph Rodman.

originally published:
Volume 2, Number22
June 14, 2004

© 2004 Clare Croft




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