The program read: "New Zealand Ballet Triple Bill". Now, it might seem silly to get fixated on a headline. It's not as if the ballet called up the playbill company and said "You've just got to call it 'New Zealand Ballet Triple Bill.'" Someone in the program office probably came up with the catchy title and decided to say the patently obvious: the company, from New Zealand, performs three works. But what really got communicated through those five words is that while New Zealand Ballet might sound exotic, like Middle Earth, and the Maori art of tattooing (ta moko), ballet in the hands of NZB is as ordinary as a triple bill.
It turns out the headline was not far off the mark.
Familiarity in itself is no crime. Cross the vastness of the United States and you'll find that ballet companies are like so many far flung 1st, 2nd and 3rd cousins. Balanchine or Balanchine knock-offs are ubiquitous. Modernized classicism and bump and grind ballets, and ballets by modern dancers crop up everywhere too, appearing and reappearing like pesky dominant genes in a family line. Why should ballet in New Zealand, spawned by continental and non-continental Europeans, who are themselves 3rd or 4th cousins to American troupes, look much different?
Okay. But there's the question of the set-up: Festival director Andrew Wood wants the SFIAF to rival Edinburgh's blow-out summer arts festival. The implication behind it, if not the assertion, is that his picks will be high in novelty, edge, and some amount of intercontinental kaboom. He appears to want to throw a mutation or two into dance's genetic pool and show us the new, or at least the dangerous. But does he really know what to look for?
If NZB is his idea of kaboom, then no. Yet Wood may have located the novelty in the fact that there exists a competent ballet company in New Zealand and not many people have known it. Whether that's enough to merit booking them in the festival is another question. I'm not convinced it is.
NZB offered SF audiences nothing pathbreakingly new. The opening two works, both by Venezuelan-born Javier De Frutos, were well-crafted and interesting, far more his abstract, Sufi inspired interpretation of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which owed much to his former boss, Laura Dean, than his over-reaching attempt to combine show girl culture in Las Vegas with the kitsch of Liberace and Frankfurt School-style deconstructions of sexuality that he called "The Celebrated Soubrette." This last was neither intellectually nor dramatically gripping, despite the endless jockeying for the spot light by the female cast and a clever recurring shift of "front" that had upstage atwinkle with footlights and the dancers dancing to the backdrop. Where De Frutos showed daring was in his use of an intentionally limited movement vocabulary in which he recombined ballet and wiggly hooch dance in ways that were comic and ingenious. But a Forsythian analysis of anomie it wasn't.
Like Paul Taylor, De Frutos chose the pianola version of the Stravinsky score for his "Rite," which brings a sinister carnival edge to the sound that comes off as both dreamier and more creepily tied to childhood fear than the orchestral original. De Frutos called his rendition "Milagros," after the Spanish word for miracles and votive offerings and dressed both men and women in large, Mexican-style white skirts and white tops, that over time revealed to have pale numbers stamped on their backs. Whether we were supposed to associate them with the numbers on sports or prison shirts or to imagine something more metaphysical was never clear. But the impact of the swirling fabric as the dancers circled and countercircled, pushed, fell and recovered, created some of the same entrancement that Dervish dancing accomplishes and addressed the score's demand that the increasingly hypnotic, orgiastic ascent be made physical. That De Frutos couldn't keep the climaxing alive was one of the dance's greater disappointments. He seemed to lose the thread midway and seriously begin to doubt the virgin sacrifice motif. It wasn't until the denouement when the victim becomes the assassin that we saw exactly how much he doubted it. Rather than shock us, the end came as a quick fix to a problem he never solved.
De Frutos has a strong eye for pattern and also seems to have easily soaked up plenty of important influences, from Limon, to Preljocaj to Dean and Sara Rudner. But the frustration for someone arriving expecting a radical interpretation of ballet is that De Frutos recombines what already exists rather than mines something we haven't seen before. Perhaps framed in a festival of international ballet, that wouldn't have mattered, and De Frutos' talent would have been enough. Given the intent of the festival, though, what was missing was glaring. What was absent in De Frutos' work was a radical daring that would have plumbed both the contradictions of Las Vegas show dance and life and the ritual aggression of men to women, women to men, and group to individual with greater ferocity and less journalistic complacency. In each scenario human atavism was pictured but not essentialized; no one left the theater transformed.
Set against Brit David Dawson's banal "A Million Kisses to My Skin" set to Bach's Concerto No 1 in D Minor with the sublime Andras Schiff on piano (recorded on Decca), De Frutos' work seemed like the makings of an inventive wild man. Whereas De Frutos showed us the skill and competence of the company, Dawson made the company look technically threadbare as they performed repeated uncentered piques, manic battement, sloppy angel leaps and dumb lifts against 6 murky purple panels that, set behind the reds, golds and purples of the costumes, suggested a Renaissance moment in deep decline.
I came away from the theater with pleading in my mind: would young choreographers leave Balanchine alone for awhile? Could they deconstruct Petipa for the next few years and learn what constitutes a musically and physically cogent dance phrase before they attempt to abstract it? Maybe take a music theory class or two, and grasp how to apply baroque music's structures to the dance rather than callowly ignore them, as Dawson does, right down to missing the dictates of the phrasing? It might be all in the family to churn out bad Balanchine-it's happening all over the country, and its seems all over the world. But it's a form of Faulknerian degeneration. The family line needs a boost. Maybe next year Wood can find ballet that offers that. Imagine contemporary classical dance that sets our teeth on edge and causes the hackles to raise on the backs of our necks. Now wouldn't that be grand?
Photo: The New Zealand Ballet in "The Celebrated Soubrette." Photo by Maarten Holl