Only in New York
"Glass Pieces", "Thou Swell", "Stars and Stripes"
by Christopher Correa
Only in New York do people walk like this. A few young men and women embark across a bare white stage, like horses out of the gate, diagonally avoiding each other before contact is made. And then a team of them burst out of the wings, flooding the stage with perpendicular, staccato lines, none of whom are allowed to meet. Set against a white grid, and clad in pastel practice clothes, the crowd resembles an electron cloud swirling with negative activity. But take another look, and you might find that what this crowd really resembles is, well, a crowd.
This was “Glass Pieces,” Jerome Robbins’s landmark triptych of dance works that analyzes, codifies and finally squares the makeup of human existence, depicted here as a series of missed connections and forged unions that end up splintering apart and finding new patterns. It may have appeared to be a lot of math at work (after all, none of the people onstage showed any real expression, and they were all moving across a grid paper background), but make no mistake, for 22 minutes, humanity was on display, rendered vividly and with great care.
This was Times Square. This was Grand Central Station. This was a busy street scene in which a rabble of people, with a rabble of stories, blended together in concert. Dissonance was represented sonically in Philip Glass’s arpeggiated music, and visually in the New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet, who parried, zigzagged and circled each other with determination that hinted that all of them have, at one time or another, been late catching the subway.
The white graph-like set evoked a cityscape schematic, which, at first glace only seemed cold. But an entire populous, people of every walk, gets accounted for in such a diagram, and Robbins’s choreography never lets us forget it.
The second movement of “Glass Pieces,” called “Facades,” is a slippery, geometric pas de deux danced before a seemingly endless stream of women in silhouette, one folding over the next, like links on a self-generating chain. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal were a tender couple. Her legs fluidly scooped around in the air as he carried her aloft. They were like segments of the same body at times, having bonded together. Juxtaposed against the faceless, shadowy line of dancers, who symbolized anyone and everyone, these two, captured in follow spot, were illuminated, colorized and warmed up in one another’s mutual embrace.
The third segment was a thunderous (for Philip Glass), almost animalistic romping of culture, class and sexuality. Five men paraded around the stage, their heads bobbing up and out, like hunter-gatherers. Their female counterparts floated in, adding gazelle-like seductiveness to the mix. Whatever the interpretation of these figures, what was implied was that they needed each other, one finished what the other had started. The climax was a pulse-racing bionetwork of people meeting, interacting and interfering with each other, and acknowledging that each was there for a reason, and that all were a part of a larger, maddening and ultimately intimate (it’s a small world, after all) picture.
New to Washington, and recently premiered in New York, was Artistic Director Peter Martins’s “Thou Swell,” an ode to the Gene Kelly era showstoppers that put the “silver” in Silver Screen. It featured an onstage combo band (everyone, even the piano, decked in white), live singing and a Busby Berklee-style overhead mirror. The audience clapped before anything happened. After 35 minutes, they were moving around uncomfortably in their seats to keep from passing out.
For all the glamour implied by the sleek, glittery set (by Robin Wagner, who earned a Tony dressing “The Producers” with dapper flippancy) and Julius Lumsden’s opulent costumes, the shimmer and shine of the MGM Mega Movie Musical felt put-on and ultimately bogus. Featuring a jewel trove of a Richard Rodgers score, polished to a gleam by song arranger Glen Kelly, orchestrator Don Sebesky and the peerless Broadway conductor Paul Gemignani, “Thou Swell” took off only when the dancers were whisked into the wings or corralled at tables onstage like audience members, and the action was left to the champagne-sparkly effervescence frothing out of the orchestra pit.
Martins’s choreography was a muddle of dance breeds, none of which were articulated beyond the stylings of watered-down touring cast company dancing, or worse, dinner theater fare. The giant mirror did little to enhance the simple steps (which never really seemed to fit these dancers who hungered for a little more intricacy with every gesture).
And the guest singers Debbie Gravitte and Jonathan Dokuchitz, hitting almost all the right notes, mingled with the dancers which made for an odd merger of artistic forms. They seemed uncomfortably shoehorned together, and even joined the dancers for a final grand exit, something out of “Manhattan Melodrama.” Instead it all looked unresolved (there was no storyline, after all) and like the easy way out. “Thou Swell,” for all the glitz and good humor, felt more like a party to which none of us were invited.
“Stars and Stripes” is an unqualified crowd pleaser. And as danced by Ashley Bouder and Damian Woetzel, the tone was patriotic without being nationalistic, witty without being satirical, a circumstance not inflated by pomp. George Balanchine constructed a loose pageant of a sort, with each section (or “Campaign,” as the ballet refers to them) designed as regiments. The Corcoran Cadets were classical variations of the Rockettes, with their short tutus and ankle socks. The Rifle Regiment was stately but wry; this is a tribute to, and a wink at, the armed forces of 1950s Americana. Nothing of this sort would be attempted today by a major company—the tenor of an updated choreographic interpretation of the military would be controversial and far too disconcerting to stage. Imagine it, tin soldiers of the 21st century.
Bouder and Woetzel’s partnering was clever and sprightly, and when she slipped, he was quick to overwhelm the audience (a little taken aback) with his role’s pinwheel of jumps, inducing gasps of the awe-struck variety out of them. But Bouder proved to be a tenacious, smooth adapter. She whipped back into her character delicately yet vociferously, winning everyone over, and investing the piece as a whole with an energy and vitality that suggested a ballerina of many more years’ experience and thickening of skin.