Monday, October 29, 2012

No Progress, No Journey, No Destination, No Arrival

On Wednesday evening, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to attend a performance of New York City Ballet, visiting Minneapolis for the first time since 1984.

In 2011, for domestic touring purposes, New York City Ballet created New York City Ballet Moves, an endeavor by which the company sends out to cities large and small a less-than-whole contingent of dancers and musicians, all for the purpose of familiarizing persons outside New York with NYCB’s incomparable repertory and dancers. Major, large-scale works from the gigantic NYCB repertory cannot be accommodated by New York City Ballet Moves, but important smaller-scale works that are amenable to touring are part of the package—and NYCB sends a representative repertory as well as a representative sampling of dancers to NYCB Moves venues (among “name” dancers appearing in Minneapolis were Robert Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski and Tiler Peck).

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” was the first work on the NYCB program.

Created in 2001 for NYCB, and set to piano music of Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, “Polyphonia” is considered by many to be Wheeldon’s finest ballet. The ballet has traveled around the world in the eleven years since its premiere, been danced by countless companies, and is now viewed as the quintessential “abstract” Wheeldon ballet.

Whether there is anything original in “Polyphonia” is another matter. Set for eight dancers, “Polyphonia” is for all practical purposes a George Balanchine leotard ballet, drawing its inspiration from Balanchine’s spare late-1950s/early-1960s works set to thorny Stravinsky scores written after Arnold Schoenberg’s death. (Stravinsky abandoned Neo-Classicism and adopted Second Viennese School practices once Schoenberg was gone from the scene, and Alban Berg and Anton Webern safely in their graves.)

I enjoyed “Polyphonia” immensely—I enjoyed it more than any other work on Wednesday night’s program—but “Polyphonia” cannot be discussed without throwing out the word “derivative” left and right. There was nothing about “Polyphonia” that was NOT derivative, from its music to its costuming to its lighting to its construction to its steps.

My father’s assessment, offered once the curtain fell: “Tough choice: I can’t decide whether it was more watered-down Agon or watered-down Episodes. I suppose I must declare the matter a draw.”

However one apportions its source material between “Agon” and “Episodes”, “Polyphonia” received a splendid performance from NYCB dancers. NYCB is a company that can dance rings around any other company, and its virtuosity was in full flower Wednesday night.

After “Polyphonia” came the only Balanchine work of the night, “Duo Concertant”, which Josh and I had seen for the first time in January 2011. One of the lasting legacies of NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, held one year after the composer’s death, “Duo Concertant” is a two-dancer ballet in which the dancers—famously—spend almost as much time listening to Duo Concertant, a composition for violin and piano written in 1931 and premiered in 1932, as dancing to it.

After the Balanchine, the rest of the evening was downhill—and precipitously so.

The low point was William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux”, set to electronic music by Thom Willems, a Dutch composer (born 1955) whose music is an unthreatening, pastel version of the music of Louis Andriessen, Willems’s primary composition teacher.

In 1992, Forsythe created a five-dancer ballet for NYCB titled “Herman Schmerman”. The following year, Forsythe added a pas de deux to “Herman Schmerman”—and, in 1999, he withdrew the ballet entirely except for its belated add-on, the pas de deux, now widely-performed as a standalone work in its own right.

When he withdrew the ballet, Forsythe should have withdrawn the pas de deux as well—it looks as if it had been created for the Grand Ole Opry, and was intended to be part of some ancient Minnie Pearl cornball comedy skit—although the Minneapolis audience appeared to be fascinated by the piece, primarily because the male dancer, for reasons unknown, was costumed in a shiny gold cheerleader’s skirt.

Peter Martins’s “Zakouski” was next. Zakouski is the Russian word for hors d'oeuvres, and “Zakouski” is a pas de deux set to four short pieces of Russian music, one each by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

In many ways, “Zakouski” was sort of cute. It was sort of entertaining, and sort of charming, and even sort of Russian (although I could have done with less thigh-slapping). “Zakouski” was also, however, completely synthetic—and Las Vegas through and through. It must have been the sort of thing performed in upscale nightclubs in the 1940s.

Last on Wednesday evening’s program was Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction”, set to music of John Adams.

Like all Martins ballets, “Hallelujah Junction” was empty. The ballet’s saving grace, if there was one, was that it was energetic—and an eager display of energy is always preferable to a vacuum. The energy of “Hallelujah Junction” probably accounts for its current semi-popularity, although no sane person could possibly believe that “Hallelujah Junction” will be danced fifty years from now.

Martins created “Hallelujah Junction” in 2001 for the Royal Danish Ballet; the ballet was first presented by NYCB the following year. A black-and-white leotard ballet, it calls for eleven dancers, all of whom get a vigorous workout during its many gyrations.

One of the problems with “Hallelujah Junction” is its weak score. Adams is a composer of “designer music”, music created to provide a pleasant but vapid background. There is nothing challenging in Adams’s music, nothing penetrating, nothing that stops the listener’s heartbeat, nothing that engages the listener’s brain, nothing that requires the listener’s full attention.

Adams’s music is, fundamentally, trivial—as Pierre Boulez has been thoughtful enough to point out over and over—and very much representative of our peculiar times. There is much spinning of wheels, and much exertion of energy—but no progress, no journey, no destination, no arrival. It’s facile, depth-free stuff, having more to do with popular entertainment than high art.

Fifty years from now, people will find it difficult to believe that Adams was once viewed, in some quarters, as an important composer. Just as we marvel today that Morton Gould was taken seriously as a composer in the 1940s and 1950s, persons two and three generations from now will ask themselves, “How could our grandparents have not seen through such piles of piffle?”


Disappointing as was the NYCB Minneapolis program—and it was, most assuredly, disappointing—and unrewarding as was the company’s first visit to the Twin Cities in 28 years, we would not have missed NYCB for any reason. NYCB was the main event of the Twin Cities 2012-2013 dance season.

The Joffrey Ballet has yet to come, and we may attend performances by one or two modern dance troupes—but the Twin Cities dance season is, basically, over, at least for us. (The ballet company from Lausanne, Switzerland, has cancelled—for financial reasons—its scheduled visit to Minneapolis.)

Josh and I certainly regret having had to miss—owing to my having come down with influenza—three NYCB programs we had planned to catch in New York earlier this month.

We missed six Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets: “Momentum pro Gesualdo”; “Movements For Piano And Orchestra”; “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”; “Apollo”; “Agon”; and “Rubies”.

We also missed Balanchine’s “Symphony In C” and Wheeldon’s new ballet, “Carillons”, as well as a seldom-revived Jerome Robbins work, “Moves”.

That was to be our primary bout of ballet-going for the year.

And we had to miss out.

NYCB’s Minneapolis visit was not a satisfactory substitute for what we had planned to see in New York.


Minneapolis is said to have the best modern-dance audience in the country outside New York.

Whether or not such reputation comports with truth, the claim is one of the platitudes of our day.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, does not have a serious ballet audience—and it certainly does not have a Balanchine audience. On Wednesday evening, “Duo Concertant” earned the most muted applause of the night, while the Forsythe and Martins ballets, nothing more than goop, received the most enthusiastic and sustained applause.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune did not even bother to review NYCB’s Minneapolis performances. The Saint Paul Pioneer-Press did publish a review—and the review was laughable, dismissing the Balanchine ballet in half a sentence (“feel[ing] of excessive formalism”, “didn’t feel as sharply focused”) while heaping praise on the Forsythe and Martins mud puddles.

If the Twin Cities were home to a major regional ballet company nurtured on Balanchine repertory, such embarrassments might be avoided.

However, in the Great Plains states, only Kansas City and Tulsa have managed to sustain major ballet companies for any reasonable period of time.

Elsewhere on The Great Plains, ballet companies have died out, or never taken root.

One would think that Chicago, Minneapolis and Saint Louis, three cities with sufficient populations and sufficient wealth, would be able easily to sustain Balanchine companies—but none of the three cities has ever proven itself hospitable to classical ballet.

What do Kansas City and Tulsa have that Chicago, Minneapolis and Saint Louis lack?

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