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Dignity and Abandon

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AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE

at the Civic Opera House

March 24-26

Ulysses Dove's Serious Pleasures, which had its world premiere at the Civic Opera House last week, represents the kind of crossover common in music but rare in dance. Dove's choreography, which is often performed by the Alvin Ailey troupe, has a headlong impetus and overt sexuality not often seen in ballet--and certainly not in the repertory of American Ballet Theatre, not since Twyla Tharp took her dances and went home.

Both choreographer and dancers have made remarkable accommodations to unfamiliar forms in this new piece. Dove's gone wild with pointe work, giving it to men as well as women, yet he's integrated it surprisingly well with his reckless style of movement. And the nine ABT dancers who perform Serious Pleasures--Ethan Brown, Robert Conn, Christina Fagundes, Susan Jaffe, Carld Jonassaint, Lucette Katerndahl, Parrish Maynard, Keith Roberts, and Ashley Tuttle--take Dove's ball and run with it, abandoning dignity and dignifying abandon.

Serious Pleasures has several Dove trademarks. The movement alternates between pell-mell rushing and a slow, sustained, sensuous deliberation. (When the Ailey company performed Dove's Episodes last spring, I thought of a rubber band pulled taut and snapped; but here the alternations reminded me of a cat's predations, the rhythms of stalking and pouncing.) The dancers seem to come on to each other and to us, seducing with sinuous torsos, back- flung heads, and exposed throats; wide, sexually available second positions; and abandoned leaps, catches, and falls. Once again Dove makes use of women's hair: all four ballerinas wear theirs loose, and it floats and swings in a way that's both softening and dramatic.

Yet Serious Pleasures has a conceptual structure and intent I haven't seen in Dove's dances before. Divided into six sections, it's subtitled "The merciless battle between spirit and flesh." Maynard is designated the "narrator," and he does seem to observe and comment on the action, though he never speaks. His poses open and close the dance: the set is two interior walls lined with doors, and Maynard hangs from two pegs set high in one wall. We don't see the pegs at first, of course--what we see is a coiled androgynous form that seems to float several feet above the floor, a satyrlike figure in profile with legs bent and head flung back so that the line of the exposed neck and arched chest dominates our sense of the body. To me he looked a victim, a sacrifice ready to be flayed by the gods.

The visual design enhances our sense that there's something punitive going on. The walls are like prison walls--especially at the opening of the second section, when cones of lights come on one by one behind a wall like the searchlights of a prison camp. The doors set into the walls might be cell doors. Yet the central space created by the two walls also suggests a gladiators' arena, and the dancers' often violent entrances and exits, banging the doors open and shut, reinforce the sense that they're combatants entering the ring. Jorge Gallardo's set (which also resembles a modern industrial or corporate interior--especially since the doors are louvered), the dark, dramatic lighting by William H. Grant III, and the very percussive original score by Robert Ruggieri all suggest the influence of music videos.

Dove seems to comment on contemporary sexual relations in Serious Pleasures, yet I couldn't catch the drift of those comments. The section titles imply an improvement in the state of affairs: we move from "Prologue" to a section for the company called "First," to a section for the women, "Demons of Light," to one for the men, "Angels of Darkness," to a duet for a man and woman, "Oasis," and finally to "Freedom." But the teleological development suggested by the titles isn't reflected in what we see. "First" looked very much like "Freedom" to me, and though"Oasis" is calmer than the other sections, it's just as laden with sexual cliches: the man swaggers and the woman bears the candles (usually). Because the narrator takes the same pose at the end that we saw at the beginning, it seems we're supposed to have learned something in between, but I'm not sure what it is.

Most interesting--and puzzling--were the middle sections. In "Demons of Light" the women dance one by one in an open doorway, lit from above by a single harsh light. They look like prostitutes offering their wares, and the movement reinforces that cliche: the women play with their hair, open their arms, circle their hips, bring their knees coyly and seductively together. There are no men onstage, and each woman seduces us by turn, then closes her door, moving in a mincing pas de bourree like a geisha. In "Angels of Darkness" the men dance seductively too--but with each other. (Here the music really pulsates; we can hear a heartbeat in it.) They touch each other's eyes and chests, run their hands down their own thighs, and jump, grasping something into themselves as they thrust their hips forward.

Why do the men dance with each other, the women alone? Why does "Angels of Darkness" end with all five men hung as if crucified by the pegs on the wall, writhing--perhaps sensuously, perhaps in pain? What do the gestures of praying and eating mean to Dove? Serious Pleasures is a pleasure indeed, and it may make more sense on a second or third viewing; but on a first viewing the intellectual superstructure, and particularly its implications of guilt and punishment, seems at odds with the uninhibited sensuality of Dove's choreography.

In Serious Pleasures the dancing is dominated by Ruggieri's music, which is often so loud and pounding that any phrasing from the dancers is likely to be overlooked. Not so in Jerome Robbins's 1976 Other Dances, a duet I saw performed by Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca. Chopin's piano music is on a scale so human that the piano almost seems a third dancer (especially since it's played onstage).

Other Dances looks informal, unassuming--it seems we're watching mere playing at dancing, and the people involved just happen to be exquisite performers. There are deliberate suggestions of social dancing, and the romantic atmosphere is that of an afternoon dalliance. The couple step slowly onstage holding hands; later they often mirror or copy each other--the choreography often isn't much different for the man and the woman, which gives the work a pleasing effect of equality and reciprocity. After the opening duet the man and the woman dance alone, each performing twice, and subtle differences mark these solos: the man is apt to reach out, with arms especially, while the woman draws into her space, crossing her legs over one another. Robbins's attention to line is exquisite--at the end of one solo the woman stands with her back to us, raises an arm, and flips back her hand into a shape that repeats the line of her nape and the back of her head. Ferri, who's a gorgeous dancer in any case, looked wonderful in Robbins's choreography: she's exceptionally open and pliant, especially in the hips, and Robbins makes expressive use of hips that are low-slung, almost thrust forward.

The Firebird, with choreography after Michel Fokine, is beautifully staged, and the little dancing there is in it is very well done by ABT. But there's something disturbingly childlike about the story and the production: the Tsarevna is like a child in her nightgown, and the lovers seem almost completely helpless, at the mercy of the supernatural figures. It hardly seems possible that a mere 80 years could account for the differences between it and Serious Pleasures. And yet it might be said that Dove's dance has its own supernatural figure: the looming presence of Sex, which orders and disorders the lives of the people represented as powerfully as any immortal beast in any folktale.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.

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