Friday, February 26, 2016

uh-oh, ballet

I just read an article in the New Yorker lamenting that while excellent ballet dancers are numerous, currently active "interesting ballet choreographers are very, very rare." It says only three whose work is regularly seen in the US "are in the top tier." They are Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.

That's just introduction; the point is to provide context to introduce a rising young choreographer, Justin Peck, whom the article is actually about. But when I saw that list of three greats, my heart sank, because on my last two visits to the San Francisco Ballet, I saw work by all three of those top-tier names, and I thought all three of them were terrible. Their work seemed ugly, pointless, and disconnected from the music, exercises in trivial athleticism.

(From my blog reviews. Ratmansky: "This one didn't cut it for me. The first act seemed full of each male dancer picking up his ballerina by the waist and setting her down in some other part of the stage, as if she were unable to get there by herself. The third act featured groups of people hunched over and jogging in place while wearing ugly unisex track suits. This is what struck me about the dancing." Wheeldon and Morris: "I hear music so strongly as structure that, if the ballet doesn't adhere to that structure, it feels to me totally disconnected from the music, like movie subtitles shifted off cue. ... There were some events I'd never seen before on a ballet stage: Morris had three or four of his male dancers carry another one onstage, his arms extended like Superman, and Wheeldon directed some of his to exit the stage by rolling off.")

I'm not blind to the art of ballet. When I was young I was struck by the beauty of the work of Balanchine, and I also liked the clever and witty ballets of Lew Christensen, who was director of the SF Ballet back then. But even before I knew that what I've seen recently is the top tier of contemporary choreography, I was thinking that, if this is what I'm going to see at the ballet, I'm not going back.

Possibly ballet is going through a period like the one contemporary classical music did between the 1950s and 1970s, when ugly, rotten music was praised as supreme art, and polemicists tried to convince you there was nothing else on offer. Even after being disappointed by Wheeldon and Morris, I went to see Ratmansky because I'd been wooed by reviews and articles proclaiming his greatness. Well, I've been fooled enough. If the ballet phones me up again to ask for a subscription, I'm telling them: you revive Lew Christensen, I'll come back. Otherwise, I'm done with ballet, permanently.

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