February 19th, 2007

Milwaukee Ballet: Premiers of Passionate Dance

On Saturday night, February 17, we went to the Milwaukee Ballet’s program, “Premiers of Passionate Dance.” At the time we bought our series tickets, this program was to have been a revival of the Margo Sappington ballet “Virgin Forest”, which was a quirky and amusing set of dances inspired by Rosseau’s paintings, with original music by Paul Schwarz. We had seen and enjoyed this piece the first time around (A Milwaukee world premiere in 1987) and were looking forward to a reprise. We weren’t too pleased when, after we had received our ticket package, it was announced that “Virgin Forest” was being replaced with an as yet unnamed new ballet by Sappington.

Apparently, Sappington, who is a Tony-award winning Broadway choreographer as well as doing ballet, had been dazzled by William Shatner’s recent recording Has Been, which combines his poetic musings with voices of people who can actually sing, and jazzy music by Ben Folds. (You’ve got to give Shatner credit—the man just keeps coming back. You’d think after the universal derision his Star Trek-era recording efforts garnered he would think he could afford to leave that arena alone--.)

The program opened with “Agon”, a ballet by the dominating figure of American ballet in the 20th Century, Georges Balanchine. We are not great fans of Balanchine, but Georgie, who had seen the work in New York forty or so years ago was very interested to see how the Milwaukee Company would do with this work. One of the reasons we are not particularly fond of Balanchine is because his ideal dancer would have been Olympia the dancing automation: he was very rigid and controlling in his art. He is one of the people we class as “wizards” because, while he did marvelous things in his lifetime, it is debatable whether or not anyone would be able to reproduce them after he was gone. The Milwaukee Ballet did do a very creditable job, evidently with some help from beyond the grave: the program notes that, in addition to being performed by arrangement with Boosey and Hawkes, Inc., publisher and copyright holder, “Agon” a Balanchine Ballet ®, is “presented by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust, and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style ® and Balanchine Technique ®. Service standards established and provided by the Trust.”

I kid you not; the boldface print and registry marks were just like that. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

In any case, Balanchine is indeed all about the technique. The title, “Agon” is a Greek work meaning contest or struggle, the root of our word “agony”. Danced to original music by Igor Stravinsky, the abstract ballet does have elements of a contest as the dancers face off, one against one, two against one or two, four against four, four against eight, underlined by the percussive and dissonant score. I was amused to see a “costume design” credit was given for one “Karinska,” since the costuming is extremely basic and speaks more of the rehearsal hall than performance: black tank leotards and “ballet pink” tights and shoes for the women, white t-shirts, black tights, white socks and slippers for the men. The stage is bare, and a uniform lighting was maintained throughout the piece. Although the movements of the music were given seventeenth century dance names (which were not included in the program) the actual dances bear no resemblance to antique dance, but are instead concerned with testing the dancers’ strength and precision, rather than grace or beauty. The comparative lack of emotion reinforces an impression that what we are seeing is some form of dance kata, or something akin to the “compulsory figures” in a skating contest. For all of the competition built into the choreography, the passion we see is a pure cold passion for the dance. The Milwaukee Ballet rose to the occasion extremely well, with the last pas de trios and the long last pas de deux (danced by Diana Stetsura and David Hovhannisyan) being particularly fine. Georgie thought that the performance compared well to her memory of Balanchine’s own company, given that a certain, perhaps improving, humanity creeps in in the absence of the Great Enchanter’s compelling personality.

Sappington’s ballet, entitled “Common People,” after one of the cuts on Shatner’s album, is diametrically different from Balanchine’s in many ways. The costumes are bright and individual; the music is tuneful and pleasant; it has humor; the lighting is moody and sets scenes; the dancing, though precise and very tightly choreographed, nevertheless comes over as freer and emotionally expressive. This is not necessarily to say that Sappington is better than Balanchine (although I enjoyed “Common People” more than “Agon”); they are very different. I suspect that in ten years “Common People” may seem dated, whereas “Agon”, due to its purity, will still be seen as a classic.

“Common People” is also the opening dance of the piece, and has the energy and color of a rock dance in a high school gym: everyone dancing to the same music, but each interacting with the music and each other individually. This seemed a good theme: “Familiar Love” is the sexy slow dance; “Ideal Woman” the one where a few really good dancers get out and dominate the floor while everyone else watches; “I Can’t Get Behind That,” is the following one where the other individuals that think they have chops show them off. Shatner’s words are pithy, though not terribly profound, sometimes funny, occasionally a bit ribald. There are some touching bits: “Familiar Love” is thought to be an elegy to his late wife, and the ending tag “Has been--might again!” seems to be Shatner’s motto.

All the company members danced with great verve and style: Marc Petrocci was particularly noteworthy in “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.”

The third ballet of the evening, “Second Before the Ground,” by Trey McIntyre to music by the Kronos Quartet, lies somewhere between the two prior pieces. Costuming is again austere, the men wearing khaki work pants held up by suspenders over bare chests; the women simple short dresses also in tan, only touched by a bit of roseate hue on the featured females. Some lighting effects are used, but sparingly. The first movement opens with a lone man showing off a hornpipe-like jig to the sound of a country fiddle over a very Caribbean percussion, which gives a combined impression rather like a WPA-era folk ballet as performed in Jamaica.

As other dancers join, the “passionate’ portion of this ballet kicks in, as a first couple (Petrocci and Luz San Miguel) focus in on each other in a very traditional sort of “sweet/cute” courtship dance. In the second pas de deux Andrey Kasatsky portrayed a shaggy-haired broad-shouldered lunk who attempts a “me man, you woman” seduction as performed by Jethro Bodine. The “lucky” woman (Jennifer Miller) turns the tables and ends the piece riding off stage on his back.

The third couple (Tatiana Jouravel and David Hovhannisyan) is literally brought together by others, turning an initially purely sexual attraction into a real though physical relationship.

The final movement is an exuberant dance by the company over the sound of a possibly African chant, which ends with the couples paired off, and the lone dancer ending the piece in the same place and posture he began—just as the four men that begin and end “Agon” do. McIntyre’s ballet does not have the rigidity of “Agon”, but the choreographer does insist on some unnecessary repetition of classical moves that water down the freedom of what is otherwise almost a “folk” ballet.

Having been loosened up by the Sappington piece, the audience received the simple warmth and occasional humor of “Second Before the Ground” very readily, and ended the evening by giving the cast a standing ovation, something we have not seen at a Ballet since the premiere of “Scheherazade”. Although I would have been more inclined to give the ovation for “Common People,” we both agreed that the Ballet had more than earned that accolade over the course of the evening.

Brief Political Rant

I of course support the resolutions in the House and Senate deploring Bush’s insistence on pointlessly increasing troop strength in Iraq. Even if they had a plan to do something useful with those troops, which they do not, it is far too little, far too late. One of the most basic rules of military economy is “don’t reinforce failure” and make no mistake, Iraq is a failure. We won the battle to depose Saddam Hussein, but failed in the task of making Iraq a free democratic nation even before that battle was joined, with Rumsfeld et al’s plan for war on the cheap, and their wishful thinking that cooperative democratic governance would somehow just spring into being once the obstacle of Hussein was removed. Had we followed the advice of our generals then, and use a force twice to three times the size, with the extra troops being engineers, police, and civil affairs, we might have had a chance to win hearts and minds by swiftly restoring shattered infrastructure, retain order, and give the Iraqi people a chance to choose peace. Instead, we kicked over their anthill with nothing to replace it and then seemed surprised when anger, resentment, envy, geed and every other negative force in human affairs boils over. The key opportunity at the key time was lost, and such things never come again. It is time to withdraw and let the Iraqis get on with fighting it out.

Dark Matter Theory

One of the great mysteries of science in the present day is that of "dark matter" and it's related phenomeonon, "dark energy." Both these things have been postulated as a way to explain the behavior of the perceived Universe. Calculations show that as much of 70% of the mass of the Universe may be made up of matter that has so far been undetectable. "Dark energy", a similarly intangible hypothetical force, seems to be responsible for the continuing expansion of the Universe. While kicking around ideas at Sue Blom's salon on Friday the 2nd of February, part of aour annual discussion of the prior year's top science stories, I was struck with the following idea:

What if the Universe is expanding and contracting simultaneously? There have been numerous theories proposing that the Universe might expand, then contract, creating a cycle of existence. But, what if serial time as we know it is also a function of the expansion of the Universe, and, when it reaches its ultimate expansion point whatever it might be, when it begins to reverse course, time reverses also?

Therefore, what is perceived as the vast mass of dark matter is actually the Universe itself rushing at us downtime, at near-relativistic speed, which accounts for our perception that it is more massive than "our" Universe. A viewer going the other way would perceive "our" Universe as both invisible dark matter, and massive due to the closing velocity. "Dark energy" is nothing more than the gravitational attraction of the downtime Universe, which, so far, is attracting us outward. (Hey, gravity works across time! Who knew? Nothing else blocks gravity. We don't know what gravity is, anyway.) When the two masses pass, the respective gravitational effects will then have a braking effect, which will cause our outrushing Universe eventually to slow to a stop and begin to contract, while the downtime Universe crashes back together and explodes outward again in a new Big Bang.

As with my hypothesis of Lumpy Time, you read it here first! Speculative as it is, I like this idea because of its elegance in that new forms of matter or energy are not needed to explain the observed behavior. Your comments, especially those of the Nobel Prize committee, are welcome.