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.