Allies of the ground, eye on the sky

The Village Voice 15 Nov 1973English

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I'm terribly pleased that so many important ballet companies are mounting works by some of the dead geniuses of modern dance, but my pleasure has made me all the more edgy and critical. I see that care and expense have gone into the staging; I see the dancers trying hard to capture the style; but what's missing in most cases is the specific dynamics of the dance style.

Dancers tend to think a lot about the shapes their bodies are making, probably because of the strain and skill involved. Dancers these days are very versatile about shape-making, but, in concentrating on what gets done, they don't always remember to think about how it gets done.

The reason I'm shooting my mouth off now is that I've just seen the City Center Joffrey perform José Limón's The Moor's Pavane and Washington's National Ballet perform Doris Humphrey's Water Study. The Moor's Pavane is already in the repertory of several ballet companies; dancers who performed the four principal roles (Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia) in the Limón company have been responsible for teaching and rehearsing it. This makes me wonder if, having always been in the dance, they understand what it's supposed to look like from the outside. Maybe they just fall into that proud-of-their-pupils attitude that excuses so much.

The Moor's Pavane is one of those dances that almost always comes off. If every moment of the dancing doesn't stir you, you can still be carried away by the fierce theatricality and wait for the next impressive moment. But, since all the drama of Shakespeare's Othello was compressed by Limón to ride on top of and weave through and eventually tear apart a formal court dance, it matters a great deal how the dancing looks.

The Joffrey's second cast consisted of Paul Sutherland as the Moor, Pamela Nearhoof as his Wife, Robert Estner as the Moor's Friend, and Starr Danias as the Friend's Wife. So, okay, Estner was sharp, thin, and conniving; and Starr Danias, proudly sensual and clever as a little fox, makes a fine Emilia, may be wonderful any moment. Pamela Nearhoof's Desdemona seemed innocent to the point of foolishness, and she looked more as if she'd been told she couldn't go to the college of her choice than that she was about to die. Paul Sutherland relied more on his face and hands to convey jealous rage and offended love than on the twist and lunge of his body, but he was burdened by a luridly red robe (and tights to match) that was short-waisted and diminished rather than accentuated the powerful-shoulder look, which was part of Limón's personal style.

On the opening night for this cast, the orchestra, conducted by Seymour Lipkin, played the Purcell music as if it were all dirge, and, of course, that must have troubled the dancers. But I think the real problem is that they're unaccustomed to giving in to the weight of their bodies as much as Limón's style requires. I remember Limón drawing himself up from a wide-legged plié into a balance on one straight leg, as if the ground held him back, or the air were thick to move through. That kind of awareness of the pull of gravity made him-and his dances-look powerful: the struggle of muscles became a metaphor for the struggle of souls. The Joffrey dancers, trained as they are to emphasize lightness and to use low positions primarily as a preparation for flying upward, have the air of treading on the surface of the movement and the music. They look intense, but insubstantial. At this point, they are also adhering slavishly to the beat of the music for dramatic gestures, rather than giving the gestures their own impetus and fitting them into the musical sequence. When Emilia gets the handkerchief away from Desdemona, she tosses it into the air and catches it several times, smoothly and right on the beat, which seems untrue to the impetuous triumph of the moment. In another sequence, Othello lunges away from Desdemona-doesn't want to see her, and Iago forces him to lunge toward her; they do this several times. Sutherland and Estner lose the harsh struggle of this, so that you can't tell exactly what the moment is all about: you see them sway forcefully from side to side with fierce expressions.

The National's Water Study is also on the right track, but also - maddeningly -just misses being excellent. This very early work of Doris Humphrey's (1928) is exquisitely simple. It's a brilliant and stirring lesson about dance structure and movement quality, as well as being an impressionistic study of water-the shapes it makes, and its changing energy. When the curtain goes up, 14 women, crouched in profile, fill the stage. In the silence, they breathe and heave almost imperceptibly. Then the women on one side of the stage rise to their knees, arch their bodies, and fling their arms forward. Before it is finished, their action has set the women in front of them to rising and arching too, and this motion travels across the stage. But each set of women arches lower than the previous set, and the last dancers plunge over onto their stomachs. So each body is making a wave, and all the bodies together are making a single huge wave rise up and crash over and spill onto the ground. That's just the beginning. Smoothly, always in silence, the women make patterns suggesting whirlpools, waterfalls, spouts, small rivers. The movement is sustained, giving its rhythm by the ebb and flow of the dancers' breath. The dancers of the National breathe for all they're worth, but, like the dancers of the Joffrey, they can't quite bear to be heavy, to give in to gravity and then rebound up with the intake of breath. Where they should be simply heavy, they are strong, forcing their weight to the floor so emphatically that no natural rebound is possible. They have the most trouble with running - say, from a kneeling position, across the stage, and into a lunge. The Humphrey-trained dancer, I think, would have shown you a single, long crescendo, as if the original position were a magnet whose pull gradually decreased the farther the dancer was able to get from it. ( If you had to sing the equivalent of that run, you'd ascend the scale and get louder.) The dancers of the National get from place to place with chains of pattering little steps that have nothing to do with where they've been or where they're going. Water Study looks pretty and fluid, but its surge has been tamed. It was directed and reconstructed from Labanotation by Virginia Freeman and Barbara Katz.