The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Dance Reviews]

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Moving performances

Dance - the year in review

by Marcia B. Siegel and Jeffrey Gantz

Billy "Oscar" Elliot? This story of an 11-year-old who fights his way to a Royal Ballet School audition from the coal-smudged alleys of the north of England started out as a small art-house movie at the Kendall Square Cinema, but by the end of the year Billy Elliot was showing in the prestigious Sony Cheri, and there have been Oscar whisperings. Billy's dancing is awkward, blustery, flung wildly all over the room, with everything he's ever seen thrown in: ballet, boogie, clogging. It's also instinctively expressive -- rough and earnest and beautiful. And it beat most of what we saw live on stage this year.

Where's George? A ballet year without Balanchine is like a year without sunshine. Massachusetts Youth Ballet did its part, but at Boston Ballet George was nowhere to be seen -- for our fix we had to go to Washington and the Kennedy Center's Balanchine Celebration. Taking part in this gift to the nation were Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the Joffrey, and the Bolshoi. Boston Ballet, which likes to bill itself as one of America's top companies, was conspicuous by its absence; so was New York City Ballet. What's wrong with this picture?

Appalachian At least we had Martha. Graham, that is, in the Boston Conservatory's all-student presentation of Appalachian Spring. The Boston Conservatory dancers didn't display the technical veneer, or the sense of calculation, that you might get from a professional company. In their interpretation you could see that this is a dance about expectation, about rarin'-to-go young people on the American frontier, and about those who send them on their way. Isamu Noguchi's wood-frame set, the bones of a farmhouse going up, looked almost cozy on the Conservatory's small stage. All of this gave the dance a homespun, intimate quality, quite unlike the reverently curated diorama that depicts Martha Graham's work in other productions.

the year in review

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Mystery theater. With rave notices from the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff, the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg was poised to set Boston on its ear. In a bold move, Boris Eifman set Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death to the entirety of the Fifth Symphony, but the melodramatic psychodrama turned Pyotr Ilyich into a martyr of homosexual repression (true to neither his life nor his death). And though Red Giselle was billed as a tribute to Soviet ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, it looked more like pure theatrics laced with some confused polemic.

Tchaikovsky redux. One look at our Royal Ballet videotape of Kenneth MacMillan's Winter Dreams and we were dreaming of summer -- but the Boston Ballet staging elevated MacMillan's work to the level of serious art. Title aside, the piece is set not to Tchaikovsky's First Symphony but to a mishmash of that composer's work, and the story it tries to tell is that of Chekhov's Three Sisters -- sort of. But company pianist Freda Locker made minor Tchaikovsky sound like major Schumann, and the dancers followed her cue, phrasing with point, poignancy, and even wit.

Keeping us on our toes. His Jacob's Pillow appearance this summer saw the celebration of his 70th birthday, but Paul Taylor is still misbehavin' -- his blend of syrup and vitriol prevents audiences from becoming too complacent, too familiar. The fiendish Fiends Angelical smacked open with the high-pitched, grating chords of George Crumb's Dark Angels, a sudden flood of harsh light, and a bunch of creatures in flesh-colored leotards banded with multicolored tape and black nappy Afro-wigs with red headbands. We also got a revival of Big Bertha, Taylor's bloodcurdling view of Americana from 1970, plus social-dance pieces that seethed with the sexual anger of the tango (Piazzolla Caldera) and the ironic escapism of wartime lindy and rumba (Company B).

Morris lite. Mark Morris seems to be transcending his star status and settling into institutional security. The program he brought to the Shubert Theatre in October began with a ramble through Chopin piano music and ended in a tribute to English musical comedy. He's one of the few contemporary choreographers who attempt to maintain anything in the repertory that isn't brand new, so this program included the quirky 1983 Deck of Cards, the Schubert-inspired 1992 Bedtime, and the 1998 Dancing Honeymoon, to show tunes associated with Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Even lite, Morris is a gifted choreographer who can capture the feeling of music and who puts rhythm at the center of dancing; and his Dance Group was in fine form.

Any Day Now Photo synthesis. If you'd happened to pass by the Franklin Park Playstead late in the afternoon on a couple of July and August weekends, you would have seen nine people in heavy, old-fashioned clothes setting off across a field in a group. If you'd thought there was something strange about them and had glanced back a second later, the group would have appeared in exactly the same place, the same attitudes of walking, as if they hadn't moved at all. Ann Carlson's provocative performance piece Any Day Now was part of a festive tribute to the Emerald Necklace, Frederick Law Olmsted's grand chain of Boston parks. The piece grew out of an old photograph, circa 1915, of citizens peering into the bear cage that was part of a pocket-sized animal habitat in Franklin Park. Carlson recruited nine local dancers to re-enact the scene, with the costumes and hats, the baby carriage, the postures and moods of the photograph. Over the two-hour course of the piece, they crossed the Playstead field and ascended the road to the now-ruined bear cage, reassembling for the photographic tableau four times on the way. We don't know what Carlson had in mind, but the performance gave us a lot to think about.

The out-of-towners. Susan Rose, who was based in Boston during the '70s and '80s but now lives in Southern California, brought a brief but bracing concert of three dances and two videos to Green Street Studios; Savion Glover's touring show, Footnotes, gave us a history of tap as it stormed through the Shubert for five performances; Beijing Kunju Opera Theater served up the strange and highly rarefied pleasures of Chinese opera at Sanders Theatre; Hubbard Street Dance Chicago brought two Dance Umbrella programs to the Emerson Majestic that were an antidote to the overwrought pyrotechnics of most contemporary dance; and The Breathing Show, also at the Majestic, put on display a solo and unusually mellow Bill T. Jones.

Cross-dressing the barre. The Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo opened their Celebrity Series presentation at the Emerson Majestic with an over-the-top satire of act two of Swan Lake, complete with "unhappy" ending in which Rothbart drags Odette off to his castle and Prince Siegfried faints. We also got Merce Cunningham's Cross Currents, its musicians playing John Cage riffs with an aerosol can, crinkling cellophane, bubble wrap, and assorted barks and meows, and a set of Paquita variations in which ballerina Svetlana Lofatkina had to stop to tie the ribbons on her toe shoes but later redeemed herself by doing about 20 fouettés just off the music, for which she was effusively congratulated by her colleagues. The Trocks have been around for a quarter of a century now, and their revolution has become almost a trend.

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