The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Performances that moved us

1997 in Review

by Jeffrey Gantz and Marcia B. Siegel

Riverdance 1. Celtic champions. Dancing has always been in Ireland's feet, in her blood, in her heart and soul. But it took Bill Whelan to liberate Irish stepdancing from starched dresses and church straitjacketing. The version of Riverdance that reached the Wang Center back in January didn't have His Lordship Michael Flatley (whose own Lord of the Dance spinoff was no match for the original) or the ineffable Jean Butler, but Colin Dunne and Eileen Martin were capable replacements, and the massed dancing was stupendous in its speed and asymmetry (especially when the women appeared in hardshoes, which have always been the special provenance of men). The show will be back in October of 1998; tickets are already on sale, and no it's not to early to order.

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2. Past postmodern. Caitlin Corbett and Peter Schmitz, who shared a concert at Green Street Studios, have a past-modern attitude -- they dared to offer the audience personal insights and maybe even beliefs, without losing postmodernism's project of investigating movement, structure, and performing presence. But whereas Corbett's Chances Are and Green Is Blue are low-key and reflective, Peter Schmitz's Return to Sender -- a solo monologue in which he sat in a chair and talked incessantly, nervously, to an imaginary companion -- is energetic and eager to commit.

3. Peerless Pushkin. John Cranko's 1965 masterpiece Onegin (of which Boston Ballet gave the American premiere, in 1994) has music by Tchaikovsky in a superb cut-and-paste job by Karl-Heinz Stolze and, of course, an immortal story from Aleksandr Pushkin. Two of Boston Ballet's Slavic ballerinas -- Larissa Ponomarenko all sophistication, Natasha Akhmarova all spontaneous emotion -- gave us peerless Tatyanas, and they weren't hurt a bit by their Onegins (Laszlo Berdo and Olivier Wecxsteen, respectively). The explosive ending to act one, with its diagonal split-jeté runs, matched anything on the Wang Center stage all year.

4. Don't forget your spear. One of the special things about Balinese performance is its sociability, and nothing illustrates this better than the kecak offered up by MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika. The chorus sat scrunched up on the floor in concentric circles, like a family of well-behaved monkeys. They not only accompanied the tale from the Ramayana that was enacted in the center, they got enlisted as troops on various sides of the battles that ensued. We in the audience didn't just sit and watch either: we were needed when the monkey chorus couldn't quite defeat the villain by themselves.

5. Crème brûlée, please. Daniel Pelzig's dessert-like Flights & Fancy, a Boston Ballet commission set to Mozart's Symphony No. 29, goes down easy. Maybe too easy, redolent as it is of Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp. Pelzig gives us three couples and a leftover guy to unbalance things. It seemed at first that there's more to Mozart than Pelzig found. But then there's usually more to Mozart than you find the first time through -- and sure enough, Flights & Fancy improved with repeated viewings.

6. Man after midnight. Michael Corder's new version of the Prokofiev ballet took out some of the slapstick (no more stepsisters in drag) and gave us the moon as metaphor, turning into clock when full, then striking midnight. This production was almost too adult; the children in us might have liked to see a little more of Cinderella's transformation -- it is a fairytale. But once again the differing interpretations of Larissa Ponomarenko and Natasha Akhmarova were sublime. Credit outgoing artistic director Bruce Marks for going to London and obtaining this version for Boston Ballet.

7. No limits. The performances that climaxed the International Festival of Wheelchair Dance shattered any limiting ideas about what a wheelchair-bound person can do. Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels offered a work in which women in chairs and men on foot partnered each other, mainly by clasping hands and swinging in circles. Charlene Curtiss and Joanne Petroff of Seattle's Light Motion danced in rhythmic harmony. The male duo DanceAbility (from Eugene, Oregon) used not one but two wheelchairs in an invented language that was both acrobatic and comic. AXIS Dance Company (from Oakland) seemed to follow in the line of community therapy artists like Anna Halprin and Bill T. Jones, who seek catharsis and redemption through disclosure. In the end, it wasn't so much the affirmations of normality that was so seductive about these performances as the celebration of strangeness.

8. Deathless. Another new production for Boston Ballet, this one from resident choreographer Daniel Pelzig, whose version of the Prokofiev classic was more direct, more dramatic, more dangerous than Choo San Goh's. Informed by Renaissance art and dance, it went to the tragic heart of Shakespeare's play while echoing the lurking horror of Prokofiev's music and the no-exit vanishing points of Alan Vaës's set design. We lost Choo San Goh's controversial Fate; Pelzig's Romeo was all about character, more Shakespearean than any other version but without stinting on the dancing. Two splendid couples, Patrick Armand with Pollyana Ribeiro and Laszlo Berdo with Jennifer Gelfand, underlined Pelzig's achievement -- Boston Ballet now has one of the world's best Romeos.

9. Break a leg? The expected Jacob's Pillow revival of Necessary Weather, for Dana Reitz and Sara Rudner in Jennifer Tipton's lighting environment, turned into an impromptu solo when Rudner was unable to perform, and though it was disappointing not to see the original dance, the substitute journey was still magical. Reitz works without music and her dancing has no apparent technical virtuosity, yet she's does things no one else can with timing, continuity, and absolutely articulate control. And as the lights in this piece change, the space acquires mysterious atmospheres whose source you can't find. She keeps exploring the circles that appear on the floor; they keep changing. Finally, she gestures to the audience and walks away into the dark.

Stomp 10. Bang the drum. Stomp is unclassifiable. It takes place on the outskirts -- an auto-repair shop or a junkyard, a holding area for battered but still serviceable stuff discarded by the civilized world. The people who celebrate their tribal festivities in this corrugated shed with hubcaps, trash barrels, tires, and souvenir traffic signs hung on the walls also look well-broken-in but tough and non-biodegradable. The junk and the squalor, in fact, generate constructive rivalry and irresistible, collective rhythms instead of crime. The performers harmonize by shaking tin boxes filled with wooden matches, flipping open cigarette lighters, or squelching plastic bags. But their best efforts go into dueling with garbage-can lids, rapping on dustpans with brushes, and drumming on any kind of flat or cylindrical object. In the process, we too become stompers. We too defy extinction.