26 March 2007

dance to the music of time

As we get older, most dance becomes a form of nostalgia. Not only are dancers, by the nature of what they do and why they do it, generally young and attractive, with a physical and emotional flexibility long past most of the audience (except the eager students standing in the back), but the stories tend toward first love or beloved nursery tales. Even abstract ballets usually have a subtext of early romance or of primitive emotions we start controlling once we’re out of the nursery. I went to SF Ballet’s Program 5 because of the Mark Morris/Lou Harrison Pacific, but it was the closing SF Ballet premiere performance of Fancy Free that weirded me out and made me wonder about dance and the past and present.

This isn’t a comment on the performance – the boys are charming, the girls are charming, the music is peppy and American in that Bernstein way – but on the fact of the presentation of this work. For one thing, and the Bush administration would like us to forget this except when it’s convenient for them, we’re at war right now. When I think about our fighting men, I’m not thinking of three sailors from the heartland wowed by the big city and hoping to meet a girl. I think about immense damage, both physical and mental, about Pentagon attempts to prohibit any footage of the coffins coming back, and of a peculiar hysteria that claims to support the troops but wants them invisible (as with the memorial crosses put on the Lafayette hillside, which have been attacked as an attack on the troops – I don’t even want to understand the thinking there). I’m sure the Ballet didn’t present this piece as propaganda, but that’s exactly why it seemed so weird to me. Here the fighting men are three nice young guys having a dance off to impress the two girls, and about a block away the Quakers are holding weekly peace vigils while the death tolls mount. The only hint in the program of this irony is the aside that Fancy Free is a period piece. But whose period nostalgia is this? Most of the audience did not participate in World War II, or even Korea, I would guess, based on simple mathematics. This is not a past that most of us had, though perhaps it’s the past most wished they had had, when they imagined that life was young and fresh and you'd dance to get the girl (though, in a further example of how the past is a different country, I thought at first that the girls were hookers – the set designer may want to move that lamp-post). That may actually not be any more of a phantom than my memories of a youth filled with loneliness, isolation, and humiliation. Perhaps my angsty self should be watching anguished modern dances in small, inconvenient venues, but then I really don’t like the audiences there either.

To move backward through the program, we had The Fifth Season to music by Karl Jenkins, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson. I enjoyed the music. I enjoyed the dancing too, but throughout there was an air of the expected about the movements. That was preceded by Carousel (A Dance), which hints at the musical's story in its fairly brief running time. It’s very beautifully done, but I think the real star is Rodger’s music – I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Carousel beloved. (I do absolutely hate “Soliloquy” – I once decided not to buy a Thomas Hampson CD because, according to my calculations, it took up at least one-fifth of the running time – but “If I Loved You” is probably my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song, though to be honest I’m more of a Rodgers and Hart guy.) The aging cherub next to me was not the only audience member humming tunelessly along and patting his plump thigh in approximate time.

The evening opened with Pacific, which is the reason I was there. It’s hard to explain why Morris’s dances look so spring-green to me, even as I get older. It might be because he avoids the usual subjects I mentioned earlier – first love, nursery stories. In her excellent biography of him, Joan Acocella mentions that most of his work, unlike that of most choreographers, is not based on the male/female pas de deux, and her subtle point is that it’s easy to assume this is because Morris is gay, but the deeper reason is that he came to dance through flamenco, which is largely solo, and folk dancing, which is usually in groups. In other words, his wellspring is not ideology but artistic structure and logic. The freshest artists tend to be those obsessed with form.


Civic Center said...

Nicely written review/essay, and your final line is great. I share your pleasure in Mark Morris choreography, and Christopher Wheeldon too, though somehow I've managed to make it through life without ever seeing "Carousel" onstage or on film.

I also like your musings on infantile subject matter for ballets. "Fancy Free," by the way, was always meant as feel-good wartime propaganda like the movies that Hollywood was churning out at the time. What's interesting, as you point out, is that our present moment doesn't seem to have the equivalent (and neither did the Vietnam War). This, I think, is probably a good thing. Also, the hillside of crosses is in Lafayette, not Livermore, unless I've been misreading that awful "SF Chronicle" again.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yipes! Thanks for the correction on the L-town -- I've changed the posting. So now no one will know what you were talking about. . .

It's not just that our era doesn't produce Fancy Free-type feel-good propaganda -- it's that there's no feeling of a war except from those trying to stop it and except when it's convenient for the Bush administration -- there's no rationing, no taxes to pay for the war, no movement to conserve oil and reduce our dependence on countries we might want to invade -- so it was strange to be confronted with a piece of very recent propaganda from a time when a war (not pre-emptively started by US)really was the center of everyone's thoughts. It's as if the Quaker vigils which you write about so well are there to remind people that the war exists.
I've only recently seen the film of Carousel for the first time (as I said, I'm more of a Rodgers and Hart guy), and I understand the musical on stage is quite different, but I don't know exactly how. It's a strange piece, combining sentimental uplift with very dark currents. And "June is bustin' out all over" is a weird, weird song, in that 1950s innocent-but-totally-sexual way. I did also recently see the film of the play it's based on, Liliom, which is directed by Fritz Lang of all unlikely types. Though I guess he too combines the idealistic with the dark.