Elvis Costello and Ballet: WTF?!

By Tom Christie

Miami City Ballet, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Oct. 24-26

You don't have to know a lot about dance to know when you're in the presence of dance genius. It took all of one second after the curtain rose last Friday night on the Miami City Ballet's performance of George Balanchine™'s Symphony in Three Movements: A chorus line of young, pony-tailed women in white leotards, one arm aloft against a sky-blue scrim, each raised hand delicately falling. The image seemed of its time and place – New York and all that signifies (the theater and all that jazz) in 1972 and perhaps earlier, with Balanchine reflecting on his 40-some years there. Likewise the movement that followed: casual but sassy, energetic and buoyant; almost cute -- no, definitely cute, as if these young women (and men) were padding (quickly!) around their Manhattan apartments barefoot. Life here and now, it seemed to say.

I was reminded of George Gershwin, and the American (or, more to the point, the America) in him, in his work. One doesn't necessarily think of Balanchine and the lighter side of dance but in fact he had an extensive show-biz resume, having choreographed "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936" on Broadway and worked on four films, including Goldwyn Follies with Gershwin, during which the composer died. (Balanchine would later create a ballet, Who Cares?, to several Gershwin songs.) Given the opportunities to return to ballet, of course, Balanchine did, but he did so with those American pop influences – he greatly admired Fred Astaire, for instance -- in tow.

Written to Stravinsky’s piece of the same name (which was made up of three separate pieces written for, but unused by, the movies), Symphony is as much a complex orchestration as is the score. If, as has been said, Balanchine revolutionized ballet by knocking the ballerina off her throne and replacing her with choreography, you see it here: all 32 dancers moving all the time. (They’ve left their apartments, perhaps, for the streets of Manhattan.) Out of this teeming mass comes Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg, a potent wonder in pink. Other highlights followed on Friday night, with soloists Patricia Delgado and Alex Wong, and a lot more tight ensemble work. MCB director Edward Villella was in the original cast of Symphony, and he has imbued his corps with insight, comfort and an infectious joie de Balanchine.

Following the crowded urban Symphony was another Balanchine piece, the folky pas de deux, Tarantella, danced with muscular verve by Jeanette Delgado and Renato Penteado. It was a charming six minutes, undercut only by the dancers’ big, frozen smiles, and their slightly kooky costumes. This is an Italian folk dance, after all, not the talent section of an America beauty pageant. Still, Miami City Ballet’s sampling of Balanchine makes you want to see all of Balanchine.

Can’t say the same for Christopher Wheeldon, at least based on his Liturgy, a cornographic spoonfest writhed prettily by MCB’s Haiyan Wu and Carlos Quenedit. This piece received the loudest applause of the evening from the crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which just goes to show – what, I’m not sure. Liturgy is written for Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, which was beautiful even in the L.A. Opera Orchestra’s less-than-convincing performance. But Wheeldon’s piece seems more aptly combined with the music of, say, Kenny G. That virtuosic noodler gets loud applause, too.

If after Wheeldon one was feeling that an intermission exit might have been the best strategy, the final performance was distressing confirmation. A major commission by the MCB, Twyla Tharp’s Nightspot, with original music by Elvis Costello and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, is a major dud. At the pre-performance talk, Villella foreshadowed the evening’s ultimate doom by noting that Nightspot “is not something New York critics want to see.” He added that even ballet is a business, and this piece, based on the Miami nightclub scene, was meant to bring in new audiences – that is, non-ballet people. In other words, this piece sucks – get ready for it!

But even when ready for it, Nightspot is disappointing. Hot women (including Kronenberg, less delightful) and hot-tempered men (who always seem frighteningly ready to Samba) meet and greet, hook-up and get jealous. The men, one even down to his underwear, actually fight. Call it “Southside Story.” There are, here and there, a few moments of lyrical beauty, when Tharp seems to forget her assignment, but Nightspot is nevertheless one giant piece of hot-peppered cheese.

It is for one thing far too long. You can almost hear Tharp saying to herself, “Gosh, they paid me a lot of money, so I’d better keep it going regardless of logic or inspiration!” In an interminable middle, she brings on a very large piece of ribbon attached to one female dancer and trailed after by several men, all of whom, er, get wrapped up in its swirling embrace. (A Christo love fantasy?) Perhaps I’m missing some essential Tharpism, but this ribbon thing just smacked of her having no actual thematic ideas; it is, literally, an extension.

As for the music, it would be best to say nothing at all. Costello is, as we all know, a wonderful writer of short stories – sung stories – but a novelist, a composer, he is clearly not. None of his spark is heard here, none of his incisive wit and intelligence. Despite its upbeat intent, his Nightspot is a dull Latinesque dirge, a failed attempt to do for Miami what Tom Waits did for Hamburg in Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider.

When the curtain came down on Nightspot, several people in the front rows immediately stood. As the curtain rose again, it caught them in what might have appeared to the dancers to be a standing ovation, but in fact these people were already heading for the exits. No offense meant, I think, to the adept and often exciting Miami City Ballet corps, but a message to Mr. Villella, perhaps, from New York critics and L.A. fans alike: More Balanchine, please; less cheese.

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