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Dance: Nostalgia for Dance Past

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES March/ April 2012

Male dancers from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess photo by Michael J Lutch
Male dancers from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
photo by Michael J Lutch

What firebrand teenager suspects he will mature into a staid reactionary? What creative young woman can conceive herself a staunch member of “the old school?” Yet, that is generally what happens as one ages.

I remember as a young woman wondering why people wanted chairs too fragile to sit on in their homes just because they were priceless heirlooms. I felt chairs were for sitting on, not admiring. Now my home is decorated with many old heavily carved wooden tables, chairs, desks and armoires. None are purely for ornamentation, all are usable and used. Still young people come in and think they are in a time warp as they view a loft decorated with Victoriana. Imagine, furniture that survived well over a hundred years and still functions perfectly. I would now even argue for the preservation of old buildings so that we do not forget, “The good old days” when things were built to last.

It is even worse with dance. In terms of ballet, I come from the age of Alexandra Danilova, Moirer Shearer, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, Nora Kaye and Frederick Franklin, Robert Helpmann, Andre Eglevsky, Erik Bruhn, John Kryza, Arthur Mitchell. I later welcomed Nureyev and Baryshnikov as two great male dancers.

I relished the story ballets, having particularly adored Nora Kaye in Fall River Legend. But I have also enjoyed dance created just for the joy of movement and for the spectacle of surprise.

Many dance programs today seem designed more to show the athleticism of dancers than their fluidity and grace. Many of these companies I admire, Pilobolus being one, but often I miss the sheer beauty of the lovely old choreography.

Still I smile and take pleasure in the work of troupes such as Parsons Dance Company – wishing I could block out the music to which they dance. To my ancient ears it is disturbing, teeth on edge annoying sound.

I mention Parsons Dance for two reasons: I recently saw their program at the Joyce and because they seem to be cropping up everywhere.

“A Stray’s Lullaby” Dancers: Christina Ilisije, Elena D’Amario, Jason Macdonald Photo by Krista Bonura
“A Stray’s Lullaby” Dancers: Christina Ilisije, Elena D’Amario, Jason Macdonald Photo by Krista Bonura

They present Twist, Wednesday, February 29 afternoon at The Rink at Rockefeller Center – it’s in the future as I write and the past as you read this. They began a new education and outreach initiative in partnership with Broadway Dance Center, 221 West 57th St #5, New York, NY on January 3, 2012 with Parsons Dance classes being offered at Broadway Dance Center on a regular weekly basis with open-enrollment.

As mentioned above, their music turned me off, but their dancing while athletic was yet fluid, and presented some fascinating patterns making great use of the wonderful Joyce Theatre stage. They work magnificently as an ensemble. Still for me, the highlight was a bit of trickery – a play of light and freeze movement called Caught. Timing had to be perfect and the dancer who performed it and lighting engineer certainly were! Parsons program ran a wide gamut and each piece was well worth watching, though several made me wish for earplugs.

I have watched Broadway musicals mature from inane comedies with a fragile story line on which to hang the soaring musical numbers to serious thought-provoking musicals such as Evita, Merrily We Roll Along, on which I worked and Sweeney Todd in which a friend appeared.

Coming from the movie era of suave Fred Astaire seemingly dancing on the ceiling and irrepressible Gene Kelly dancing in the rain, I remember practically leaping from my seat when I watched the “Too Darned Hot” number in the original Kiss Me Kate, where a dancer danced up the wall. I still see Gregory Hines in Eubie, dancing with every scintilla of his being.

Somewhere along the line however, many musicals, once called song and dance shows, lost a key element – as the book got more important – the eleven o’clock number faded. Dance became more and more curtailed. Scenery and special effects replaced the splendor of the big dance ensemble.

While I am far from immune to special effects — such as the last airlift out of Saigon, or Jonathon Price making love to an automobile, both in Miss Saigon, or the utter spectacle of The Lion King, I lament the loss of the ever building, ever more exciting dance number.

Ian Spring and Melissa Ullom dancing Parsons;  “Round My World” Photo by Krista Bonura
Ian Spring and Melissa Ullom dancing Parsons;
“Round My World” Photo by Krista Bonura

Some musicals still feature this – Mary Poppins doesn’t merely fly its leading lady, its musical numbers fly as well! They are spirit-lifting, leg thumping heart poundingly exciting to watch.

Another loss in many new musicals is the overture, played by a large orchestra. Overtures set the mood for the play to follow and familiarized the ear to the melodies to come. The occasional new musical, which uses an overture immediately, catches my fancy.

When I saw Billy Elliot a few years back I was enthralled. Here was a musical that combined all the best of what is new and all the glory of what was exciting about old musicals. No wonder I call it the best musical of this new century.

I always avoided revivals because my memory of the glory of the originals was too vivid and I did not want it destroyed by what might prove a lesser version of the work.

But I went to see The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess – which was getting raves – and which began with an overture. Yet as I watched, I wondered – where is the soaring moment? Where is the all stops let loose dance number?

Yes. The voices are magnificent, the staging more than satisfying, costume mostly appropriate and the lighting very mood creating though sometimes a bit too dim – but the dance – the dance never hit its peak, never soared, never brought me to a moment of exaltation. I had the sensation some film editor cropped out the best part of the dance number and left it on the cutting room floor

Since I write about dance — and was always a dance aficionado, I left the theater disappointed. It got what has become the usual standing ovation, and the singing deserved it – particularly the opening rendition of “Summertime” by Nikki Renée Daniels whose voice was so clear and sweet it pulled at my heartstrings, and all of Audra McDonald’s songs. For a dance critic, however, it was less than satisfying.

There are many dance companies, which are modern and yet honor the old dance traditions as well – such as the Amy Marshall Dancers and Avi Scher whose works always delight.

As they say in the film The Artist, “Make room for the young.” I make room and allowances but I am nostalgic for a time when dance was beautiful and story ballets thrilled; when producers and directors of musicals knew that the universal language of dance could speak to the soul of the audience as strongly as any lyrics can. Welcome progress, the silver; retain the beauty of the past, the gold.

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