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Early last month at the Marymount Manhattan Theater, Sally Hess, a dancer I admire, performed Garden Lilacs, a modest though sharply focused solo by Remy Charlip. I'd seen her in the piece before, but not on a proper stage, and I was enchanted by how different the dance looked. The first part of Garden Lilacs is performed in silence; suddenly, a soprano voice, rather smothering and a degree sour, sings, "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again." Just then, Charlip throws in one of his fairy-tale surprises: a sprig of white lilac pops from the tips of the soloist's naked fingers and, invisibly secured, remains there, reverberating to her gestures. The sprig serves, for all intents and purposes, as her partner, and its appearance is the one dramatic even in this lyrical little dance. At Marymount, I looked forward to the moment so keenly that I came to notice subtleties in the silent part: a section of long ripples in the diaphragm as the dancer stood in a slight plie, a tingling cadenza for several fingers elevated overhead. In many various rhythms, the dance rehearsed for the appearance of the lilacs. When the flowers finally arrived, fully formed, on one explosive count, the moment seemed to fix its fugitive antecedents. A spare image, but it evoked a whole bouquet of feelings--glee, wistfulness, even a twist of regret. At the art of making mountains from molehills, Charlip is a master.

No matter how powerful or evocative a dance image may be on its own, its impact on an audience depends on rhythmic context--on how it fits into a pattern of motion and rest. Without a firm control over the way secondary images are measured off, even the most talented choreographer can end up merely marking time between dramatic peaks. Two recent works that fall short in this respect are Peter Martin's new trio, Poulenc sonata, at the New York City Ballet, and Gail Conrad's recent piece Beyond the Bases ("A baseball fantasy in four parts"), presented as part of her Tap Dance Theater's January program at Marymount Manhattan.

Poulenc has been applauded as Martin's breakthrough, his best piece since his very first, Calcium Light Night, of 1977; but seen together on the same program, the two works don't compare so well. Calcium takes fewer dance ideas and explores them with more certainly and detachment. It uses repetition for patterning and, as Balanchine and Petipa often use it, for legibility. (To underline a particular step or look, those choreographers repeat it several times at equal intervals from slightly different points of view, as a key phrase might be repeated with variations in oral poetry). Poulenc includes a number of startling moments, but they aren't fitted clearly into the general flow. Perhaps the vague momentum and anxious timing owe something to the piece's frankly dramatic agenda. Kyra Nichols, who plays a figure troubled by conflicting internal forces, meets those forces embodied in two men, a solicitous and potentially overpowering partner (Alexandre Proia) and an independent mirror image of herself (Christopher d'Amboise). Although it's good to see Martins expand his complicated imaginative world, the dancing seems subservient to the ideas about the characters. There are too many passages in this ballet, as there are in A Schubertiad, that look as if Martins began with a climactic gesture and jury-rigged the transition to fit instead of discovering the drama in the course of measuring out the steps.

Poulenc is set to a prickly sonata for two pianos which turns a little ingratiating for my taste but which does offer firm rhythmic support. Although Martins is obedient to the meter of the score, he keeps pointing away from the spirit of it, so that we don't get to know the music from the inside; it remains a butler to the choreography. This is partly because of the dance's reticence at asserting a distinct rhythm that could meet that of the music as an equal. Martins is a brilliant analyst of dancers, and the roles he has given his cast are, as usual, extremely flattering to their technical strengths. But the more flattering he is, the further he gets from the unique orneriness and measure that gave him his early promise.

Gail Conrad's Beyond the Bases also has a narrative agenda: three men (Dennis Gingery, David Parker, Tony Scopino) relive their youth in a game of sandlot baseball by day, while by night three "baseball shadows" (Heather Cornell, Diane Kay Johnson, Kathryn Tufano) strut through center field. The situation is static because the men and the shadows never interact in a way that changes them, though they could have enjoyed all kinds of confrontation through tapping. Conrad herself has taught us that two dancers can be connected in unexpected ways through rhythmic dialogue conducted from opposing stage corners. In Red Skies, a new storyless piece for herself and most of her company, individuals are linked through counterpoint and long rests; in the 1983 Waterfront, another group piece, the shapes adopted and mirrored by various dancers are played against their different personalities as expressed in sound.

Conrad is fond of splintered allusions and enigmatic endings, which give her work its uncompromisingly ironic tone. Beyond the Bases, which seems to be groping for some sort of heartfelt expression, is stifled, perhaps, by that irony. I also wish that Conrad, so intellectual in her imagery, was more discriminating in her repertory of sounds. Everything is delivered in a hammering monotone, and after a time the din can be hard to take. Last spring Peggy Spina, another New York City tap dancer, gave a concert at Marymount in which the rhythms and sound colors were almost as various as those of a human voice. There were moments in Conrad's performance when I longed for that finesse.

There is no better sampler of supreme rhythmic mastery in choreography than the 101 ways Balanchine treats the polonaise. In February, one could catch his dense and highly sprung academic version of the dance at the end of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, and his airy, hide-and-seek games with scale in the children's polonaise of Harlequinade. Set in triple time, the polonaise is really a processional, a walk for the purpose of display, and in its original ballroom form it already incorporated the many elements of design and suspense that Balanchine's genius exploited. In January, the wonderful Mazowsze Polish folk dance company performed a basic polonaise as part of its Carnegie Hall program, and its pure, clear-cut rendition was as refreshing as a glass of spring water. In fact, these handsome people--dressed in the finest and most flattering costumes one is likely to find in any folk dance company--were remarkable in everything they did. The dances were attractively arranged and studded with small charms, and the dancers had been encouraged to perform them with strength and grace. The Mazowsze was founded in 1948 by Tadeusz Sygietynski, a composer and Polish folklorist, and his wife, actress and designer Mira Ziminska. Their work is a testament to accuracy and taste.
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Title Annotation:critique of various ballets
Author:Aloff, Mindy
Publication:The Nation
Date:Mar 9, 1985
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