American Ballet Theatre "All American Celebration"
By Laura Molzahn:
Time travel proves perilous in American Ballet Theatre's "All-American Celebration" --- and there's a lot of it on this program. Only Jerome Robbins' 1944 "Fancy Free" is firmly, ecstatically rooted in its own time, while Twyla Tharp in "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" and Paul Taylor in "Company B" keep one foot in their own era and plant the other in the past.
The mix made for a slightly queasy experience on Wednesday, the only showing of ABT's "All-American Celebration" during its Chicago run. This one relatively modern program ushered in seven "Swan Lake" performances over the next four days, through Sunday at the Civic Opera House. Chicagoans last saw Kevin McKenzie's version of the classic in 2004, but there's always room for one more production. Or several.
Fortunately Tharp's 2000 "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" was new to Chicago. Brahms did his own time-traveling in his 1873 "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," which he believed was based on music Haydn had composed nearly 100 years earlier. But in the mid-20th century that provenance was called into question, and Brahms' main theme has never been definitively traced.
The mischief-making Tharp must have been intrigued by this confusion of sources and traditions. Her ballet for 30, especially in its opening, looks classical but adds millennial Tharp-ian touches as it goes on --- some successful and others bizarre. In one clever moment, a man stands behind a woman, both in a wide plie, and they tic their shoulders side to side. Blink and you'll miss it, but it's something like the little dance people do when they come face-to-face and, trying to avoid each other, keep going head-to-head. By contrast, in a repeated singularly schlumpy move, the woman hangs forward at the waist over the man's extended arm. Eventually it occurred to me that this might be Tharp's inversion of the much more graceful act of leaning back over a man's arm.
Love them or hate them, Tharp's perversions of classical technique are what set "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" apart from other, straighter neoclassical works. The dance's grand scale is likewise a two-sided coin. The busy stage can distract from duets by the five principal couples, but it can also suggest a rollicking sea, with dancers lifting off the groupâ??s surface like spume off waves. Among the couples, Gillian Murphy and Jose Manuel Carreno were particularly assured.
Taylor's 1991 "Company B" was not new to Chicagoans; the Paul Taylor Dance Company performed it here in 1993 and 1999. Set to Andrews Sisters songs, this suite of period dances often looks cute and nostalgic; it got plenty of warm chuckles. But it's literally shadowed by images of war: silhouetted men marching, shooting, falling. Sometimes a single fallen figure lies amid dancers jitterbugging, and many of the numbers feature man-hungry women in a world where men are scarce. They've gone to war, or they're dead. Or gay.
Opening and closing "Company B" is the Andrews Sisters' first big hit, "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen" --- a feel-good Yiddish/English love song with a fake German title they recorded in 1937, when Hitler was paving the way for the Third Reich. With the benefit of hindsight, Taylor makes the gaiety of the 40s look naive, even venal.
His sly attack feels a little unfair, especially in contrast with Robbins' wholehearted view of the period in "Fancy Free." Instead of Taylor's lurking soldiers, we get Robbins' sailors throwing themselves into a night on the town. If they refer at all to shipping out, it's to get a leg up on the dames. Leonard Bernstein's score perfectly sets the mood for the antics of Robbins' three sailors as they drink, chase tail, and dance up a storm for the ladies' benefit, then lose them during an all-out brawl. Daniil Simkin, making his Chicago debut and debut as the high-flying first sailor, was light and cheery as fluff from a milkweed pod.
Male-female stereotypes abound in "Fancy Free." True, it was a different culture, but Robbins might also have been working overtime to establish that his characters were "real" men. Gay and closeted himself, he wanted to distance his colorful scene from the notoriously homosexual painting it was based on: Paul Cadmus' "The Fleet's In!" Sixty-five years later, that time's stereotype of real men may be indistinguishable from a gay man's conception of them. They were both constructions.
It doesn't matter. Robbins made them real. They're still real. He painted a heartfelt portrait of his own time; he didn't mine the past in order to undermine it. Why can't we do that now? And why is it so risky for ABT to step outside the classics for more than a single evening?