Beauty in Bad Taste 

Feld Ballets/New York

at the Auditorium Theatre, October 5-8

DanceAfrica/Chicago 1995

at the Medinah Temple, October 6-8

Eliot Feld has such good taste sometimes it makes you want to scream. I think it makes him want to scream too. Fortunately for him and us, a man of his experience--he's choreographed 86 ballets in 28 years and has danced with American Ballet Theatre, with the company of African-American choreographer Donald McKayle, and in the cast of West Side Story, on Broadway and in the movie--can let go whenever he wants.

Whether it's the 1970 Consort or the 1995 Ludwig Gambits, Feld is susceptible to outbreaks of bad taste, despite--or perhaps because of--the impeccably tasteful music he chooses: Renaissance composers in Consort, Beethoven's Fourth Symphony in Ludwig Gambits. Both pieces begin decorously but degenerate into something wild and woolly, freewheeling and often funny. Ludwig Gambits opens with odd, methodical choreography that mirrors the structure of the music, moves on to power walking--a motion so innately ungainly I'm thunderstruck by the grace Feld gives it--and ends with the dancers' bodies spelling out "Beethoven." It's as if a writer had ended a lyrical poem with a groaner pun.

The ending of Consort, a dance for four couples, is even tackier. The piece begins with symmetrical, stately motions, the men bundled into velvet jackets, the women covered right down to the tips of their toes. But gradually the skirts are tucked up, the jackets doffed and shirts unbuttoned, as the men and women become more casual, shall we say. More than a dance about sex, however, Consort is a voyage of musical discovery, as the music becomes increasingly militaristic and powerful and the men are transformed into lusty conquerors, humping the air, then swinging the women, straddled on their hips, backward in great arcs. Rape or ecstasy? More likely ecstasy, given the free-love era in which Consort was made; still, the piece also suggests the chauvinism and taste for world conquest that characterized the Renaissance. At any rate, the music doesn't seem nearly as polite as it did at first.

It's part of Feld's intelligence to make fine distinctions in movement, which require careful attention from the audience. He also repeats himself. I like the repetition within his dances, which emphasizes the cycles in the music and helps reveal the structure of a piece. But seeing two programs of Feld choreography, a total of eight dances, made the overlap between his pieces plain, and this was troubling (not to mention tiresome). Movement similar to what's in Common Ground, shown here two years ago, also appears in Ah Scarlatti, and hopping arabesques, twitching heads, and plies on point are common.

Ion (1990) and Chi (1995) were the two most blatant duplicates. Both are solos performed by Buffy Miller to music by Steve Reich with costumes by Willa Kim that bare the dancer's shoulders and arms and make her legs into little pointy nonentities. There's a reason for that: Feld's choreography in these pieces is primarily for the upper part of the body, and Miller moves her head and magnificent arms with a tensile subtlety, whether in little tics or huge, flowing motions. Nevertheless in both dances she seems inhuman--of course, in one she's a particle of matter and in the other she's the life energy. But in her motions is something horrifying as well as noble, an insectlike automation: the movement of her head in Chi is like a caterpillar spinning its cocoon around itself; and in Ion, when she lies on her back flexing her legs, neck, and arms spasmodically, she's like a praying mantis pouncing. Feld is not only capable of ugly and disturbing images, he seems drawn to them.

Maybe ugliness is in the eye of the beholder--maybe I see such things in Feld's work because I want to. But so much of his choreography is pretty, repetitive, or both that one does notice the kinks, the jangles, the nerve endings. Ah Scarlatti, which by my reckoning is about 35 minutes long, seems to go on forever; but it's also marked by sections as emotionally wrenching as any I've seen from Feld. The duets between Darren Gibson and Patricia Tuthill bring out all the torturous sexual tension in Scarlatti's music (played live on harpsichord by Peter Longiaru), a tension that without such dancing we might never have heard. In these duets Tuthill repeats the large, flowing motions from her solos earlier in the piece but is manipulated through them by Gibson, often kneeling almost invisible behind her: she leans against him while he grasps her thighs, one at a time, from underneath to move them through gigantic ronds de jambe en l'air. Later he clings to her ankles, prostrate, as she pulls him along the floor with her big, elegant steps. Then, in the splits, she almost crushes him beneath her as he rolls under her crotch, moving her along like the figurehead on a ship, her arms raised triumphantly.

Feld's choreography is all the more beautiful when he disrupts its peace and harmony: in our culture, so full of banal ugliness, prettiness isn't enough, but Feld manages to unite the pleasing and the horrifying. He's also taken his vision beyond his own company: among other endeavors, he's operated the New Ballet School, a tuition-free program for children, since 1977. Some 6,000 kids have attended; and a few of them, including Gibson and Tuthill, have gone on to become stars in his troupe. The project received a three-year challenge grant from the NEA that runs out in 1996; given the NEA's probable fate, that money is unlikely to be continued. Too bad--our country could use more artists who rely on tradition but don't languish there.

DanceAfrica isn't a show, it's a cultural celebration, so I guess technically it shouldn't be reviewed. But I have to say that in my opinion this was the best of the five annual DanceAfrica unshows. Though long, it moved quickly; and the ceremony was more visual, less verbal, than in other DanceAfricas. The troupes involved each had something unique to offer. Chicago's Sundance Production, directed by Danny Diallo Hinds, includes a dozen or so lively adults and several incredibly charming children, some of them very little--which made their energy and stage presence all the more astounding. New York's Djoul'e African was founded by a drummer, Gene Osborne Jr., and its strength is its powerful drumming, sometimes on huge instruments unlike any I've seen before. The Ghana Dance Ensemble, represented by its youth division and by artistic director F. Nii-Yartey, offered something no other DanceAfrica troupe has: an opportunity to see what an African group does with African dance. Judging from the selections here, Africans are not reluctant to theatricalize the form, even more than African-American groups; or maybe the Ghana ensemble's approach simply reflects the true spirit of dances performed in the villages. Philadelphia's all-male, crazily energized and acrobatic PureMovement does hip-hop--the most recent of many social dances based on African forms, following in the footsteps of the cakewalk, the black bottom, the lindy.

Part of the ten-day festival this year was a discussion of African and African-American dance by Nii-Yartey, DanceAfrica griot Chuck Davis, and PureMovement's artistic director, Rennie Harris, at the Dance Center of Columbia College. They raised a fascinating but perhaps irreconcilable issue: if the context of traditional forms is lost, through ignorance or innovation, is the essence of the form destroyed too? Nii-Yartey is a keeper of the flame, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the integrity of traditional forms: in Ghana he asks permission to use a particular dance, then shows it to its group of origin after it's been choreographed. Traditional dances are devised for specific purposes for specific groups: men or women or children of certain ages, often in certain occupations. Nii-Yartey believes that some dances are open to innovation while others that are more sacred--the pillars of the culture--should not be. Harris and Davis made the point that for most Americans, including African-Americans, those pillars have no core--that even if the traditional forms themselves remain in some bastardized fashion, the context for them is gone. It can be learned as part of an ethnic group's history, but it can't be regained.

There was agreement on one crucial point, however: that when the body is exhausted, the spirit shows through. This is something I've observed in all varieties of dance, from flamenco to postmodern. DanceAfrica this year had spirit in abundance, and it didn't matter whether it showed through the rigid roles of traditional African dance or the cool, angry attitudes of hip-hop.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.

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