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American Dance Fails to Satisfy

By Bence Olveczky

staff writer

American Trilogy

Boston Ballet

Wang Center

Through March 24

Modern ballet, just like jazz, is one of America’s proud cultural achievements. While Europe was pursuing its tired classical choreography, the likes of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey were pushing the envelope, invigorating and transforming ballet into a vibrant and very American art form.

So when Boston Ballet takes on the patriotic task of showcasing American dance in its “American Trilogy” program, you are right to expect a lot, but don’t. Boston Ballet’s evening of Americana is a disappointing mix of the dated and the dull, with the only redeeming feature being choreography by an Englishman.

The Boston Ballet meant American Trilogy to be a “tribute to artistic innovation and virtuosity in American Dance.” It starts with Slaughter on Tenth Avenue by George Balanchine, a Russian choreographer with a French name, who immigrated to America at age thirty. Balanchine was indeed one of the most innovative choreographers of his time, but Slaughter shows little of his real talent. Conceived as an interlude for Richard Rodgers’ 1936 Broadway musical about gangsters and speakeasies, it lacks the sophistication and technical mastery that made Balanchine’s more classical pieces so unique. Featuring strippers, gangsters, and policemen, all mining the stereotypes about 1920s Chicago, Slaughter is more of a theatrical vaudeville than a serious dance piece.

More true to Balanchine than Balanchine’s own Broadway incarnation is Christopher Wheeldon’s Corybantic Ecstasies. This neo-classical work was commissioned by the Boston Ballet four years ago and makes a welcomed reprise in the American Trilogy program, although it is unclear what qualifies it as American. The piece, set to Serenade, a 1954 concert work by Leonard Bernstein, is choreographed by a young Englishman and consists of five vignettes illustrating scenes from ancient Greek mythology.

American or not, Corybantic Ecstasies saves the evening with its lyricism and visually striking images. Particularly poignant is the paean to Eros and Psyche, danced by the company’s principal dancers Adriana Suarez and Simon Ball. The sensual choreography and the dancers’ fluid, precise movements make the duet a heartfelt embodiment of love -- both real and imaginary.

The best thing that can be said about Rodeo, the third and final piece of the evening, is that it is Americana to the core. Choreographed by Agnes de Mille to music by Aaron Copland, it is at best bland, at worst annoying. Rodeo, in de Mille’s own words, is about “a cowgirl who dresses and acts like a man to stay close to the head wrangler on whom she has a crush.” De Mille, famed for her choreography for the musical Oklahoma, was neither a cowgirl nor a poetic mind and her vision of the Wild West doesn’t take this piece very far. ClichÉd and contrived, the dancers try painstakingly to make it all seem lighthearted and comic. However, since the piece lacks any real dance moves they have to resort to acting, and fall plenty short. The whole piece becomes a drawn-out embarrassment, with Pollyana Ribeiro particularly irritating in the role of the cowgirl as she exaggerates her every move.

In the beginning of the season the Boston Ballet featured three foreign choreographers in their program From Distant Shores. Unfortunately the complimentary piece showcasing American dance is much less satisfying.