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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

‘sans detour,’ ‘Ave Maria,’ ‘Vertical Dream,’ and ‘Noir Blanc’

by S.E. Arnold

July 2003 -- Ted Shawn Theater at Jacob's Pillow, MA

Consistent with the title rather than the inchoate content of 'sans detour,' choreographed by Dominique Dumais, one plunges straight to the critical point—sans detour – which is to say that the works presented by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at Jacob's Pillow are to ballet as red is to green. Moreover, the claim, whether made by those of artistic or critical acumen, that the 'contemporary ballet' performed by the Aspen Santa Fe company points to the future of ballet is to the meaning of word ballet as sand is to Vaseline. In fact, it is the disconnect or the abrasive effect of -- rather than the painless flow between the critical explanation for and the aesthetic experience of -- the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet that prompts one to christen this ad hoc drama of dance and words: 'The Delusion of the Muse.'

Like the characters in 'The Delusion of the Fury,' a No-like drama on the theme of justice and its impossibility, composed by Harry Partch, the participants in the 'Delusion of the Muse' are adept at ventriloquy. As the speakers in this drama throw their voices claiming then to hear the radiant word of the Transcendent Muse so the dancers in like pursuit throw their bodies about the stage. In works such as 'sans detour,' or 'Ave Maria,' choreographed by Dwight Rhoden, or 'Vertical Dream' by Nicolo Fonte, for example, the dancers twist, bend, collapse, scream, claw, crawl, and promenade a la stomach to a dreamlike variety of over-laid noise and music and harsh rectangles of soulless light. This, so the explanatory words for contemporary ballet claim, is serving indeed fulfilling the destiny of Ballet. As a great philosopher once said, "Nonsense."

It is nonsense because if contemporary -- meaning modern as well as concurrent -- is red and ballet is green, it is impossible for something to be at once red and green all over. Moreover, as dance forms one knows 'modern' from 'ballet' in the same way one knows red from green -- by examples. Further, in a neat demonstration of the symbiotic relationship between language and experience, words such as red, green, modern, and ballet are not labels conveniently hung on their objects for an observer to read. Rather the reverse is true. One points to a picture of Doris Humphrey dancing, for example, and says, 'modern,' and then points to a picture of Eva Evdokimova dancing and says, 'ballet.' This exercise demonstrates not that one can read but rather that one can use the words modern and ballet correctly. Yet, there is more. Before one can tell Doris from Eva, however, one must know the grammar -- the rules -- the ethos -- the values of Modern and of Ballet. And those values live in the pedagogic, choreographic, and performance traditions of the dance forms.

In Studio 4 at the Alvin Ailey School in NYC, the Corps de Ballet - a new professional organization formed "to serve and support the community of university and college teachers of ballet" hosted on the first day of their annual conference a panel titled “Ballet Methodologies.”   Collectively, the members of that panel reflected two centuries of continuous ballet practices. For example, Frank Anderson, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, spoke for the Bournonville School, Susan Brooker, a Fellow and Major Examiner of the Cecchetti Faculty of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, spoke for the Cecchetti Method, Eva Evdokimova, Prima Ballerina Assoluta, spoke for the Vaganova technique, and Bart Cooke from the Balanchine Trust and NYCB alumnus spoke for the legacy of Balanchine. In a sense, the techniques, methods, and styles the “Ballet Methodologies” panel represent shape aspects of ballet's tacit governing body. And, as civil governments define 'wetlands' or 'marriage' or 'death,' so the Bournonville, Cecchetti, and Vaganova methods define the steps, their proper performance, and ultimately the values that illustrate the correct use of the word ballet.

On the Great Lawn at Jacob's Pillow, mere hours before the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet opened its week long engagement in the Ted Shawn Theatre, scholar-in-residence, Maura Keefe, hosted a 'Pillow Talks' program titled, “Passing It On: Mentors in Dance.” Although less formal and non-technical, Keefe's discussion with her featured guests, choreographer Robert Battle and Milton Myers, choreographer, renowned teacher, and Director of the Contemporary Traditions program at the School of Jacob's Pillow duplicated the 'lessons' of the “Ballet Methodologies” panel. In fact, the phrase, "the next logical step," which Myers credits to Joyce Tristler as the way she described her development of the Lester Horton Technique, serves as a shorthand description of the 'legislative' efficacy of the 'logical steps' or the methods, techniques, and styles that define Modern Dance. Moreover, what constitutes the 'next' in the development of the 'logical steps' of each method must, one thinks, blend, like the shades of a primary color, with the values embodied in the traditions of those 'logical steps.' In the Contemporary Traditions program at the School at Jacob's Pillow, then, students learn – indeed, wear – the heritage of the art form they wish to serve and how to use the words Modern Dance correctly.

Save for ‘Noir Blanc,’ conceived and directed by Moses Pendleton, which via a clever use of black and white costumes, scrims, projections, and mostly darkness delivered pleasing magical tricks, the other three canvases or pieces on the Aspen Santa Fe program were overwhelming fields of reds (contemporary dance) vaguely broken with tiny regions of the palest of greens (ballet), scattered, flecked, or fogged upon them. While the Aspen Santa Fe company may or may not contribute something to the values of Modern Dance; it neither diminished nor enhanced the values of ballet.

Edited by Jeff.

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