An Ode to Comedic Dances

Funny dances are few and far between. I was reminded of that when I saw Alexander Ekman’s laugh-out-loud funny Tulle recently at the Joffrey Ballet. He had a horde of tutu-clad women clomping around—I think the floor was miked—so you heard an exaggeration of the thudding sound you usually politely ignore at the ballet. Another time they walked downstage and peered at the audience, then started whistling the Tchaikovsky theme of the swan corps—almost as if they were saying, “I’m looking right at you. Is this what you want from us?”

The Joffrey Ballet in Tulle by Alexander Ekman, photo by Kara Zimmerman.

We tend to get our dance giggles from YouTube these days, but it takes skill and courage to actually build the laughs into the choreography. So it’s worth mentioning some recent and upcoming examples.

Annie-B Parson’s absurdist The Snow Falls in Winter (2008) brought a surprise dose of laughter to the Graham audience, as pointed out by Siobhan Burke in The New York Times. A dancer bends down to press her face to a tabletop and comes up wearing a fake mustache. Another dancer balances a book on her lifted thigh and when it slips off we hear canned applause. But sometimes it was just the witty timing of reaching for, or pulling away from, an object that could make you laugh.

Another recent moment of humor was provided by Matthew Rushing’s Odetta, premiered by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in December. To a charming rendition of “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” recorded by Harry Belafonte and Odetta, two Ailey dancers act out the silliness implied by the lyrics with sassy timing.

Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrel Willis of AAADT in Matthew Rushing's Odetta, photo by Mike Strong.

A streak of humor always lightens a season of Paul Taylor’s work. In the Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance that opens this week, Cloven Kingdom reveals the animal instincts that underlie perfectly civilized people. It makes you guffaw just to realize how Taylor sees human behavior. For more on Paul Taylor’s funnybone, check out Alan Ulrich’s survey of humor in Taylor’s oeuvre.

Robbins' The Concert with Sterling Hyltin, aloft. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Robbins' The Concert with Sterling Hyltin, aloft. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB. - See more at: http://www.dancemagazine.com/reviews/July-2009/New-York-City-Ballet#sthash.tO3rUVSS.dpuf

Robbins' The Concert with Sterling Hyltin, aloft. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB. - See more at: http://www.dancemagazine.com/reviews/July-2009/New-York-City-Ballet#sthash.tO3rUVSS.dpuf

Robbins' The Concert with Sterling Hyltin, aloft. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB. - See more at: http://www.dancemagazine.com/reviews/July-2009/New-York-City-Ballet#sthash.tO3rUVSS.dpufA ballet that never fails to elicit chuckles is Jerome Robbins’ 1956 The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody). It has one seriously whimsical scene after another. New York City Ballet is careful to program it rarely enough that it’s a delight every time. The “Mistake Waltz” can have you howling because we all know what it’s like to make a mistake, and Robbins brilliantly sews gloriously awkward moments into the fabric of the choreography. But, like a lot of expert humor, in the umbrella section, there’s a fine line between humor and sadness. The Concert will be performed by Miami City Ballet later this month and by Pacific Northwest Ballet in the fall.While videos can go viral on YouTube, there’s nothing like seeing live dancers in choreography that makes you laugh. You get to see skill, artistry, and a loony imagination all piled into one ballet.
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