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.
Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.
But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.