Comedy Central

June 21, 2007

Humor in dance



Everything is beautiful at the ballet, A Chorus Line tells us—but we knew that already. The fairest girl with the best technique lands the handsome prince, or winds up as the soloist in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” But some of us are not the fairest. We started training too late, or we’re too tall, too stiff, or too clumsy. In ballet terms, we’re losers.


So when New York choreographer David Parker offered up his “‘Waltz of the Flowers’ for people who hate nature,” a high point of his 2004 NutCracked, we dance dorks were delighted. This version features an allergic girl who’s always sneezing and whose condition completely disrupts the perfect patterns we expect. We breathed, through our own Kleenex, a sigh of relief.


Coming up with funny choreography is hard. It has everything to do with timing and control. Certain movements and situations are by their very nature funny, like big men pretending to be ballerinas. (As critic Arlene Croce once put it, a heavy thing trying to become light is automatically funnier than a light thing trying to be heavy.) Bending is funnier than breaking. Witness the wonderful physical comedy of Bill Irwin. He transforms himself from an ordinary-sized person into a dwarf in two seconds flat, and squeezes himself into a trunk.


Living humans pretending to be anything else—animals, stone statues, vegetables, washing machines—are likely to get laughs. “The laughable consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity,” observed French philosopher Henri Bergson, “just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability of a human being.”


David Parker, whose Bang Group performs all kinds of heavily rhythmical and usually very funny dances, set out to be a serious choreographer. His models were Balanchine and Merce Cunningham. But his basic training was in tap dance, and he developed his eyes and ears watching movie musicals on television after school.


“I’m interested in rhythm—physical and psychological rhythms. You have to be a good actor to be funny,” says Parker, who chooses dancers who absolutely convince him. “They have to have a great sense of rhythm, good ballet technique—and they have to like the process—a lot of structural problem-solving with lots of detail.” His work, he says, “is much more like a dialogue with the audience than in a ‘formal’ dance.” He found The Nutcracker easy to transform because “it’s always a bit of a vaudeville.” In his 65-minute version, “each number is a gift that allows the dancers to transform themselves in some way. For me, it was never a parody. I love The Nutcracker.”


Parker’s NutCracked incorporates funny bits from his repertoire, including dancers stomping on bubble wrap and two men sucking each other’s thumbs. “I wanted to prick the misconception that experimental dance must be nihilistic or grim or humorless,” he says. “I put vigorous thumb-sucking together with Tchaikovsky. We are erotic and emotional animals, and when we react most fully to people, we react erotically and emotionally. The infantile urge to suck was the most direct evocation of joy I could come up with. Sharing the activity with someone who is crawling all over you is even better. And doing it to Tchaikovsky makes it splendid.”


Comic choreography takes many forms. There are parodies of great ballets danced by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s all-male casts in size 12 pointe shoes—consummate dancers, and absolutely serious about their characterizations. There’s Frederick Ashton’s marvelous version of La Fille Mal Gardée, in which life-size chickens cavort in the yard and a cheerful, plucky heroine makes gentle fun of a very dorky suitor.


Comedy encompasses the dolls in Coppélia and the mechanical creatures in the work of Alwin Nikolais (who are funny not because they are dolls and robots, but because they are humans pretending to be dolls and robots), and the joyful physical jokes of Paul Taylor (in whose Cloven Kingdom men in full formal dress behave like monkeys). It includes the “rude mechanical” Bottom, turned into a donkey and courted by a fairy queen in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Similar manifestations of class conflict surface in Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, made in 2003 for the New York City Ballet. A foundling ballerina with good genes triumphs over the awkward daughter of the poor family who raised her. Any dance in which identical forms are multiplied (as in the dozens of brides who chase the Buster Keaton character in the second half of Double Feature) is likely to be funny. Witness the chorus of cops moving in perfect unison in Daryl Gray’s recent production of Pirates of Penzance at Ballet San Jose.


Mainly, and perhaps most successfully, comedy is what happens when human beings come to resemble mechanical things. Alain, the dopey suitor in Fille, is obsessed with his umbrella, while successful boyfriend Colas wins the day by attending to heroine Lise. Swanilda’s boyfriend falling for a doll is funny. Swanilda is upset until she does the detective work and realizes his mistake. Sublime physical comedian Charlie Chaplin often pitted himself against real machines. His struggles with them are quintessential modern silent comedy.


Humor is often culturally specific, but a good comic dance transcends cultural boundaries. Los Angeles-based choreographer Cheng-Chieh Yu made, for her Yu Dance Theater, a work called Bowl Problems, in which four women begin by standing on pedestals. They perform traditional Chinese dance routines like spinning plates, balancing bowls, and doing complex gymnastics and contortions, while traditional Chinese music—high-pitched percussion and winds—plays in the background. The percussion beats faster and faster (obviously the women have excellent chops). Then things start to go awry. The dancers get tired. They fall down. They drop the bowls and plates. The pedestals fall on top of them. We realize that the Chinese bells are playing the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” The dancers simultaneously perform and mock their cultural rituals, celebrating and ridiculing their traditions. A classic contortion routine, in which a woman on her stomach sets her feet on her own shoulders, becomes funny when it’s “faked” by two women. Efforts to remove and insert bowls from a cabinet using only one’s toes win outsize guffaws when an extra set of toes helps out. These stunts translate beautifully for theaters full of non-Chinese spectators.


The transition from tragedy to comedy, Bergson observes, “is effected simply by sitting down.” This is one of the secrets behind Jerome Robbins’ classic comic romp, The Concert, in which we observe the inner lives of a number of characters listening to a classical piano recital. William Whitener, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, who helped Robbins retrieve many of the dances for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway during 1988–89, has made a project of reviving great comic ballets. He imported The Concert, set on the troupe by NYCB veteran Bart Cook, assisted by Todd Bolender, the original Husband in the 1951 version.


“The time is ripe for the return of the comic ballet,” Whitener says. “People want to laugh in the theater. It’s one of the reasons we go. It’s a great release.” This May KCB will mount six comic solos, including one of Claire Porter’s dance monologues. Porter, a former math teacher, has turned lecturing into a comic art form by carefully observing and exaggerating the mannerisms of desk-bound women educators, from administers to curators. Hers is one in a long line of comic works Whitener has brought into the KCB repertoire, such as de Mille’s Rodeo and Debut at the Opera, Tudor’s Gala Performance, Ruth Page’s Frankie and Johnnie, and Balanchine’s Renard. “How else will the audience be able to contextualize new work if they don’t see the classics from the past?” asks Whitener. “Very few comic works are being submitted to me on video.”


“Comedy is mostly rhythm,” he observes. “It’s knowing when to stand still, when to pass the baton to the other performers. It’s like a science—and not without a certain amount of pain—to arrive at the comic moment and then be able to repeat it. Men, women, and children find different things funny,” he observes. “But a children’s theater director who attended The Concert in Kansas City told me that during the performance the laughter was cross-generational, simultaneous in children and the elderly. Children are the toughest of all. He thought it signified great success, to be able to achieve that.”


“Comedy is the most difficult thing to do,” says Bolender. “It takes a kind of Broadway knowledge to make it work, a very shrewd, clever use of timing. All dance is about timing, finally, but the sharp timing of Broadway movement is on a totally different beat. Really good humor is forever.”



Elizabeth Zimmer, the dance editor at
The Village Voice, has performed standup comedy and, alas, always looks funny when she dances.