New York Theatre Ballet

March 19, 1998

New York Theatre Ballet

Sylvia & Danny Kaye Playhouse
New York City, New York

March 19-21, 1998

Reviewed by Robert Greskovic

Longevity and ambition understandably bring notice and recognition to an arts organization. So, as New York Theatre Ballet, formerly known as Balletfore, celebrated a twentieth anniversary, suitable congratulations were in order. To mark the anniversary, artistic director Diana Byer launched a national competition for new choreography, cosponsored by Columbia Artists Management and Community Concerts, to pay tribute to American music greats George and Ira Gershwin. Four winners were selected from a field of eighty-five entries. NYTB stood to gain further commendation, at least on paper.

My “on paper” qualifier leads me to add, I regret to report, that onstage–ultimately the only place that really matters for such things–the plaudits mostly ceased. With winning entries like A Secret Somewhere, Nicolo Fonte’s grim and shapeless patch on the so-called art of William Forsythe, ill danced to an awfully played transcription of a portion of a Gershwin concerto, I shudder to think what the losers looked like. Similar reservations came to mind while sitting through Inside Heat, Lou Fancher’s stupefying array of amateurishly acted and awkwardly danced vignettes, miscellaneously motivated by elements in a marvelous painting by Florine Stettheimer, reproduced here in the backdrop.

He Loves/She Loves: A Radio Reverie, choreographed by Martha Connerton, was the program’s most ambitious offering. Though it proved almost doggedly unmusical, hitting some of the tone of the Gershwin song lyrics but missing most of the mood set by Ella Fitzgerald’s singing, it aimed, at least, to be entertaining. Its conceit is of a tired housewife dreaming away, through pantomime, her dreary life by conjuring fantasies of Gershwin songs, which are embodied by pantomime-tinged dancing. The mix proved better in theory than execution. Too often the dreamer’s presence deflected attention from the dancers, but the dances themselves contained felicitous physical invention and a theatrical life that was sorely absent from the Fancher and Fonte works.

Fortunately, James Sutton’s Circus of Dreams turned out to have most of the values and craft missing in the evening’s other offerings. This distinction was evident despite the ironic fact that the ballet’s touches of Tudor and modern dance made it seem downright old-fashioned next to the self-conscious trendiness elsewhere on the bill. Structured as a kind of reminiscence by a young man (Terence Duncan), the choreography is set to an original score by Mihoko Suzuki, which though crudely played and sounding like a Charles Ives and/or Aaron Copland pastiche of Gershwin (or the other way around), still had some legitimate theatrical life to it.

You couldn’t tell from Sutton’s savvy presentation how weak and primitive NYTB pointe work tends to be, or how few academic niceties mark the work of its male dancers. Although program notes identify family relationships, I thought of other, more fantastic elements watching this down-home world set with three diorama (or puppet) booths delineating aspects of nature (his parents), industry (his brother), and mystery (a woman). Handsomely designed by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith and costumed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, Sutton’s Circus was confidently paced and focused. Each of its dancers was shown to good advantage, which is what any ballet worth its audience’s attention must finally accomplish.