Classically Strained

Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Although in popular accounting just 180 days remain before we enter the 21st century, Euro-American dance--and particularly ballet--remains unshakably obsessed with the 19th.

Not only do classical companies incessantly revive, reconstruct and imitate artifacts of the Romantic era, but such major moderns as Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne and Donald Byrd create high-profile projects based on the stories, scores and dance lore of this very, very bygone epoch.

Unfortunately, as Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella said not long ago, "no fully authenticated point of departure exists" for the 19th century masterworks. There are no universally known or easily accessible choreographic "texts" or notation scores from which artistic directors, dancers and audiences can learn exactly what these works were intended to be. All we know is what we've seen, unlike audiences for the classic spoken drama or grand opera, who come to a performance with a much more comprehensive background in the masterworks being presented.

The rootless empiricism of ballet has spawned the sense that anything goes when it comes to staging "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Giselle" or "Coppelia." And all too often the result is erosion of the choreography, evaporation of its meaning, atrophy of its emotional content.

It gets worse from one generation to the next as more of these ballets deteriorate from misuse. And that explains not only the cycle of increasingly clueless revivals we've been enduring, but also the progressive trivialization of ballet itself into an overdressed, empty-headed show-business subgenre that we might call "cirque du ballet."

The Southland season just past offered a jumble of approaches to restaging 19th century ballet--some apt and even endearing, others wrongheaded and arguably dangerous.

Start with loving parody from the drag ballerinas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a company that subjects the overripe mannerisms, narrative conceits, hothouse glamour and, particularly, gender cliches of 19th century ballet to camp derision.

Then add dogged literalism courtesy of the Royal Swedish Ballet, a company intent on justifying and laboriously explaining nearly everything the Trocks lampoon.

A stultifying obsession with Soviet-era distortions of 19th century style crippled the Russian National Ballet "Swan Lake," while a New York City Ballet telecast on PBS re-conceived the same ballet as four formal, high-speed Tchaikovsky suites held together with a smidgen of plot and even less emotion. Both companies pruned away the richness of their 19th century source and focused on formal abstraction--a relentless display of style over content. If that's your idea of a masterwork, you're welcome to it.

The most troublesome approach arrived in the form of the brain-dead, slavery-is-fun American Ballet Theatre version of "Le Corsaire." Nonstop male virtuosity formed its only plausible raison d'etre, and this approach focused the ballet on exactly what a major segment of the audience craves in the classics: state-of-the-art technical prowess.

For that audience, a 19th century warhorse represents a familiar landscape that nobody has to examine or think about any longer. The story has become a mere shell, summarized in the program booklet and referred to onstage only when absolutely necessary.

What's left, and what matters most here, are the qualities in dancing that can be counted or measured: how many turns or beats, how high a jump or extension, how long a balance. The experience can be hopelessly middlebrow--something like watching competitive ice skating routines--but for an ever-aging, shrinking and conservative segment of the public, it represents the alpha and omega of dance.

Since this public can still fill the most expensive seats of our culture malls, you might write off its obsession as harmless, except that unthinking audiences breed unthinking dancers: Airheads doing air turns, ninnies on pointe.

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It's a familiar picture to dance historians: Ballet as an art form nearly died in Western Europe at the turn of the last century from the cult of personality, an overload of glamour and the degradation of choreography to nothing but a vehicle for personal display. Add mindless lust for the past to this list and you have a fair assessment of the disquieting situation of our own balletic fin de siecle.

Lost in Western Europe back then and in most productions we saw last season: the complex worldview that informs the greatest ballet classics. Prime 19th century ballet was escapist in the deepest sense, embodying in dance metaphor a world of the spirit purer and freer than the real world created by corrupt, decaying monarchies and growing industrial blight. Reflecting the longings or fantasies of the original audiences, the heroes of many 19th century classics flee from a stifling status quo toward this purer, freer world. They often risk everything, make things worse and end suspended between different realities: the primal Romantic dilemma.

This conflict between an oppressive security and a dangerous freedom can still leave audiences devastated. Whatever the short-term commercial advantages of ignoring it, the consequences are deadly: out-of-touch restagings, and an art form irrelevant to a young audience that already gets plenty of ice skating on TV and can't relate to the hollow pretensions of what their elders keep insisting are classics of high culture.

The issue isn't trying to copy exactly what a classic looked like at its premiere--though the Kirov Ballet had a triumph in New York last week by doing that for "The Sleeping Beauty." Even purists acknowledge that certain authentic components of old works often aren't worth keeping (the anti-Semitism in "Le Corsaire," for instance) and that traditions can evolve, with stories and characters becoming enriched or deepened over time through contributions by new dancers and choreographers.

The question is why that happens in the classic spoken drama and opera but less and less on our ballet stages--why it's only modern dance iconoclasts such as Morris, Byrd and Bourne who have rediscovered the life force in 19th century masterworks and created new versions that inspire and attract young audiences?

Perhaps because today's productions of opera and dramatic classics are in the hands of specialist directors, while ballet has been left to dancers who often approach it merely in terms of fattening their roles, pumping up the bravura or sustaining 19th century style.

It's probably no accident that the finest traditional production of a 19th century classic seen locally last season came from the artist with the closest links to that epoch: 77-year-old Alicia Alonso.

Avoiding the dangers of bloodless abstraction or crass hyper-athleticism, her newly revised National Ballet of Cuba "Giselle" attempted to restore or re-imagine some of what's been lost over time in order to create a production that the original audience would recognize, yet a modern one can find persuasive.

The process required extensive knowledge of the ballet's text, sources and production history and led Alonso to reinstate passages usually cut. These restorations allowed the narrative to grow at the pace of the music rather than jump from one plot point or showpiece duet to another. And they betray the secret that Alonso shares with Morris, Byrd and Bourne: believing deeply in the expressive vision of the original.

Every era takes what it needs from a classic. And if Marius Petipa periodically revised and technically upgraded his works, so can we--as long as we're as purposeful and fundamentally serious about the art as all the great choreographers of the 19th century. The danger comes in turning masterworks over to hacks or selling them out to box-office expediency to please people who say they love 19th century ballet but really care only about the four Ts: tights, tutus, toe shoes and technique.

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