The relationship between ballet and modern dance is at best uneasy. You might say they have trust issues. Ballet dancers tend to condescend to modern choreography, polishing the life out of it — as in American Ballet Theatre’s dead-on-arrival performances of Merce Cunningham’s Duets last year. And many modern dancers and choreographers think of ballet as stuffy, empty, mannered. Mark Morris, ever outspoken, has called ballet dancers “dead virgins.” (I should note that the term “modern dance” is a fraught one; for the purpose of discussion, I’m oversimplifying a bit.)
But Pam Tanowitz is a rarity: a modern choreographer who truly loves ballet. So much so that she decided to make a ballet of her own. And what a cast of ballet dancers she assembled for Untitled (The Blue Ballet), which premiered last week at The Kitchen. Sasha Dmochowski, Brian Reeder and Ashley Tuttle are intelligent movers with blue-chip ballet pedigrees — not a dead virgin among them. Then there are Blue Ballet‘s two equally extraordinary modern dancers, Merce Cunningham Dance Company alum Jean Freebury and current Mark Morris Dance Group member John Heginbotham.
A-listers, all. But Tuttle is Tanowitz’s muse. This is The Blue Ballet; Tuttle is the only one costumed in blue. She’s also the only dancer who never leaves the stage. The work reads as Tuttle’s journey, though to what or where remains mysterious.
Blue Ballet is a series of structured experiments asking what ballet is, and when it becomes not ballet. At times it seems like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t.” Tuttle and Reeder, in the work’s central pas de deux, prepare for a big partnered turn that never happens; later, Tuttle does a big, gorgeous développé that at its apex shrugs into something hyperextended and grotesque. At several points, Tanowitz twins a ballet step with an unballetic one — as when Tuttle stretches into an arabesque while Freebury, beside her, holds a side tilt — and the two movements suddenly look very similar. There are nods to the works of Cunningham, Morris and George Balanchine. One section for Reeder and the three women echoes Balanchine’s Apollo — but in Tanowitz’s version it is Terpsichore, Tuttle, who acts as protagonist.
There is wit and ingenuity in these studies, but they are not playful. Tanowitz loosely, skillfully threads them to Morton Feldman’s “String Quartet #1” (performed by the excellent FLUX Quartet on a platform above the stage), and the score’s astringence adds to the sober mood. The dancers, feeling that gravity, turn in on themselves in quiet concentration. And their deep focus unifies them. In Blue Ballet, they are not ballet dancers or Cunningham dancers or Morris dancers; they are Tanowitz dancers.
I appreciate and admire Blue Ballet‘s integrity; I marvel at its logic. But I can’t say I enjoyed it. Its overall temperature is too cool, its atmosphere too airless. Time seems to pass very slowly in Tanowitz’s austere world. We become overly conscious of the weight of her choreography, bearing down on us, smothering us slowly.