Dance Review: ‘Dark Elegies,’ by New York Theater Ballet

March 26th, 2013

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

New York Theater Ballet Marius Arhire and other members of this company in Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” a 1937 work of psychological modernism, performed at Florence Gould Hall on Friday.

We see Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies” (1937) too seldom. There are many who consider it one of the foremost dance masterpieces of the last century; for a few it’s the greatest. Though I’m not among its ardent admirers, I certainly think it’s an important, compelling and finely made piece — well worth seeing and arguing about.

American Ballet Theater, with which Tudor had a long association, used to revive it more often than that company does today. During the 2008 Tudor centenary the only revival I saw was danced by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Congratulations, therefore, to New York Theater Ballet for performing “Dark Elegies” during a program last weekend at Florence Gould Hall.

“Dark Elegies” depicts a community of adults — four men, eight women — who have lost their children. It’s set to Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder”: songs on the deaths of children. Austerely the dancers show us aspects of parental desolation: a cradling gesture is dropped as if redundant, dancers walk or run with arms held stiff. They aren’t aristocrats; behavior and costumes suggest they’re workers in a village. Their blocked body language makes them spiritual relatives of the Russian peasants in Bronislava Nijinska’s “Noces” (1923), in which, with both pathos and machinelike power, a village’s populace propels two people into marriage — and in which nobody seems free.

Though the dance to Mahler’s final song suggests that these people have moved through the worst stage of mourning into some kind of acceptance, the tone remains tragic. The original designs by Nadia Benois, which I have seen in a number of productions, included a change of scenery and suggested a new day.

New York Theater Ballet, however, dances “Dark Elegies” without scenery — and to taped music. (Usually the baritone performing the songs is onstage, dressed the same way as the male dancers.) Though this is a loss, and though the company’s dancers are on the young and polite side, the ballet still makes a complex impact. With mature performers, the work’s suffering can become ritualized; these innocent performers seem touchingly to be discovering their own emotion.

“Dark Elegies” remains one of the most remarkable achievements of psychological modernism in ballet choreography. The sculptural severity of limbs and torso is such that many features of line become bleakly expressive. When a woman steps onto point, the straightness of her leg feels like a stake driven into the ground; and when her foot then comes off point it has the quality of something crumbling.

An arresting factor is Tudor’s musicality. You see how dancers strike staccato gestures, where a beat is only implicit in the music; this has a heightened force of protest. Occasional details of heel-and-toe footwork register strongly beside gentle quavers and semiquavers in the score. I must say, though, that the musicality of “Dark Elegies” feels subtly different with each of the five companies I have seen perform it; certainly it has sometimes felt more artificial than in this staging. Though I would like these dancers to have more weight and intensity, they make the piece live from within.

The program, which I watched on Saturday, included two modern ballets. Gemma Bond’s “Silent Titles,” a world premiere, is a study in the heightened theatricality of silent movies as danced to live piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The eyes and lips of the four men and three women are heightened by makeup; dressed in black-and-white costumes, their manner indicates intense awareness of the audience. The piece is an amiable series of very slight sketches.

Much more substantial is Richard Alston’s “Rugged Flourish,” danced by one man and six women to Aaron Copland’s 1930 Piano Variations. It’s not a wonderful piece: its rather schematic musicality lacks the exciting momentum and play of Mr. Alston’s finest work. But its pure-danced choreography admirably shows off the appealing dance gifts of young Steven Melendez, and displays much of what the company’s young women are capable of.

The program’s two other solos, James Waring’s “Feathers” (1973) and “Eccentric Beauty Revisited” (1972), could easily have seemed minor exercises in quirkiness. Few works by Waring (1922-75), a leading figure in the New York experimental dance scene of the 1950s and ’60s, are ever seen today; my only prior experience was 25 years ago.

But Saturday’s audience played keen attention to them because its appetite had been whetted by a charmingly informative conversation about Waring between his colleagues Valda Setterfield (who wore a long jacket that Waring had made for her, a gorgeous coat of many colors) and David Vaughan. Mr. Melendez danced “Feathers,” a study of the transvestite American acrobat Barbette, to excerpts from Mozart chamber music. Mayu Oguri — wearing spectacular attire and a masked headdress designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan along the lines of exotic Asian-fantastic costumes made by Leon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky, and moving to Erik Satie’s “Belle Excentrique” — conjured up entrancingly bizarre features of vaudeville artists in part-ballet style.

Though neither solo establishes Waring as an important dance maker, both make his oddities vividly interesting. Each is a period evocation, a study of a bygone performance style, full of peculiar details of very precise flamboyance. And these performances on Saturday must have made many feel that they were filling in gaps in their knowledge of New York dance history. New York Theater Ballet is in every respect one of the city’s minor companies, but the seriousness that impels it is far from small. Its several short seasons each year keep informing us of areas of choreography that are otherwise brushed aside.

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