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Room to Breathe

October 30, 2007

Edward Villella was new to the New York City Ballet when Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine were in the studio with the dancers, making Agon. It was 1957. "Neither of them talked much to us — it wasn't what they did,” Villella said Sunday, after Miami City Ballet, where he's artistic director, ended its visit to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall. “They just rolled up their sleeves, and the energy permeated the room. They had such a deep regard and respect for each other."

Dancers in In the Upper Room

In addition to Agon, the company's program for its three performances included Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs, which we won't be discussing much until Sinatra is correctly acknowledged as classical, and In the Upper Room, with music by Philip Glass, which we will.

Villella didn't create a role in Agon, but danced in the pas de trois after Todd Bolender left the company. It wasn't what catapulted him to fame, either, but certainly the principles he embodied in Agon as much as the astonishing performances in other Stravinsky/Balanchine works, particularly "Prodigal Son" and the "Rubies" section of Jewels, helped make him the most famous male dancer in America. Fifty years on, what Villella did for dance is still being done whenever Miami City Ballet shows up.
Immortal Combat
Unlike the present New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet is not a chest of drawers where Balanchine's ballets are unfolded, dutifully presented in mildly wrinkled form, and put away again. Via Villella and his artistic staff, Balanchine's stuff is alive, clean, crisp — yet juicy. The dancers relate to the choreography; the audience relates to the dancers. The dancing is speedy, energetic, and generally precise, though there were a couple of off-kilter moments — it had to hurt when that guy got rapped alongside the neck.

Miami City Ballet dancers in "Rubies," music by Stravinsky, choreography by Balanchine

Photo by Joe Gato/Miami City Ballet

The Stravinsky (alas, on tape at Cal) and the Glass (which I can't remember ever hearing live) are honored and dignified by the sensitivity with which the company treats the music, living within its requirements but continuing to breathe. This was particularly true in the Balanchine, which breathed from one movement phrase, one phase of this Agon, into the next.

Agon is Greek for "combat," and there's a lot of that in this leotard ballet. But it is of the most sublime sort as the platoons of men and women (a dozen dancers in all) link arms, legs, break, recombine. It's so angular. So supple. Curvy, but squared off. The men run at each other, surprise each other and perhaps themselves, retreat.

Agon is a riddle and an enigma. Not so much a war as a war game. And then you get to the pas de deux, with the beautifully paced brilliance of Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra, who lifted her on his back as she did amazing, scissory, splitty things with her legs. To watch Miami do Agon is to see it as if it's brand-new.

George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Edward Villella, and Twyla Tharp

And generally speaking that's the glory of the entire Balanchine/Stravinsky/Villella perplex, 50 years on. You don't really expect it when the curtain goes up. Nothing, at first, stands out. These are modest-size dancers, moving gently, nearly demurely in the opening passages of the Sinatra, which, with its cleverness, class (Oscar de la Renta!), sex appeal (rumpled shirtfronts!), and virtuosity (daring leaps!) is one of the glories of Tharp's oeuvre.

But this company is a bit like what Villella said about seeing Stravinsky: "He was a little man in a homburg that was pulled down over his eyebrows. He had a cane and gloves and a scarf. He was this little tiny man, but as he came into the room and started to disrobe, he got bigger, and bigger, and bigger." Sort of like that. By the way, according to Paul Horgan (Encounters With Stravinsky) Madame Stravinsky, who often sat in on rehearsals, hated the leotards. She thought they were fine for rehearsal. But "that has no charm for performance," she said.
Scheming to Unwind
A word, or 200, about In the Upper Room. According to Howling Near Heaven, Marcia B. Siegel's marvelous book analyzing Tharp's lifework, the title came from the Mahalia Jackson gospel hymn Tharp used during rehearsals in 1986 while awaiting delivery of Glass' commissioned score.

Tharp said she'd played Glass for years in rehearsal, because of the way it was "constantly unwinding from itself, as though scheming endlessly."

Makes sense. In the Upper Room, perhaps the greatest of Tharp's ballets (Push Comes to Shove, similarly exploring ballet versus modern dance, is a close second) has always struck me as a series of spoolings and unspoolings; tweedley repetitive flutings and jinglings; plangent piano, violins, and drums; wonderful repetitive horn soundings. And that, of course, is just the music.

Meanwhile, the dancers arrive in platoons: in sneakers ("the stompers" Tharp called them), in red pointe shoes ("the bomb squad"). They pound, they float. They dodge into and out of shadows and light, designed by Jennifer Tipton, vanishing and reappearing. They're clad in Norma Kamali's vertical, black and white stripes, as if prisoner to Glass, or perhaps to his piano keys, and their costumes are sparked with jags of red — belts, tank tops, bathing suits, socks.

The startle of the costuming is no comparison to the astonishing diversity of the choreography, which seems to encompass the entire Tharp canon, from hip switches to declarative marches on point, from daring captures and lifts — the men are fabulously strong-looking — to flights where everyone seems to take leave of gravity, returning to earth transformed, as, watching Miami City Ballet, are we.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.