The 1940s, a time of war and economic crisis, appears to be a popular period to revisit in the performing arts world right now, with Doctor Atomic, and some of the best dances American Ballet Theater is putting on in this, their season of Contemporary work, currently underway at New York's City Center.
Company B, a modern dance choreographed by Paul Taylor, which is perhaps a slightly odd choice for a ballet company, is set to swing-y, jazzy songs by the Andrews Sisters, popular in the 1940s (like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B). Dancers bounce, jump, swing, sway, flirt and frolic to the upbeat, rhythmic music, the audience clapping happily along. But slowly, a line of men at the back of the stage catches your eye. They walk in slow motion along the back wall, their bodies in shadowed silhouette. They appear to be marching, their knees lifted high. Some of them hold what appear to be guns, others hold their arms up as if in surrender. They are off at war. At first you almost don't notice them. After they pass into the wings, a sweet romantic duet or a soulful solo will take place, the male partner or soloist one of these formerly silhouetted men, now joining in the fun and frolic center stage, breezing happily about, at points performing breathtaking leaps and turns, really hamming it up for the wildly applauding audience. But then, he will jazzily, subtly hold his arms up, push his back out from the waist, stumble backwards, fall. He's taken a bullet. He's actually no longer alive. The carefree, at times athletically marvelous dance he's just performed is only a memory. The marked contrast between fun, play and young innocent love on the one hand, and these images of those young romantic heroes felled, or in ghostly silhouette, is what gives this dance its heartbreak.
The company is also putting on Flames of Paris, a ballet about the French Revolution popular in 1930s Russia, and several revivals of quintessential dance dramatist Antony Tudor, many from the American 40s (one depicting a woman, rejected by the man she loves, allowing herself to be led to ruin by the man she does not; one a scene from Romeo and Juliet where Romeo, on being banished from Verona, bids tragic farewell to his love).
Additionally in the company's rep (not evoking the 40s but no less untimely) is a new ballet by choreographer Lauri Stallings, entitled simply Citizen. The theater is filled with the sound of falling rain. The curtain rises to reveal a sparse stage. Part of the wall is removed to reveal pipes and such. The back stage doors are fully visible to the audience and people in street clothes can be seen freely coming and going. The dancers, however, make a sharp contrast to this very un-theatrical setting. Men wearing corsets and tight leggings and women in sequined bikinis - move in ways that are antithetical to ballet. Their harsh, intentionally awkward movements suggest robots or puppets being controlled from above. Perhaps we are all so manipulated; perhaps the world is a bit of a play, the elaborate costuming and make up suggesting false facades, masks that we all put on to get along in society.
Yet clownish as this movement sometimes is - at points dancers make staccato, Charlie Chaplinesque steps, with turned-out feet; at times a ballerina will bourree on tip toe with unbent knees, bend over and stick her rear end out, evoking more the ballerina doll in The Nutcracker rather than a real ballerina - they were still endearingly human in the way they'd eye each other close up, sniff at each other as if trying to understand the other through every available sense, follow each other, reach out to each other, usually in vain. It was as if they longed for a connection that seemed sadly unattainable.
At one point, people working in the wings -- technicians, the sound gals -- walk out onstage, stand behind the dancers and simply stare out at us. The sorrowful-sounding violins stop and lights go on, shining out on us, for a few moments. What is real, what is false, and how is a "citizen" to know the difference, to exert some control? Then the lights fade, the behind-the-scenes people walk away, everything resumes as before, "the show" goes on, this time glitter falling from the sky, but more like large teardrops than celebratory confetti. It's all show, the world's a stage, with these sad, searching humans stuck in its midst.
ABT's season ends this Sunday. Go here for the remaining schedule.