“Stray Pieces” at the Ritz Theater—A view


by John Munger | 8/3/09 • Most of this show is fabulous work that needs to be seen. I recommend highly. But there are caveats, so bear with me.

The core of this show is contemporary ballet. Most of the main dancers are aged between about 25 and about 35 with a handful of exceptions above or below. They are grown-ups, they have taken thousands of dance classes, they have performed in a bewildering variety of second and third level national dance companies, and a few first level ones. The women work much of the time in pointe shoes and they are very damn good at it.

going through the movements is the blog of john munger, one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet.

But this is “contemporary” ballet, not “Swan Lake.” There is not one single tutu. There is a wealth of classical ballet training and vocabulary, but the content and the many inventive movement sequences are contemporary rather than museum-work.

Working with this ensemble, Kari Jensen set out to compile what her programme note describes as “ … a range of dance styles and personalities …”

The result is about 14 pieces that include neo-classical ballet, hip-hop, classical modern, tango, contemporary ballet, Ukrainian character, and tap. That said, I believe that “contemporary ballet” prevailed.

So what is “contemporary ballet?”

Many people who don’t follow dance very closely think that ballet is ballet is ballet like when Gertude Stein said that a rose is a rose is a rose. Well, that’s not the reality. Ballet has evolved in the 125 years since Tchaikovsky and Petipa made works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty just like American music has evolved since Scott Joplin, Stephen Foster and Benny Goodman.

In musical terms, we now live with serious composers like Dominic Argento or John Adams, cross-over composers-innovators like Philip Glass, and current-culture voices like Tori Amos, Nora Jones, and (god help us) the creators of N’Sync, Brittany Spears and LadyGaga. Don’t dismiss current culture voices too quickly. George Gershwin was one, in his youth.

I say all that to try to make a point with readers who might not know dance very well. Dance is as varied as music. Dance includes classical ballet, contemporary modern, improvisational site-specific, tap, Uzbekistani traditional, square-dance, classical Cambodian, jazzdance, tapdance, and many others. Hundreds of others. Like music.

Similarly, music has symphonic classical, contemporary experimental, chamber, commercial mainstream, solo guitarist-songwriter, electronic, and rap, plus many others.

It is simply uninformed to criticize serious music because it lacks guitars. Or because it lacks violins. Why should Subotnik be criticized for lack of violins? Why should the Boston Symphony be criticized for lack of a beat-boxer? It’s best to know the context and to speak from wide experience rather than from limited and stereotypic pre-disposition.

Sadly, dance viewers often lack this perspective. It’s difficult, risky, and expensive to see a lot of dance. Too many people see very little dance and then form preconceptions based on what they have seen only once or twice.

So let’s come back to “contemporary ballet.” Let me get scholastic for a moment. I promise to be as brief as I can.

So-called “classical ballet” is based on 19th century styles, idioms and preferences. It was a golden era that created many classics, such as “Coppelia,” “Giselle” and “The Nutcracker.” There are to this very day, nearly 150 years later, huge audience segments who demand this form and if they don’t get it will say, “That’s not dance.”

That’s just about exactly like saying that if it isn’t Shakespeare it isn’t theater.

My urgent hope is to be read by some of these aesthetically conservative folks and convince them to a broader viewpoint. Consider: Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Tony Kushner and many others have created great works more recently that do not look like Shakespeare. Please have the educated intelligence to consider the notions that: you don’t have to like it for it to be “good” and it doesn’t’ have to be good for you to “like it.”

So also with this dance performance. It’s just my own opinion, but I think that Kari Jensen works with classically trained dancers, especially women, to create contemporary works that use the point-shoe tradition and all that goes with it in contemporary style. They can be human in ways that express human conditions rarely addressed by 19thC choreographers, such as ball-buster female control, personal loneliness, or a broken relationship. At the same time they are masterful technicians. Superb technique in service of thoughtful artistry. I think that’s high art, and I don’t care if someone else didn’t like the best of it because they wanted less technique or more, less emotion or more, or less flashy tricks or more. This show is good work and I recommend it.

All that said, there are some problems with the show.

First, The finale is a classical applause-machine, where individual “acts” from the preceding show make cameo appearances and step back to let the next “act” remind us of their piece. There were two problems. The first was that it was constructed kind of at random instead of as a blockbuster. The second is that the music (after an evening of high-class music choices) was cheesy. I would describe it as “The 1812 Overture as Done by Hooked on Tchaikovsky.” After mostly an evening of really first rate dance and dance music it was like having your date give you a dandelion instead of a rose. And then burp loudly.

Second, There was a wide variety of dance styles. This was Kari’s intent. The problem is that some worked and some did not. The elderly tango worked as a humorous and rather nicely done bit of commentary on the highly skilled activities happening around it. And there was the hip-hop, the tap and so forth. These did not work in this context. The gypsy characterdanse worked pretty damn well. But the tango came back once or twice too often, the hip-hop and tap were done by performers conspicuously less seasoned than the main cast, and the gypsy piece deserved a bigger send-off.

So, in a nutshell, 1) The contemporary ballet was fabulous on all levels, 2) Some but not all non-ballet numbers don’t work in this context; 3) The finale can go to live with Jesus and 4) On the basis of the many strong points I’m glad I came.

They have three more shows: tonight (Monday at 7:00pm) and Thursday Aug 6 at 10:00pm plus Friday Aug 7 at 5:30pm at the Ritz Theatre.

NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views.

John Munger (jrmdance@aol.com) has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.

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