It's a slight exaggeration to say that the Joffrey Ballet has been presenting a premiere every other night of its four-week seasone at the New York City Center, which runs until Nov. 23.
The most recent of them form a double bill celebrating the composer Eric Satie. "Postcards" and "Relache" don't always play as a package deal on the same program, but there is a sense of the packaging concept behind them. They combine as double-view mirror of Satie and his times. They're heavy on nostalgia and heavy on production values. They're what one might call coffee table ballets.
Moses Pendleton's "Relache" needs a mighty big table on which to show its wares. Based on a production of the Ballets Suedois in 1924, when Dadaism was in its heyday, this new "Relache" tries to revivify that peculiar frame of mind through its artifacts, philosophical and otherwise.
One of the key tenets of the Dada movement was to confuse art and life, often with humorously ironic effects. Thus the title of this ballet ("Relache" means to "no performance"). Thus the contrivance of placing half the dancers in the audience. And thus the business of having strangely dressed "photographers" roaming the lobbies during intermission, and snapping pictures of the audience.
About half of "Relache" consists of a movie dating from the 1920s. It has a deliberately home-movie feel about it, even though such distinguished names as Rene Clair and Man Ray participate in it. The other half of "Relache" celebrates glitter with the uniquely mordant tone the Dadaists so loved. The backdrop burns, as it were, with light. A fireman stands by just in case. The all-male chorus line looks like the chic penguins in the first entrance. The sequined star has no use for a backdrop, of course, and so the chorus line collapses like a deck of cards.
Pendleton has a marvelous time inventing sight gags for the chorus, so much so that the chorus threatens to run away with the show. I write "threatens" because the concept of a high point is antithetical to the purposely pointless aura of Dadaism. As described by Francis Picabia, who conceived of the first "Relache," the ballet is about "life with no tomorrow, the life of today, all for today, nothing for yesterday, nothing for tomorrow."
The work leaves no aftertaste, and perhaps that's how Dada art should be. At the moment of performance, it has a slightly ashen taste, and that's how it should not be. Yet how one can recapture a taste and a time that was deliberately made of sand?
In choreographing "Postcards," Robert Joffrey doesn't try to step back in time. He looks back, inspired by the music-hall qualities of Satie's music.
Joffrey has composed some very vigorous and imaginative dances for the men, and a long series of duets that are rapt and dreamy. All of them might make more sense if they were not set to Satie, whose music is neither robust nor romantic. The only element to unite Satie with Joffrey is lovely customes by John David Ridge in a style one associates with potted palms and the Riviera. They would grace any coffee table.