Shaking off old notions
Bringing coals to Newcastle is certainly not the point of two year-long dance series that will present out-of-town ballet troupes to New York. The idea is to persuade New York that it isn't Newcastle.
From now until next May the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College and the Brooklyn Academy of Music are importing companies from Los Angeles, Cleveland, Houston, Washington, Boston, New Jersey, and other locales to show New Yorkers what's going on beyond the Hudson.
As a concept these series are useful, perhaps necessary. They have already shaken some preconceptions.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music has just begun its series with the long established San Francisco Ballet. Concurrently playing at Brooklyn playing at the younger and smaller Cincinnati Ballet. One would naturally assume that the older group, under the illustrious leadership of Lew Christensen, would offer the most nourishing programs. Guess again.
The Cincinnati Ballet's repertoire was generally more tasteful and enjoyable. Even more surprising was the higher caliber of its dancing, under the artistic direction of David McLain.
The San Francisco Ballet has some highly seasoned performers and a few outstanding personalities, such as Paul Russell and Evelyn Cisneros, a dark-haired, high-intensity type. But in terms of all-around ensemble dancing, the Cincinnati people look lighter, fresher, and plain happier to be up there on the stage. Male dancing is everyone's problem. Quite often the men are encouraged to move with rugged strength as a substitute for finesse. It was a special pleasure to note that the Cincinnati Ballet is opting for finesse, and that it paid off handsomely in Daniel Levans's lilting "Concert Waltzes."
It is perfectly natural for a company to want to show its resident choreographers. Self-reliance andd in-house creativity are marks of artistic viability. Yet viewing these two companies side by side raised questions about the practical worth of the principle. Everything the San Franciscans brought was home- grown and, with two predictable exceptions, was either flavorless or downright tasteless. The exceptions were by the Christensen brothers, Lew and Willam, both of whom know their craft and aren't pushy about it.
William's "Nothin' Doin' Bar" is a comic pantomine about the speakeasy era, while Lew's "Scarlatti Portfolio" interweaves Commedia episodes with classical dancing.
Whatever the merits of these two dances, the San Francisco's batting average was a measly two out of nine. The Cincinnati's program of four ballets was safer in that it drew upon the already proven, rather than on some resident genius. Even if it had not included a rarely seen classic, Ruth Page and Bentley Stone's "Frankie and Johnny," it would still have been the more satisfying event. With "Frankie and Johnny," it was distinguished.
Created in 1938, this dance-pantomime has all the irony, economy of means, and wit one associates with modern theater. Its tone, both cheerful and acrid, has a complexity that belies the simplicity of its gestures. If only for having brought "Frankie and Johnny" to the attention of a whole new generation of New York dancegoers, the out-of-town concept has already justified itself.