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Night Of The Living Dead: An Evening With The Joffrey Ballet

October 8, 2007

In order to make us feel and think, a work of art must feel current and fresh. It's hard to engage fully with art that feels like it's past its sell-by date. No matter how beautiful a work might be, no matter how noble its heritage or the reputation of its creator, the experience always leaves us feeling like we're staring into glass cases full of stuffed animals or cracked bits of pottery.

I wasn't expecting to spend an evening at a dance museum when I went to Berkeley Rep last Friday to catch The Joffrey Ballet. The company is famed for being a harbinger of the new and daring, not the old and safe.

When Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino founded the Joffrey Ballet in 1956, Arpino led the nascent ensemble of six dancers around the country in a station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer while Joffrey remained in New York, teaching dance classes to pay his company members’ salaries. From humble beginnings, the Joffrey Ballet has grown to become one of the most formidable dance groups in the world.

But the program on Friday which consisted of Twyla Tharp's 1973 teen culture-inspired ballet set to music by the Beach Boys Deuce Coupe, Laura Dean's “Sometimes it snows in April” from Billboards (1993) set to the classic song by Prince, and one of the company’s founding works, Joffrey’s own Pas de Déesses from 1953 -- felt insubstantial and out of date.

The most interesting aspect of the performance was the variety in choreographic styles, which moved from Joffrey's fussy, intricate footwork through Tharp's brash rock n roll-laced humor through Dean's no-frills vertical lines and geometric shapes. But with Joffrey's ballet being pretty, Tharp's being funny, and Dean's being whimsical, none of the works on the program really offered the audience or the dancers anything meaty to chew on.

Most Glaringly, all three ballets felt like museum pieces. With its coy trio of ballerinas in pastel tutus and single robust-looking male dancer lording it over his harem through a series of standard yet choreographically unscintillating duets, solos and group dances, Pas de Déesses seemed like a work for the deceased. The manic energy of Tharp's piece performed by jitterbugging, twisting, pirouetting dancers against a graffitied backdrop in some of the ugliest disco-era costumes I've ever seen, might have been hip 30 years ago. But although it's still extremely humorous, the piece doesn't in anyway reflect youth culture today. It's full of kitsch and nostalgia. Dean's piece, meanwhile, was the strongest of the three, thanks to some powerful group sequences in which the dancers moved energetically with an almost machine-like rhythmic and geometric precision. But even this 15-year-old work felt past its prime. "Rock ballets" aren't news today. And minimalism, as a choreographic approach, only engages in small doses.


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