Dominic Walsh Dance Theater
1909-2009: The Great Collaborators of the Ballets Russes
October 15-17, 2009
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Zilkha Hall
Domenico Luciano and Felicia McBride in Dominic Walsh’s “Le Spectre de la Rose” . Photo: Gabriella Nissen Photography.
Three years ago, when Walsh premiered his Le Spectre de la Rose in Houston with set and costume design by Katy Heinlein, the dance lacked the full context it now enjoys on a new program devoted to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. On first viewing I saw it as a classic deconstruction: half a tunic for The Spirit of the Rose (danced again this time by Domenico Luciano), a parachute augmenting The Young Woman’s evening gown and doubling as an imposing curtain. The duet is less focused on the leaps and turns Fokine gave the young Nijinsky to show off his technique than on the psychological exploration of a woman’s dream after attending an elegant ball. It is yet a sweeping, ravishing dance. When the pair meets in a horizontal trajectory, dancing in perfect unison, about two-thirds through, the effect is startling and harmonious.
La Mort du Cinge [sic] as a title is either an irony or an error in French spelling. The name of the original 1905 solo by Fokine is La Mort du Cygne, or The Dying Swan. One meaning of “singe” in English, however, is “to burn off the feathers or bristles of (a carcass of a bird or animal) by subjecting briefly to flame.” Since dancer Rachel Meyer enters slowly while carrying a smoldering cigarette (even her exhalations seemed choreographed), certainly Walsh intended this play on words. Further, singe means “monkey” in French, but it is uncertain how this idea might also play out in the choreography. Program notes contained a quote from former New York City Ballet dancer Allegra Kent, putting forth the idea that this classic solo is “…not about a woman impersonating a bird, it’s about the fragility of life-all life-and the passion with which we hold on to it.” Meyer struts and frets her few minutes about the stage in a series of nearly static poses and gestures. It appears that she is waiting for, or has just abandoned, a lover. Impeccably coiffed by noted Houston stylist Ceron, her only set is a high chrome table, the kind you stand at in a dive bar, with an oversized martini glass (set and costume design by Luciano and Walsh). One arm initiates a soft undulation, but then the other hand reaches over and intercedes. It is a solo containing more a slow-motion version of hip-hop cracking and popping than classical ballet references, an intriguing departure for Walsh. It also reminds the viewer that his ensemble is not strictly a ballet company, but rather a group engaged in dance-theater. Meyer appears here to be a damaged icon, a disheartened wanderer at the singles bar. Sometimes she took a step back in her white pumps simply to reveal a bare knee (a gesture at the heart of her curtain call) or to stare defiantly at the heavens. The solo finishes with her walking downstage, looking over her shoulder into the house, and then simply walking off. It seems that this short work is a kind of etude for Walsh, and possibly source material for the program’s finale.
Walsh achieved his great success of the evening with the premiere of his L’après-midi d’un faune, set to Debussy’s classic score with brilliant lighting design by Robert Eubanks. For his inspiration, Walsh dispensed with the scenario of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem and turned instead to the celebrated sculpture by Auguste Rodin, as stated in the program (“Rodin’s sculpture of Nijinsky has always peeked [sic] my curiosity and thus, I felt it would be my base for the faun in this production”). It might seem a strange indulgence for Walsh to cast himself in the role of The Creator here, but dressed in a black turtleneck and black tights, he commanded a fascinating, suave presence in the opening scenes, where he offered a highly technical solo while Ty Parmenter (The Faun) stood frozen, waiting for Walsh to imbue him with life (in this case, the ability to move). Once Walsh leaves the stage, The Faun offers an ecstatic solo that finishes on the stage floor. This episode is then built upon by the extraordinary dancer Randolph Ward (Orefaun), whose extreme solo combined aspects of contemporary ballet and ancient yoga, delivered with the utmost confidence and clarity. He is a revelation, just in his first season with DWDT. Walsh is using series of isolations here, which could be misconstrued as simple fragmentation. Rather, it is like he is putting a microscope on certain classical movements and gestures, wringing from them something deeper so that the viewer can share in his investigation. When the Nymphs enter from the side, undulating and parading horizontally across the stage until they depart on the famous violin solo, the moment is mysterious, archetypal, and breathtaking. This production is less austere than Jerome Robbins’ 1953 version, which centered on a theme or narcissism, and greatly abstracted from Nijinsky’s “original” (revived and reconstructed in the 1980s by Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke from photos and Nijinsky’s notebooks), even though Walsh has retained the final, shocking pose of the faune masturbating in a somewhat dissociative state.
Yes, this was mostly an “adult” evening, with ballets centering on the intricacies of sexual relationships, epitomized by Walsh’s premiere and finale: L’Oiseau de feuire [sic] with video, set and costume design by Frederique de Montblanc and more expert lighting design from Robert Eubanks. Here Walsh was looking possibly for the right vehicle to feature Paris Opera Ballet star Marie-Agnès Gillot (paired with Luciano), as well as a chance to work with significant collaborators such as Montblanc (Balanchine’s 1949 production for Maria Tallchief featured sets by Chagall), but at nearly fifty minutes the new scenario is simply unsustainable. It feels a little bit like Sartre’s No Exit without the lesbian postal clerk, though letters do figure prominently in Walsh’s scenario. The tormented couple dances in front of a mountain of shredded paper throughout.
It was challenging to determine how Luciano and Gillot’s overwrought love-hate episodes might relate in any way to the ballet Stravinsky composed for Fokine and Diaghilev in 1910, and this shouldn’t be a condition for a new production, but the clarity and completeness of the three prior ballets on this program went missing in “Firebird”, so one wonders about Walsh’s point of departure. The original scenario centered on the magical realm of Kaschei, Prince Ivan’s interaction with thirteen princesses, and a “double-agent” Firebird who advances Prince Ivan’s position by bewitching Kaschei and eventually breaking his magical spells. Why didn’t Walsh use his entire company here? “Firebird” is ill-suited as a chamber ballet for two. One resentful, violent pas-de-deux after another gets old real fast, and Montblanc had provided all the archetypes in her set design (knives, a birdcage, sensual and sharp video) that should have inspired Walsh to finish with a more sophisticated spectacle. Every show, especially one devoted to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, needs a great finale.