Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Black and White" returns

Last weekend's encore performances of "Black and White" at Boston Ballet (excerpts above) gave me a rare chance to reconsider what I thought was one of the signature cultural events of 2009.

And I changed my mind about it. A bit. Not that it struck me as any less brilliant - Jiří Kylián's masterpiece is one of the most ambitious and free-ranging evenings of dance of the last few decades, and Boston Ballet brought it off thrillingly. And the Boston press, which was positive, but lukewarm, last year - I think I was the only one really raving - all came around, as they are wont to do (if a bit slowly).

What surprised me about the piece's revival was how differently the individual components of "Black and White" - which was pulled together from a few seasons of work created by Kylián for Nederlands Dans Theater some twenty years ago - impressed me on this third viewing. The big, bold showpieces ("Sarabande" and "Falling Angels") seemed to me just as striking as ever, but a bit flatter than I remembered them, even as the work's first two sequences, "No More Play" and "Petite Mort," seemed to open up to surprising new depths.

This was partly because they were danced a bit better this time around - particularly "No More Play," whose bitter geometries were carried off with cold panache by Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Nelson Madrigal, Yury Yanowsky, and especially Sabi Varga, who seemed to find his own voice in Kylián's physical language - a style which welds together folk and classical motifs in a way that conjures isolation rather than community. Indeed, almost all of "Black and White" had clearly settled further into the company's bones, which only argues for more repertory performances of dance; great dance perhaps most fully blooms when it has become unconscious - and that takes time.

It takes time to understand a dance, too. "Black and White" is often as thematically dense as many classic plays, and it's certainly denser than almost any recent play I can think of. (And part of its appeal is that it often straddles the conceptual line between dance and theatre.) It's a commonplace that our comprehension of a play accretes over many performances and interpretations. Yet dances, even great dances, get far fewer public outings. I've seen most of Shakespeare's plays half a dozen or even a dozen or more times - and of course I've read them several times, too. Only you can't "read" a dance, and I've seen the great Balanchine dances at most two or three times apiece.

Still, thanks to YouTube, you can ponder "Black and White" at length - it's all there (with even one dance, "Sweet Dreams," that Boston Ballet didn't do), although in a different order than seen here, and even though watching it on your computer screen (sometimes broken up by varying camera angles) is hardly like watching it live. Still, you get the gist of it, I think; and it was interesting to me to just check in about details of certain sequences I wasn't sure about (it can be tricky taking in all the details of a fully realized dance, even on your second or third try).

So after repeated exposures, what do I think about this dance? Well, the first thing is that a better title for "Black and White" might be "Sex and Death." Because its seeming sexual scenarios are always arenas of aggression, haunted by a persistent sense of darkness and doom. The standard subtext of a pas de deux is seduction; here, it's usually blunt force, or even rape. Or maybe murder. Often the spectre of death is just off-stage, embodied, for instance, in the black, rigid ball gowns that stand watching the action of "Petite Mort" (a sobriquet for the orgasm that pretty much sums up Kylián's theme). And there's more than a hint of mortality in the shroud that ripples through the same piece like a dark tsunami to sweep all the dancers from the stage. Elsewhere the fatal is even intertwined with the natal - those same rigid ball gowns "birth" male dancers at the top of "Sarabande," and at the close of "Falling Angels," the women of the company seem to freeze in a position of labor that's also stiff as rigor mortis.

Although we really should replace the "sex" in "sex and death" with "sexual politics," because almost every interaction in "Black and White" is about power - there's really not much actual sex in the ballet at all. Instead, sex infuses everything else, engendering anger, dismay and isolation. The men of "Petite Mort" silently wield phallic rapiers before they woo - and when they manage to mount their respective mates, the women respond with closed, blocking knees, above which the males hover like birds of prey (an image which recurs again and again in the ballet, like so many of its motifs). In "Sarabande," the dancers rage at the female forms from which they have been cast - at one point even holding their shirts around their faces like vaginal frames and screaming out at the world. And if "Sarabande" infantilizes men, then "Falling Angels" mechanizes women - they come striding out at first like lionesses on the savannah, calm and powerful, but soon are obsessed with ever-more intricate routines that make less and less sense. No real leader emerges from their ranks; no real "story" evolves - this is a collective, not a Mark-Morris-style community. And of course no men appear; by the time the dancers sink to their backs at the finale, their legs spread wide, we realize we may as well have been watching robots as women.

There are, of course, interludes of rapture in "Black and White" - beautiful duets dot "Petite Mort," and even the men of "Sarabande" get some devastatingly lyrical solos. These, however, are laughed off the stage at the close of the dance, and even the pair dancing of "Petite Mort" and "No More Play" is quickly subsumed into the ongoing battle; the participants only get reprieves, not release. And the battle goes on and on - history hangs over "Black and White" like a second shroud. Its last, wacky number - "Sechs Tänze" (Six Dances, to Mozart's German ones) - is a campy take on lords and ladies that quickly devolves into sexual anarchy, with power structures toppled, men leaping into each others' arms, and giant drag queens stalking the stage like amazons. What's funniest about "Sechs Tänze," however, is that it's the first piece Kylián choreographed in "Black and White;" although now a ditzy show-topper, it's really the source of the whole piece, and the suite might better be read in reverse, as a long investigation of the serious themes buried in its silliness. And the picture Kylián paints, for all its sexy glamour, isn't very pretty. "No More Play" is a portrait of modernist despair that ends in exhaustion, "Petite Mort" an elegant image of baroque sterility - meanwhile "Sarabande" and "Falling Angels" reveal men and women who have completely disengaged from one another. Meanwhile ""Sechs Tänze" is gay camp - that holds court against a persistent, menacing rumble. Still, it ends in a bemused shrug, as celebratory bubbles fill the stage. Freedom at last from the power games of the past? we wonder to ourselves. Well, even the dancers don't seem sure. Whether those bubbles are a sign of real hope or just one more seductive illusion remains an open question.