Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pretentious Waterbaby Bagatelles

The third act of Allan Dameron’s Dancing of the Front Porch of Heaven is titled, with great alliteration, Waterbaby Bagatelles. Twyla Tharp, who is very well known and respected, choreographed this dance. It is a skillfully composed ballet, written in a clean, slightly acid, diatonic style that strongly resembles a sterile swimming pool. It poses some problems of interpretation, especially with the title, but also the dance itself, which demands an interpretive display of virtuosity. It is an ideal piece for variety in the musical score, the soloist being free to concentrate on details of tonal balance in the distinctive contrasts that are relevant to the form of the piece.

Since I don’t know much about ballet, the first thing I did was research the title. In musicology, says the PNB press release, a bagatelle is “a short and unpretentious composition.” The most well-known bagatelle is Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Twyla Tharp’s piece is composed of seven of these. They take place on a pristinely surfaced stage overhung and aquatically lighted by rows of stark, rearrangeable, fluorescent light tubes, like those of an aquarium. The bare-chested men and the bathing-capped women reinforce the dance’s swimming pool connection. The first couple of bagatelles establish a mode a self-pointing that runs through the whole act, and tells us that Waterbabies are desirable creatures. But the act contradicted this by glorifying the male body more than the female body. The bathing caps were clever, but it tended to make the muscular men stand out more. Also one notices that the women are always seen together, in a pack, whereas the men are oftentimes by themselves and free to dance ostentatiously.

The female dancers are more like synchronized swimmers, or perhaps schools of fish, whereas the male dancers have the impression that we are inside a shark tank. At one point a really big fish came dancing out onto the stage, twittering his behemoth feet, lifting up a tall woman effortlessly into the airy waters. The music was slow, steady, as if to suggest we had sunk to the dark disarray at the bottom of the pool. All the other sharks had by this time scattered, leaving him to dance pas de deux (“not as two”) with his fishy paramour under the dim lights. This bagatelle, I’ve lost count which one, was like watching a steady couple, unconcerned with courtship, but interested in passionate love.

As soon as these swimming beasts floated off-stage the more agile and hormonal sharks came back on the scene to impress the eye-batting waterbabies, who were seated as if on the edge of the pool to watch the competitive males show off their “attitude” with twists, turns, en dehors, en dedans, and tours en l’air. At first the men were like quick blurs of curved silver darting away, and then coming back unexpectedly. But then they became more—dare I say it?—pretentious and remained on stage for some time showing off their dances. The waterbabies thought this was quite the cat’s meow, and began clapping for their favorite men, cheering them on as they encircled the women and the stage. This escalated the men’s bravado.

The biggest problem was not with the act itself, it was wonderful, but the description of the act in the press release. If I were a ballet connoisseur, I would have been outraged that it was considered “unpretentious”. If bagatelles are considered to be “unpretentious” then I’m not sure what to call the third act of Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven! The men were certainly pretentious. Their daring dances demanded skill and bravado. It was clearly intended to impress others. All things considered, it was a ballet worth seeing, and I plan on returning to the PNB to see more shows.

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