FOR HIS PERFORMA 15 COMMISSION, Jérôme Bel has created a compact work in an unwieldy delivery system: The thirty-five-minute Ballet (New York) is being presented in three spaces around Manhattan this month—Marian Goodman Gallery, the Martha Graham Studio, and the theater at El Museo del Barrio—so that, per the program, it “plays with how these environments each frame and shape the ways we see and ‘feel’ dance.” (Amusingly, the Graham Center, a modern-dance shrine that now occupies Merce Cunningham’s fabled digs on Bethune Street, gets labeled “a downtown dance studio.”)
Alas, for this contextual experiment, Marian Goodman is the only container in which I got to experience Bel. But as it turns out, the gallery was my third frame for ballet in the first week of November, following Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s collaboration at Performa’s opening in Saint Bartholomew’s Church and Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective at NYU’s Skirball Center. The treatment of dancers and audience members, and their spatial (political) relationships to each other, was, if not always radically different, trenchantly revealing.
Another Performa commission, Hallberg and Vezzoli’s Fortuna Desperata is a proto-ballet confection in keeping with the biennial’s Renaissance theme, featuring Deda Cristina Colonna’s reconstructions of fifteenth-century Italian social dances (she was, tellingly, listed as a “Choreographer,” while Hallberg and Vezzoli were billed as “Artists.” Unclear to me, still, is what exactly Vezzoli did…). Tickets could be had for $250 or, if you wanted in to the reception after, $500. And just in case, after being crammed into the holding pen of a lobby, you were beginning to doubt your monetary outlay (or if, like me, you were comped but still depressed to be on Park Avenue, on a Sunday night no less), as you filed into the darkened church there, spotlit in all his glory, was a body-painted, near-naked Hallberg. Vitruvian Man in a dancebelt (by Fabio Zambernardi for Prada, thank you very much).
As the audience scurried to grab the unreserved seating on risers ringing the square stage, Hallberg rotated to give all a view: Here was dancer as spectacle and specimen, both exalted and abject, his ass quite literally on display for all to snap and send to their social-media stream of choice. Compare this opening view to BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide, in which the dancers chatted and warmed up on a stripped stage while their public trickled in to assigned seats ($25–$75). In this program of new and recent works, Schumacher played with ideas around partnering, virtuosity, and nonhierarchical communities, occupying a terrain of innocence and questioning that, within ballet’s buttoned up halls, felt radical at times. Here, as in other efforts by Schumacher, a New York City Ballet dancer and rising choreographic talent, the point was demystification: Ballet is extraordinarily hard work done by ordinary individuals, who onstage edge ballet toward explorations of sexual equality and non-heteronormative defaults, and in the program notes offer sweetly earnest answers to questions about their dreams and regrets.
And compare this again to Ballet (New York), with its makeshift, uncomfortable seating ($25 a pop, unless you qualify for a $15 student or “visionary” ticket), no bodies to look at save our own and those in Jeff Wall’s photographs, which trade in many of the same theatrical/anti-theatrical, larger-than-life/human-scale, accessible/critical modes as Bel’s performances. The point here is Art, and The Author: his gaze, his values, his agenda (his his his, inevitably). When the performers come out, one by one, they execute Bel’s assignments with a minimum of staged fanfare and a maximum of personal flourish—pirouettes, waltzing, improvisation, the moonwalk, bows—as best they can with their varied training and abilities. Shits and giggles on the surface camouflage Bel’s continued interest in pinning butterflies to velvet, here playing up the fraught freak show concept of collecting and juxtaposing intensely different body types—a City Ballet soloist, a woman in a wheelchair, a hirsute man listed as “Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake.” (It’s telling that Bel eventually pulled the plug on a biographical collaboration Hallberg sought with him in 2007 because, in Hallberg’s words, “there wasn’t enough conflict in the work” for Bel’s liking.)
As with Fortuna Desperata, those who are “only” dancing don’t merit program bios, and have committed to a minimum of rehearsals—the tradition of a maker-doer bond that a choreographer like Schumacher is steeped in is not, here, the point, so that it is the individual who lets you see the step and its conventions as much, if not more so, than the step revealing the individual. What are the essential elements of a pirouette? Schumacher and his dancers, all City Ballet colleagues, have a definitive answer to which they apply variations, seeking present-day wiggle room within history; Bel, I think, starts with the wiggle room so as to home in on the aspects of history, and its present-day ramifications, he wants most to dissect.
And what does Fortuna Desperata seek? Oh, reader. Hallberg is a force for great, great good in the ballet world, and I want to declare him on the side of the angels. But this frothy and coy concoction is an inadequate vehicle for his dance intelligence (and a cruelty to the ill-prepared performers, especially the men, placed alongside him). If he’s going to save ballet from itself, he’ll have to do it without the likes of Vezzoli at his side.
Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s Fortuna Desperata ran Sunday, November 1 at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York. BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide ran November 4 and 5 at New York University’s Skirball Center. Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York) ran November 6 and 7 at Marian Goodman Gallery; it continues November 14 and 15 at Martha Graham Studio Theater and November 19 at El Museo del Barrio.