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Timeless

Timelessness is a quality that is hard to pin down. It’s easy to see when a work of art fails to achieve it. But what combination of factors makes a painting, or a play, or a dance feel as if it were suspended in time, as recognizable and familiar now as when it was made, if perhaps in a different way?

Performance

Sarasota Ballet: “The Art of War,” “Dante Sonata,” “Company B”

Place

Sarasota Opera House, Sarasota, NY, November 18, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

The Sarasota Ballet in Paul Taylor's “Company B.” Photograph by Frank Atura

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These reflections came to mind as I watched the Sarasota Ballet in a program entitled “Conflicted Beauty,” which combined works by the choreographers Edwaard Liang, Frederick Ashton, and Paul Taylor. In many ways it was the newest ballet, Liang’s “The Art of War,” from 2015, that felt the most ephemeral. In contrast, Ashton’s “Dante Sonata,” an early piece created just as the Second World War was beginning, was like a time capsule, a product of its time worth considering for what it reveals about the artist who made it. But it is Paul Taylor’s 1991 “Company B,” last performed here in 2012 (and staged by Michael Trusnovec) that felt the most timeless, and, in a way, the most perfect—and the most well danced.

What is it that makes it so? After all, it is a period piece, a meditation on the world of WWII America, the world of sock-hops and the Andrews Sisters (whose recordings it is set to) and GI’s going off to fight in Europe and Asia. And yet Taylor’s dance is so well-constructed, so light of touch, so knowing and subtle that it was as fresh at this performance as it wass the first time I saw it. In fact “Company B” is so cannily made that it is often mistaken for a nostalgia piece, pining for a happier time, when in fact it is driven by melancholy and the ghostly recognition of the ever-presence of death. Many of the grinning boys who dance in the “Bei Mir Bist du Schön” and who whistle at the skirts of the belle in “Rum and Coca-Cola”—as innocent as she is sexy—are doomed to die on distant battlefields. The men we see in silhouette in the background of in “The Pennsylvania Polka” are already in battle. At the end of the exuberant, elegant solo set to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the titular boy shudders as his body is riddled with bullets. The women are lonely, even desperate for company. There is the sense of a generation being lost to war.

Anna Pellegrino and Daniel Pratt in Paul Taylor's “Company B.” Photograph by Frank Atura

The other remarkable aspect of “Company B” is the elegance of its construction. It is the work of a master in full control of his craft. The beginning and ending are like bookends, in which a group of young people is conjured into being, and then disappears into time. The ending, however, is weighted down by all we have seen in the preceding sections. These are no longer the same happy kids we saw at the beginning. Architecturally, too, it is a model of efficiency. The complex traffic patterns of the dancers are beautifully handled. The ending of one section blends seamlessly into the next. The hidden meaning of each dance emerges at just the right moment, as when the man in “There Will Never Be Another You” steps away from the partner he has not looked at even once; at that moment we suddenly realize that he was never really there at all. The woman imagined him all the while.

I’ve seen the work danced by the Paul Taylor Company, American Ballet Theatre, and others. Always, as here in Sarasota, the soft-edged, human, buoyant Taylor style shines through; the dancers appear as individuals, each with his or her own qualities. Lauren Ostrander was heart-breaking as the woman in “I Can Dream,” who becomes increasingly distraught over the course of her solo; turning this way and that, she is lost, unsure of what to do with herself. Yuki Nonaka’s dancing was as crystalline as a bugle call in his turn as the bugle boy. Ivan Spitale used his remarkable comic talents in “Oh Johnny!,” a song about an awkward, bespectacled young man who gets lots of female attention because he is the only guy who hasn’t been sent to the front. At times the dancers’ energy flagged a bit. Like all of Taylor’s works, “Company B” is an extremely athletic dance, full of jumps and runs and deep pliés. It takes stamina.

The Sarasota Ballet in “Dante Sonata” by Frederick Ashton. Photograph by Frank Atura

It came after “Dante Sonata,” a unique work in Ashton’s oeuvre, danced not only barefoot but with loose hair, a sure signifier that drama lies ahead. The flowing costumes, half of them veined with black piping, are by Sophie Fedorovitch, in a style that brings to mind some of Noguchi’s designs for Martha Graham. And there is a Grahamesque intensity, verging on melodrama, to the way this ballet lays out the battle between good and evil, represented by dancers embodying the “Children of Light” and “Children of Darkness.” The fever pitch reminded me, too, of Massine’s choreography in the film about dance obsession, The Red Shoes, from 1948. Clearly it’s a period thing. 

Dancers paw at each other and shake their fists in rage and desperation. But there is nothing silly about the construction of the work. Ashton responds vividly to Liszt’s piano work of the same name, orchestrated for the ballet by Constant Lambert. Descending chromatic scales, stately chords, and crazed crescendi suggest wind and thunder; they alternate with moments of lyricism and longing. Ashton deploys the dancers in roiling waves, with soloists weaving through the ensemble. This vortex of activity leads into dramatic images that suggest Dante’s Inferno (Liszt’s inspiration) and the crucifixion. It’s wildly over the top but skillfully handleed. The dancers, especially Ostrander and Ricardo Rhodes as the lead baddies, performed it with gusto.

The Sarasota Ballet in “The Art of War” by Edwaard Liang. Photograph by Frank Atura

There was little the dancers could do to enliven the first work of the evening, however. Liang’s “The Art of War” was created in 2015, for BalletMet; less than a decade later, it already feels dated. (This was its company premiere in Sarasota.) The main culprit is the score, Michael Torke’s 1988 “Ash,” an unsubtle perpetual motion machine driven by repetitive orchestral motifs that nod toward Minimalism. (As with the Liszt, the music’s effect was further hampered by being recorded rather than live.) But the choreography, full of slides across the stage, static poses, muscular and labored partnering, and calligraphic movements for the arms and upper body, was too stilted to capitalize on the music’s main feature—its drive. Nor did it shape its momentum in interesting ways. The moments of theatrical flair, like the unfurling of a silken sheet that suddenly recedes to reveal the ensemble, felt artificial, and derivative. (Jiri Kylian uses the same opening in his “Petite Mort.”) 

Liang, who was recently chosen to lead Washington Ballet (following Julie Kent), has made many other, finer, more organic works since this one. And Liang’s talents as a director and mentor to dancers may eclipse his choreographic ambitions.  “The Art of War” is an example of a work best left to the past.  

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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