It's a fabulous place to dance," says choreographer Eliot feld of the Kennedy Center Opera House, where, in fact, the Feld Ballet will be dancing for a solid week of eight performances starting Tuesday evening, as part of this season's new Dance America series. s
Though since the year of its fouunding in 1974, the Feld troupe had been a regular annual visitor to the Washington area via summer perrformances at Wolf Trap, the group's first experience with the Opera House came late in 1979 as part of the fallout of the American Ballet Theatre dancers' strike -- Feld was asked to fill in for a week vacated by ABT. "I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth," he recalls. "I was sorry ABT was having its strike troubles, but I was happy it benefited me."
Feld has lots of reasons for feeling that Opera House appearances are of prime importance for his troupe. "Other than the fact that the floor is much too hard, which is a real problem, it's a wonderful stage in terms of its size and facilities," he says. (The hardness of the Opera House floor became a bone of contention again this past week, when George Balanchine declared his New York City Ballet wouldn't return to the Kennedy Center until the floor problem was solved.)
The Feld company is used to performing in much smaller and less glamorous places, even on its home in New York City. "You always aspire to bigger and better circumstances. And there's definitely a difference in the way cirtics -- and the public -- approach a performance in a major opera house. You're scrutinized more carefully, and inevitably, compared with others who perform in the same space, so it becomes a status thing. And all this in turn canhave important effects on your funding -- on the patrons, agencies, foundations and so on."
"I could put it another way," he says after a moment's further reflection on the matter of the Opera House engagement and its likely consequences. "It's a good gig!"
The remark was a sudden brief flash of the Broadway smarts that never seem far from Feld's surface -- understandable in a dancer who got his first "break" dancing in the original production of "West Side Story" at age 16. He's 38 now, and in the meantime has created 33 ballets which have firmly established his place among the elite of the nations choreographers.
Among the eight ballets the company will be performing here will be Feld's three most recent work's one of which has the inveigling title, "Anatomic Balm." "I began working on it in 1976 after hearing an amazing recording of rags played by the violinist Paul Zukofsky -- it wasn't that the music was ragtime, it was the violin sound he made that somehow got me," Feld says. The work, however, proceeded in fits and starts, until this past summer, when Feld told himself, "Okay, I'm gonna do it this time!" "Part of what held me up," he says, "was getting used to the movement vocabulary the music was stimulating. It seemed strange, and what was strange was that so much of the movement seemed to make you feel good, to bring pleasure to your body. You know, there's this curious contradiction about dance: Most of the dancing we ballet dancers do makes you feel very uncomfortable, or it even puts you in pain. But then there's this other impulse to feel good."
Anatomic Balm" began to take shape around the contrast between "the discipline of classical dancing and the contemporary generation of dancers who rebel against this," as Feld put it. "Choreographically, it expressed itself as a tension between formality and its opposite. There's one section in the ballet, for instance, that we refer to as 'bayadere' -- it's a group dance for 12 women that uses a very formal kind of repetition. But then the movement begins breaking it down -- it's like seeing a traditional painting in which the paint begins to drip; the original painting gets 'lost,' but another, new kind of picture gets made in the process."
Zukofsky, by the way, will be on hand to perform in person for "Anatomic Balm," along with company pianist Peter Longiaru. Conductor Jesse Levine will lead the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the remainder of the Feld repertoire, with the guest participation of singers Marsha Andrews, Grayson Hirst and James Maddalena.
Music plays a highly significant role -- as it does in most Feld choreography -- in "Circa," another recent ballet which has a score taken from infrequently heard music by Paul Hindemith, including parts of the "Symphonia Serena," and the "Trauermusik" (in a version for solo cello and strings), "I started this one a very long time ago, too," Feld observes, "I knoew the music and had some vague notions about it, so I began working, but it just didn't pan out -- that often happens. Then, about a year ago, I worked steadily on it for about three weeks. But I came to this point where I just had no idea what the ballet wanted me to do next. That's when I think choreography is hardest. The notion that you're ever in control is ridiculous, of course -- you are in its service. But when you come to these moments when you can't figure out where it -- the work -- wants to go, it makes you feel, well, very inadequate. Two things finally helped me, and I later referred to them in the program notes. One was a Homeric ode to Aphrodite, about how she came to her island, Cypress, and everyone was knocked about how she looked. The other was some song lyrics about one-eyed Etruscans playing 'follow the leader' around the edge of a vase. These were my points of departure, somehow -- an idea of something 'olden,' timeless, and the image of 'aphrodite, who was born of the sea and returns to the sea."
Another new Feld opus to be shown here is "scenes for the Theater," named after the Aaron Copeland score to which it is set. "it opens with a street scene," says the choreographer, "and the feeling is late '20s, early '30s -- it's very 'period' in flavor, with set and costumes by Willa Kim. In a general way, it's about the 'haves' -- the people who had jobs, love, home, hope -- and the 'have-nots.' There's no straight narrative, but there's a suggestion of story. Part of the impulse for me was kind of reinvestigation of the familiar, to be able to see old things anew or alive again. I'm very old-fashioned that way, I always think of art as an expression of feeling. But in this ballet, it becomes even more literal. I didn't want to have 'dancing' dancing -- the way ballet would usually abstract, enlarge or formalize ordinary movement. Rather, I wanted to have the dancers move the way people do, in daily life. One critic took me to task for the ballet's final gesture, in which a man turns his pockets insideout -- this was called 'too literal,' as if it weren't the most conscious of choices. Of course, it's a very pedestrian thing to do; that was the point -- to try to find the poetry in the mundane."
Also to be seen in the course of the Kennedy Center visit will be "Meadowlark," an early (1968) Feld piece to music by Haydn not previously staged here, and a revival of "Theatre," a commedia dell'arte fantasy to the Strauss "burleske" last performed at the center during the opening 1971 season by ABT. Completing the repertory will be "A Soldier's Tale," to the Stravinsky score; "A Footstep of Air," to folksong arrangements by Beethoven; and "Half Time," with music by Morton Gould. Of the 26 dancers in the present Feld Ballet Complement, nine have joined the troupe since its appearance here in 1979. Among the others will be such familiar notables as Christine Sarry, Jeff Satinoff, Remus Marcu, and Feld himself.