American Ballet Comedy, a New York-based touring troupe that appeared at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre last night, is unmistakably American, all right, but what they do isn't really either ballet or comedy.
Instead, the company of 10 performers, led by director and choreographer Bob Bowyer, specializes in slapstick acrobatic pranks. The material is built upon a dance base, but it's heavily larded with pratfalls, very broad physical puns and preposterously tacky props and costumes. The Tawes program of 16 numbers, to music ranging from classical to pop to soul, also took some turns toward the saccharine.
The evening's one premiere, "Michelle Meshuga: Rock Star," seemed typical of the Bowyer approach. It featured a woman in a skin-tight outfit with a flaming red Tina Turner mane, clutching a mike and lip-syncing the vocals while her body humped and bumped to beat the band. Eventually she was joined by a couple of back-ups, and as her gyrations accelerated to the breaking point, two men in white coats wrestled her into a strait-jacket and carried her away -- offstage, through the aisles.
Other numbers flayed away at chorus lines, modern dance, balletic pas de deux, nightclub acts, flamenco, pantomime skits and much else. But the gags were far too blatant to qualify as satire, parody or travesty, for the most part. There's a long and honorable tradition of dance comedy, extending into our own time with such exponents as the Trocks, Mitchell Rose or Jerome Robbins, for example, in his superb ballet lampoon, "The Concert." Bowyer's stuff is something else again -- comedy not so much by means of, but at the expense of dance. The comic genre the troupe comes closest to is burlesque.
The performers have more than enough gymnastic, circus and dance skills to cope with Bowyer's demands upon them, and Bowyer's own clowning -- he most often plays the sad-faced patsy -- puts a personal stamp on the shenanigans. Nevertheless, the execution is often slapdash. In comedy, even imprecision needs to be precise -- the audience has to know whether the performers are sloppy on purpose or not. The weakest aspect of the show, however, is the lack of surprise or subtlety -- Bowyer makes a constant beeline for the obvious. American Ballet Comedy is for people who think pie throwing, silly hats and wiggling rumps are the height of humor.