It's a sweltering day in New York City, and in an eighth-floor company studio on lower Broadway, dancers of the Feld Ballet are rehearsing a new piece. They're flying at high velocity between four slanted wooden platforms, which they are using alternately as springboards, slides and runways. Choreographer Eliot Feld stands close by, barking counts and directions. A tape recorder blares out the relentlessly pulsating music -- it's by Steve Reich.
This was last week. The piece is called "Bent Planes," and it has yet to have a public performance. Another new Feld opus, called "Echo," will be shown in a "preview" performance at Wolf Trap this week when the troupe returns to Washington after a five-year absence. "Echo," too -- a 17-minute solo for Feld dancer Cheryl Jones -- has a score by Reich.
In fact, these two works are the fifth and sixth ballets in a row Feld will have created to music by Reich. Three of them will be seen at Wolf Trap -- "Echo" and "The Grand Canon" Tuesday and Wednesday, and "Medium: Rare" on Monday evening's opening program. And though Feld has previously used music by American composers ranging from Gershwin and Copland to Ives and Cage, Reich is the first composer of a younger generation he's turned to.
Clearly Feld is on a Reich binge. "The odd part of it is," he says, "that I'm a Johnny-come-lately with Reich. I started listening to his music I guess about three years ago, and at first it just made me mad, and I'd dismiss it. I'd think to myself, 'Hey, what is this -- c'mon, let's get on with it.' "
Reich is one of the nation's leading and still controversial "minimalists," whose style is marked by heavy batteries of percussion, layers of steady pulse shifting intricately but subtly in phase and accent, and relatively stable supporting harmonies. Some listeners find the lengthy repetitions a stumbling block, but many choreographers, including Laura Dean, Lucinda Childs and Jerome Robbins, have been attracted to Reich's intriguing rhythmic patterns.
Feld became a solid convert. "I told myself there must be something going on in this music that people are hearing but I'm not, and I kept listening. I suppose it was a matter of expectations. I expected music to be doing certain things that Reich's music failed to do, and so I rejected it.
"Then, suddenly, it just opened up for me. I think it's the ambiguity of upbeat and downbeat that got to me. The music defies gravity -- you're listening and it starts to hover, you don't know what part of what measure you're in, where the accent is. It begins to float, like it's got yeast in it, like my grandma's hallah -- it lofts itself.
"I'm also fascinated by Reich's use of the device of the canon strict imitation by one voice of another , which is what I do choreographically. It was a thrilling discovery for me, especially to be able to be moved and motivated by the music of my own time -- it's driven me to find new forms in dance, to explore new areas I'd never imagined possible."
of the most imaginative American choreographers, was born in Brooklyn and got some of his earliest theatrical experience in the Broadway cast (and later the film) of "West Side Story" before pursuing a career as a dancer and choreographer with American Ballet Theatre and later his own troupe. For many years the Feld Ballet was a seasonal visitor at Wolf Trap and more recently the Kennedy Center.
In the time since Feld was last in town, much has happened to him and his troupe. For one thing, they reclaimed the old Elgin movie theater in Manhattan's Chelsea district and turned it into the handsomely equipped, 500-seat Joyce Theater, which has become not only a permanent home base for the Feld company but a major center for dance presentation in a city hungry for viable stage facilities.
For another, the New Ballet School, which Feld founded in 1977, has now begun to produce dancers qualified for the company -- two alumni are entering the Feld Ballet this season.
"It's a dream come true," Feld says. "We said when we started that it takes about eight years to train a professional dancer, and now it's happened. It all began years ago when I'd ride the subway and watch these 7-, 8- or 9-year-olds capering around, and I thought, there's probably a million of these kids in the school system, and most of them don't have the money or the opportunity to study dance. Why don't we go to the schools, I thought, identify the talented and interested ones, and bring them here to our studios? So we did. We went to the New York City school board, found funding for the program and started auditioning all over the city.
"Of course, a lot of them drop out right away, in the first year -- maybe 60 percent, when they find out it's not playing, just hard work. But they all get something out of it, if only a chance to see another part of the city, to watch a professional company rehearsing, to listen to a piano and watch themselves in a mirror and get a sense of another kind of life. In nine years we've auditioned some 40,000 kids in 133 public schools. About 2,000 have been accepted for classes -- the enrollment in any year runs about 250. And it's all free.
"Another great thing about it is that the kids we get reflect the ethnic mix of the school system -- about 70 percent of them are from the minorities. The two boys who are entering the company from the school are black. That's not the reason they're coming into the company -- they're coming because they're good dancers. But they'll also be the first black members of the company."
Some other changes in the interim -- his own greater productivity and enlarging the repertory with older and newer work by other choreographers -- Feld believes may be due to a change in his perspective since he stopped dancing.
"I loved being a dancer, especially in the early years -- getting on the bus, the camaraderie, the feeling of family, the bitching about it, the doing it -- I adored it. But when I got into my late thirties, it began to feel like it was no longer dancing. When you're younger you're in a wonderful place where your body feels well oiled. Afterwards, it's like make-believe, and you just can't get into it the same way, so I quietly tapered off."
Of today's young dancers, Feld says: "The general level of technique among dancers has certainly improved since my own starting days. I think the demands put on dancers have also greatly increased. They live a little better than we did, perhaps, but that's right, that's as it should be. But my dancers also work harder than I ever did. Doing new ballets is always particularly challenging, and that's what my company does most of the time. Sometimes you hear that today's dancers don't have the dedication, the commitment the older ones did, but I think that's nonsense. It's all a matter of individuals -- there aren't fewer dedicated people in the world.
"I like and admire my dancers. They're smart, they're musical, they work hard. They have the capacity to serve, and the capacity to enjoy serving, and that's what we're all about -- we're all in service."
Along with the trio of Reich ballets, the Wolf Trap programs will also include two of Feld's earliest and most enduringly popular works -- "Harbinger" and "Intermezzo No. 1" -- as well as three more recent ballets in their Washington premieres -- "Adieu," set to songs by Hugo Wolf; "The Jig Is Up," to Celtic folk music; and "Straw Hearts," to turn-of-the-century ballroom tunes.