Gerald Arpino was incorrectly identified in a caption in Sunday's Show section. He is artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. (Published 1/2/91)
Here we are a year into the '90s and the time has again come for a backward glance. The big picture for dance does not seem, insofar as I'm able to reckon, substantially different from what it was from the vantage point of the decade's beginning, when it appeared clear enough that the major determinant of the art's future would be a global push toward cultural diversity and equity. The dance scene in Washington in 1990, as elsewhere, afforded some small but appreciable steps in that direction.
Otherwise, it was a year like other years, with its not inconsiderable share of memorable works and performances, its sporadic surprises and disappointments, and also its moments of crisis -- endemic to the dance world, but rather alarmingly on the rise in recent times.
Before we get to the particulars, however, and at the risk of belaboring the obvious, it would be well to recall that calendar years aren't coextensive with the regular annual seasons in the performing arts. Looking at things from January to December is a natural and probably unavoidable habit, but it's not necessarily identical with the aspect of September to August, which is the way dance seasons are planned and run, by and large.
Sticking strictly to 1990 could be misleading in some instances. An example: the Washington Ballet home season annually falls into four phases -- a fall, winter and spring series of performances, and the holiday stretch of "Nutcrackers." The '90-91 season has traversed the first two and the last of these phases thus far. What remains to come, though -- the spring series, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in mid-May -- could well transform the whole appearance of the company's artistic landscape. It is in the course of this series that the troupe will hazard its boldest additions to the repertory all season, in a series of company premieres of works by Rex Bickmore, Monica Levy, Alonzo King and Martine van Hamel.
Washington felt the reverberations this year of threatened catastrophes that beset three of the nation's major ballet companies. The Dance Theatre of Harlem situation came first, when early in the year, facing an unexpected gap between projected and actual income, the troupe was forced to cancel a New York season and lay off its dancers for a six-month period. The DTH performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House in March were the last before the suspension, and took on added poignancy.
A few months later, Artistic Director Gerald Arpino resigned from the Joffrey Ballet in protest of the board's attempt to wrest artistic control from his hands. And just last month, deadlocked negotiations between American Ballet Theatre management and its dancers over a new labor contract led to the dismal prospect of total dissolution.
As it turned out, all three emergencies were resolved. DTH announced some major new grants in June, enabling the company to reconvene its dancers, begin rehearsals, undertake a tour and plan a new season. Arpino's opponents on the Joffrey board caved in and departed, and by the time the company appeared, as scheduled, at Wolf Trap last summer, Arpino was back securely in the driver's seat, where he belonged. At ABT, concessions on both sides led shortly to a new three-year agreement and a welcome spirit of reconciliation.
Thus these storms were weathered. But how much longer can such exercises in brinkmanship continue to erupt before something dreadful ensues? The problems that were herein inflamed to the boiling point -- escalating costs and uncertainties of touring, increasing friction between boards and artistic directors, and the reluctance of mostly underpaid dancers to further subsidize the institutions they make possible -- aren't about to disappear.
As for uncertain futures, a particularly tantalizing one hovers about the shoulders of Mark Morris, the extraordinary American dancer-choreographer whose performances with his troupe at the Eisenhower Theater in October head my list of the year's highlights. A couple of seasons back, Morris was lured to Brussels by the promise of lavish facilities and support for a three-year period that will end next June. Once there, he found himself embroiled in flagrant controversy, splitting the Belgian public and press into ferociously partisan camps. On tour here this year, he displayed the creative fruits that Belgian largess -- far exceeding anything a dance artist could hope for in this country -- had made feasible.
In works that ranged from the deliriously romantic ("Love Song Waltzes") to the humorously wistful ("Going Away Party") to the darkly apocalyptic ("Behemoth") to the cheekily frivolous ("Pas de Poisson") -- not to mention such pre-Belgian treasures as "Canonic 3/4 Studies" and the spiritually impassioned "Gloria" -- it was clear that he'd given his European hosts far more than their money's worth. But what will the returning prodigal do, come July and beyond, to keep abreast of his own unruly and prolific talents? Most recently, he's teamed up with Mikhail Baryshnikov, supplying the choreographic larder for the latter's new White Oak touring project. The larger questions about the future of Morris and his superb company, however, remain unanswered. Where is the visionary Maecenas among his countrymen who will assure Morris of the secure creative berth foreigners so readily accorded him?
It would be futile to try to evoke here in detail the year's dance events worthy of recall -- unnecessary if you were there, inadequate if you weren't. For the sake of citing them for the record, however, and for whatever worth my very personal choices might have, here in capsule is the rest of my list of outstanding 1990 occurrences, by no means rank-ordered:
"Union Station Dancing," the remarkable concatenation of dancers and musicians from Washington (Liz Lerman and the Dance Exchange, Djimo Kouyate, and the Eastern High School Choir) and New York (Marta Renzi and the Project Company, Christopher Janney, and Stephan Koplowitz) in a site-specific, admission-free festivity glorifying one of the city's grandest public spaces;
"Washington, Front & Center: A Celebration of Dance" at the Terrace Theater, illustrating the broad gamut of resident dance artists (Lerman, tap dancer Johne Forges, West African dance specialist Assane Konte and classical Indian dancer Nabaghana Shyam Singha);
the program labeled "JazzTap" at the Terrace (though I wasn't in town to enjoy it) and other events marking the first National Tap Dance Day -- in itself an overdue recognition of a uniquely American art form -- last May;
"Black to the Future," the program at Dance Place in which three African American dancer-choreographers of today's creative vanguard -- New York's Donald Byrd and Ishmael Houston-Jones, and Washington's "Ajax" Joe Drayton -- demonstrated so yeasty a variety of themes and styles;
the Washington Ballet's first appearance on the Kennedy Center's ballet series at the Opera House, offering (for the first time) two programs during the week-long run, highlighted by Choo-San Goh's haunting "In the Glow of the Night";
the return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater under Judith Jamison's direction, in repertory that included Ailey masterworks and such a profoundly impressive recent dance as Ulysses Dove's "Episodes";
the return of the Feld Ballet, after too long an absence, reminding us of the rare choreographic brilliance and theatrical imagination of Eliot Feld;
the Washington debut of the Boston Ballet, led by Bruce Marks, clearly one of the nation's leading classical troupes;
the amazingly high level of dancing artistry during the run of the Dance Theatre of Harlem;
the visit by the San Francisco Ballet, reaching a zenith in the exquisite portrayal of Aurora by Elizabeth Loscavio in the company's new, uneven production of "Sleeping Beauty" (Loscavio belongs with Christina Johnson at DTH, Joffrey's Tina LeBlanc and the Pennsylvania Ballet's Roseanne Germer in a new generation of classical ballerinas worthy of the tradition they exemplify);
American Ballet Theatre's spring programs, especially the Twyla Tharp ballets ("Brief Fling," "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "In the Upper Room" in particular) that represent the form's cutting edge;
the Wolf Trap appearances by the Joffrey and the Miami City Ballet; the deeply affecting concert of works -- based on experiences of the Holocaust -- by the courageous septuagenarian Washington dance pioneer Pola Nirenska at Dance Place;
the performance in Baltimore by Nathan Birch's Next Ice Age troupe, with John Curry as guest artist, verifying the wonderful artistic potential and unique appeal of skating;
and the recent Washington debut by the Doug Elkins Dance Company at Dance Place, disclosing Elkins's raffish and ingenious assimilation of recent street and social dances into a postmodern context.
No account of the year past would be sufficient without reference to an extraordinary event at the Smithsonian last February, a two-day symposium on African American dance that brought together distinguished artists of the highest level -- including Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus -- as well as scholars, critics and philosophers in a wide-ranging exploration of contemporary and historical issues. The principal point that emerged was the dismaying extent to which African American contributions to dance art in all its aspects remain under-acknowledged and undervalued, both by the public and within the field itself. The event's chief performance aspect was a wholly remarkable program by New York's Dianne McIntyre and her troupe -- part dance, part vaudeville, all of it pungently infused with African American folklore and pop sensibilities -- accompanied by superb musicians. Among these was the jazz innovator Don Pullen, whose solo performance at the keyboard was nothing short of phenomenal in the way of virtuosity and harmonic invention. This was piano playing -- and music-making -- as staggering as any I've ever encountered.
Off the conventional track too were the local appearances by performance artists Tim Miller (at New Playwright's Theater) and Holly Hughes (at Dance Place) proving definitively that their artistic credentials rest on extremely solid ground. They aren't fearful of dealing with content some people regard as ticklish or distasteful, including sexual identity; they both address such subjects with artistic insight, wit and revelatory imagination.
Let's not dwell much on disappointments. Perhaps the most severe were the Bolshoi Ballet at Wolf Trap, in its present overblown but artistically anemic state, and the letdown of the Ballet National de Marseilles Roland Petit at the Kennedy Center Opera House, after the exhilaration of their previous visit. Add in -- despite the very engaging impression left by the Australian Ballet, led by Maina Gielgud, in most of its fare -- the laughably dispensable version of "Spartacus" on which they unfortunately wasted four performances at the Opera House. Lastly, let it be noted that the Kennedy Center Honors failed for the second time in its 13-year history to include a dance artist among its awardees, a seemingly indefensible omission given the world preeminence of American dance artistry.
In the nation at large, 1990 will also be remembered as the year in which American Ballet Theatre -- which has the most comprehensive classical repertory of any company in the world -- celebrated its 50th anniversary in a star-studded gala at the Met (repeated, with changes, in other cities including Washington); in which the New York City Ballet paid homage to the genius of Jerome Robbins with an extended retrospective of his ballets; and in which the Boston Ballet entered into a historic collaboration with Leningrad's Kirov Ballet for a joint production of "Swan Lake." Sadly, it will also be recalled as the year we lost the outstanding, indefatigable, great-hearted jazz tap master Steve Condos, who died at 71 of a sudden heart seizure just after performing at the Lyons (France) Biennale de la Danse.