The Hybrid: Very Showy, Will Root in any Soil

Dance Calendar 1 May 1975English

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A while back-I think it was during the late fifties - people started talking about an eventual "marriage" of ballet and modern dance (the kind that used to be written with a capital "m" and a capital "d"). I forget just why it was supposed to be a good idea.

It never happened. At least, it never happened in the way we envisioned it. Balletmakers like George Balanchine or Frederick Ashton or Jerome Robbins have kept right on making ballets - concentrating on pushing deeper into the possibilities inherent in the classical vocabulary and making their concessions to contemporary life through an increase in speed and drive and complexity or by subtly altering the ways dancers on stage treat each other. And what is commonly called "modern dance" has continued to produce rebels who shake things up - producing works that look no more like modern dance in the great Graham-Humphrey-Limón tradition than they do like ballets.

But a cross-pollination did occur, and it produced a hybrid style that, typically, is showy, bright-colored, and intricately convoluted. It's my theory that the development of this style - modern ballet? balleto-modern dance?- has been abetted by studio-hopping dancers. These days, many dancers train in all styles; they're ready for anything and committed to nothing. Their high extensions and lithe, powerful bodies have inspired ballet choreographers like Gerald Arpino to create "modern" works and choreographers with backgrounds in modern dance (as venerated as Alvin Ailey, as up-and-coming as Kathryn Posin) to experiment with the kind of virtuosic display that modern dance has traditionally shunned. And today, there are quite a few choreographers whose works seem at home in the repertories of either ballet companies or contemporary dance companies: Lar Lubovitch, John Butler, Glen Tetley. Tetley, one of the most gifted and influential of balleto-modern choreographers, is now the artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet (due to visit New York at the end of May), and, incidentally, he may have been one of the first of the new breed of versatile dancers. During the fifties he performed with the companies of Martha Graham, John Butler, and Robert Joffrey. (I remember the shock of his beautifully arched feet in the days when male modern dancers tended to have that rough-hewn, I-am-a-man-who-happened-to-learn -to-dance" look.)

The dances created by those choreographers who blend ballet and modern dance techniques don't, of course, look all the same; but the hybrids do have a lot in common. Most of them contain generous saltings of ballet steps like pirouettes and arabesques, but don't project the long-lined clarity, the precision, the essential lightness of ballet. In fact, almost all of them tend to emphasize strength (not simply as a necessary concommitant of the dancers' technique, but as a carefully fostered illusion). This strength isn't the vigorous, direct, spare strength of early modern dance, but a kind of voluptuous forcefulness, a pressurized, high-protein muscularity. Deep weighted pliés, rippling arms, contracting and expanding torsos, frequent falls to the floor: these are just some of the modern dance "discoveries" - so suitable for dealing with 20th century angst - which have been helpful in beefing up the repertories of ballet companies here and abroad.

Modern ballet appears to have appropriated the gloomy, soulsearching subject matter that was once considered the exclusive province of modern dance. And the guilt. I'm constantly being surprised by the conservative attitude with which many balleto-modern choreographers approach the matter of sex. Which they approach often, and closely. They're not inhibited about the use of graphic positions, but the grim tone of the exquisitely sculpted couplings, the guilt and anguish that so often precede and follow them might be the products of a remorselessly puritanical consciousness. In John Butler's ballets, sex is often a stylized combat; with deadly accuracy, the woman wraps her legs around her partner, and the two of them fall to the floor and roll over and over. The pace is brisk and the tone almost gruff. The savage rite that Brian MacDonald concocted in Time Out of Mind is a nasty business for the participants - none of your Gleeful Primitive stuff. The baleful stares that Béjart dancers sometimes project toward each other pre- and post-coitum link sex to a painful operation.

There's undoubtedly something cathartic about stages full of beautiful, limber, contorted bodies dancing out our (?) guilts, but I think the catharsis arises more from the movement style than from the somber subject matter. The choreographers deal so drastically with the dancers' bodies-stretching them to their limits, but never allowing them to snap or flip away; twining them around each other in astonishing postures; making them press and thrust and push slowly through dancing, as if the atmosphere on this planet were getting thick from all our misdeeds. Yet the ugliness is seldom really ugly. Bad guys are sexy and menacing; they melt into handsome positions whatever their moral persuasion. They don't look weak or twisted or truly demented like, say, the Eldress in Doris Humphrey's With My Red Fires or Medea in Martha Graham's Cave of the Heart. And good men and women move like Olympic gymnasts. Happiness doesn't make them dance in a carefree way; it only makes them more athletic.

The style shows to best advantage in pieces like Tetley's Mythical Hunters or Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain, which seem to depict a world of alienated and priestly acrobats. The worst examples of the genre usually occur when portentous drama confronts ballet's traditionally easy-going approach to virtuosity: a girl who's just been raped and is about to be stabbed executes a masterful-if pleading-triple pirouette before succumbing. The problem, I think, is that balleto-modern however lofty the ideas, however distinguished many of the choreographers creating in this vein-is potentially an art of spectacle. Because it's so bold and squashy and vigorous and melodramatic, it can easily grab a popular audience in the gut. It can also, inadvertently perhaps, pander to an audience's response to stunts and to surface beauty ("What an extension!" "Did you see that jump?" "Does he have anything on?" "How can she stay up there?"), and in so doing draw attention to the materials of dance, rather than to dance itself.