White Petticoats and Sailor Suits

The Village Voice 12 Mar 1970English

item doc

I remember seeing John Cranko's Pineapple Poll when the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet toured the United States in 1951. It fitted easily and happily into my somewhat limited concept of ballet and theatre: limited because, in the first place, I grew up in Los Angeles, and, in the second place, for years I was taken to nothing that had the remotest chance of giving me nightmares. So, theatre to me meant Sigmund Romberg, Gilbert and Sullivan, Fokine, and Massine - maybe Shaw and Noel Coward for weightier stuff. I thought Oklahoma! the height of realism until Streetcar and Death of a Salesman came to town and knocked me for a loop.

Pineapple Poll has been reproduced by David Blair for the City Center Joffrey Ballet, and I have inserted the foregoing tedious background material on myself - rather than on the ballet - to explain the ambivalence of my reaction toward it. I smiled often, laughed outright, felt perfectly comfortable. I also sympathized completely with the girl slouched down in front of me with her eyes closed and my husband, restless and appalled, polishing his watch.

Poll is an old-fashioned ballet bouffe, and it might as well have been composed in 1921 as in 1951. The music is a Sullivan potpourri arranged by Charles Mackerras, and the plot is loosely based on The Bumboat Woman's Story - one of Gilbert's Bab Ballads. The scenery by Osbert Lancaster is several canvas views of a charming, colorful, pollution-free London dockside. The sailors and their sweethearts are as working class as the leisure classes could bear to see them for the purposes of art: handsome, hearty, and very clean. This wholesome British crew rollicks through symmetrically arranged sequences that are similar in shape to the sung choruses in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The girls hop yearningly after Captain Belaye for, say, four bars; the sailors haul them back by the waists for four bars; the sailors threaten Belaye for four bars; during the last four bars, everybody returns to position to repeat the whole sequence. Hardly brain-tickling stuff. And since Cranko was considerably less tricky with movement than he is now, there is a lot of lively dancing, but little that is exciting or unexpected.

The plot is blessedly easy to follow and concerns the unrequited love of Poll, the Bumboat Woman (a bumboat was a small boat that carried provisions to ships anchored in a harbor or dockside), for Captain Belaye, who is quite happy with his dizzy fiancée jasper, a potboy, loves Poll unrequitedly, so everything works out. Poll is not the only girl to be smitten with Belaye, and at one point all the girls dress up as sailors in order to sneak on the ship to be near him. Where they got that many small sailor suits in such a short time is no one's concern. This is a ballet bouffe, remember. Nor should you expect that Belaye will think it at all odd that one of his sailors is wearing pointe shoes.

Anyway, I think Sullivan was one of the great pop musicians of all time, and his jolly tunes keep the ballet bouncing, and fortunately Cranko also kept things jigging along. The Joffrey company did dance it splendidly. The boys playing sailors seemed to take special pleasure in their combination of fist-clenching, sweetheart-cuddling, and tours en Pair. Chartel Arthur was nicely woebegone as Pineapple Poll. I like her droopy bourrées and a way she has of pouting that makes her face look as if it were melting. The most genuine pleasure of the evening came from Edward Verso's characterization of Captain Belaye. His dapperness and dash came not just from his bearing or his swanky costume, but from a marvelous suavity in his dancing-an assurance absolutely unmarred by effort.

My father used to say that he loved those early musical comedies that opened with a lot of pretty girls in very short skirts hanging out laundry and singing like mad. Well, nobody does any washing in Pineapple Poll, but they do a lot of what usually followed the singing in those musicals: the girls all run into a huddle with their heads together and their tails out-swishing their white petticoats and giggling. Judging from the audience reaction, someone could probably make a pile with a few Victor Herbert revivals.