You Can't Choreograph a Penis

The Village Voice 6 Apr 1972English

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I'm not sure why I like the dancers of the Netherlands Dance Theatre so much. Perhaps this is the reason: they're frequently asked to perform flamboyant, melodramatic movement, and they do it with fervor, but without that sense of showing off for the audience that, say, Béjart's dancers have. They're glamorous, but not aggressive about it. They're also very fluid.

The company's image has changed since its last visit here. When Ben Harkarvy was associated with it, there were apt to be ballets – real period pieces - in the repertory. And in 1968, most of the dances were by Hans van Manen - heavy, expressionistic stuff full of interesting designs. Now the company has more dances by Glen Tetley, and his style and van Manen's have moved closer together. I've seen two of the programs currently being offered at the Brooklyn Academy. Surprising, Mutations, Imaginary Film, Squares, Small Parades all display a frosty chic and strongly linear space patterns and decor. The chromium and neon, the clean-lined white costumes, the total absence of color, the balanced designs in the choreography are like exhibits in some intergalactic industrial fair. Yet the movement itself is not dry; it's curved, elastic, dramatic - a mélange of ballet and classic modern dance. Aimless voluptuosity in an ice and steel prison.

Glen Tetley strikes me as a very brainy choreographer. Usually what I remember and cherish from his dances are moments in which his designs of bodies in space produce a quick, microcosmic symbol of his whole concept. I remember the women in Mythical Hunters carried in like goddesses in the frame of the white half circles they hold. I remember in the same dance the sudden rush of men that leaves a novice maiden curled on the floor. I remember the squat central figure of Ziggurat and a fish-like plunge of male dancers. I remember the magical entrances and T'ai Chi exercises in Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain. I remember Jaap Flier's bare, anguished torso set against the black-costumed Rembrandt men in The Anatomy Lesson. I'm usually fascinated and frustrated by Tetley's work - fascinated because of his ideas or his images, frustrated because of the superabundance of weighty and complicated movement which shows no growth or change, and because he cannot seemingly let a dance be itself, but must always be angling it for you.

Mutations is not the first naked ballet I've seen, but it is the first in which nudity (and corresponding clothes fetishes) is the subject matter. Tetley works very skillfully at preparing the audience for the first live naked body, so skillfully that he almost achieves the reverse of what he intended. (Who knows what he intended? Typical shoddy critical k ... ) He teases you. Come on, Tetley, bring on the guys.

The pace of Mutations is slow and deliberate. The mood created is that of an erotic ritual. Many of the dancers enter down a ramp in the center aisle, emerging into a squared-off arena that is defined by its white floor and a fence of chromium tubing structures. (These look sort of like contemporary sofas without the seat.) The first male solo (Johan Meyer) and the group dance that later echoes him is muscular, deliberate, frontal, full of deep squats in second position. This is followed by a beautiful, slow motion film solo choreographed by Hans van Manen (he did most of the film parts and Tetley all the live ones). Gérard Lemaitre dances it naked. The action on stage alternates with filmed action until the end. Here are some of the things that happen on stage: two young men in flesh-colored jockstraps engage in a combat that has sexual overtones; four young men charge up the ramp, smear themselves with red paint, and engage in angry copulation-dancing with four women; three naked men dance with aggressive formality; a man and woman dance ceremoniously about the stage on tall platform shoes, he with a boxy padding around his genitals, she with a built-out plastic window that reveals her bare breasts-space age totem figures. The second film shows Lemaitre and Anya Licher in a dreamily intimate pas de deux on the floor. This time the camera is intimate too and roams over their bodies; he is naked, she wears what looks like a lavender polo shirt over trunks. The third film, slow motion, is of a clothed pas de trois. Finally, Lemaitre and Licher perform the short duet naked in front of all three films. The first film, by the way, is remarkable in a couple of ways. In the first place, Lemaitre has such a flawless sense of the line of his body that he is incapable of clumsiness, even in slow motion. In the second place, it is heartening, especially in this plethora of controlled dynamics, to see that the penis refuses to be choreographed.

Critics are pampered. We don't pay for our seats, which are generally choice ones. However, two angry letters pointed out to me that only those in orchestra seats could see the whole of Mutations in Brooklyn. The ramp extending into the audience was invisible from the mezzanine and the upper balconies. "To what degree, " complained one letter writer, do a choreographer and a dance company have a responsibility to the whole audience? " It seems to me folly for a choreographer to use space innovatively without considering the kinds of theaters his work is going to be seen in.