Dance Review: CONCERTO BAROCCO: A BALANCHINE BALLET (American Contemporary Ballet)

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by William Keiser on June 16, 2023

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles


What is the true nature of beauty? Do objects we find beautiful contain beauty, or, as Plato theorized, do they merely reflect its true heavenly form? These are the questions posed by American Contemporary Ballet’s evening, Concerto Barocco: A Balanchine Ballet. And when I say these are the questions posed, I am not using metaphor. Slightly more than midway through the dance performance, an actor in a brown double-breasted suit walks onstage and scrawls on a chalkboard, in big letters, BEAUTY. In affected mid-Atlantic drawl, he explains Plato’s allegory of the cave to the audience. “Beauty belongs to the [perfect] realm,” he tells us. “Objects in the world are mere Forms.”

In ACB’s exploration of beauty, Concerto Barocco starts the evening, followed by a live violin duet, intermission, an opera solo, the “important note about beauty,” another chamber music piece, and an original ballet by the company’s director, Lincoln Jones. It’s a varied program: more cabaret or variety show than traditional evening of concert dance. If this is unusual to you, be forewarned: nothing about ACB is conventional, starting with its venue: the penthouse of an office building. The audience sits on risers right up against the dancers, in full sight of the musicians, with wide windows offering panoramic views of Los Angeles from above as the sun sets. It’s a strikingly intimate setting for dance, but it’s also pedestrian, low ceilings with exposed wires making lifts seem occasionally precarious.

Because of the limitations (or benefits) of the space, ACB’s evenings are planned as immersive experiences. Getting there is a multi-step process; after you purchase your ticket, you show up to a hulking parking garage in downtown and enter the lobby of the skyscraper at 2 California Plaza. Amy Jones, the director’s sister and the company’s “Royal Scribe,” greets you with a smile and checks you off an attendance list, a personal touch. You check in with building security. At the half-hour point before the show, you are escorted to an elevator with other dancegoers and sent up to the top floor. An usher points you past a boiler room and supply closet to an unmarked door. Inside is the studio, with its non-elevated stage, risers, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a curtain behind which the dancers change.

As you enter the space, there’s a champagne reception for all guests (on opening night only). But this one has a curious twist. Beside the drinks table is an array of glass museum cases containing bottles of perfume, each corresponding to a specific (female) company dancer. For example, the fragrance for principal dancer Madeline Houk is Tubereuse Absolue: “top notes of galbanum, cardamom, lavender and bergamot; heart notes of tuberose, gardenia, jasmine sambec and broom.” I am told that Jones personally picked the fragrance for each dancer. This is a nod, creepiness notwithstanding, to George Balanchine, who purportedly did the same for his “muses” in the 1960s. Once you ascend the elevator, you’ve already entered an environment dedicated to beauty in its physical form, in which dancers are considered a priori beautiful, distilled into fragrances, and pressed into idealized avatars, and the dance hasn’t even yet begun.

The dance begins. For an evening about beauty – its objects and beholders – the choice of Concerto Barocco as centerpiece is a fitting one. Among Balanchine’s first works for New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco features a corps of eight women who form abstract patterns, hop on pointe, and grapevine gracefully between and among each other, while a lone man lifts the two soloists back and forth. It’s a white leotard ballet. It’s dainty and precise and lyrical, and it embodies Balanchine’s famous assertion that “ballet is woman.” In that vein, American Contemporary Ballet’s version is loyal to the original. The corps de ballet are drilled to perfect synchronization. Principal dancer Madeline Houk brings a fierce athleticism to the part of “first violin,” arabesque line consistently higher than 90 degrees. Paige Wilkey, as second violin, crafts a beguiling dramatic interpretation that complements Houk’s sinuous strength. There are many points within the piece at which the two “violins” (the two principals) face each other, darting quickly on and off pointe, and this is the real magic of the piece, the energy that is shared between the two. What are they conveying to each other? It’s as if they share a secret, all of these heavenly women in white, but especially the two violins. They are wardens of a cult of Diana, or messengers from the celestial realm, and those confessional moments are laden with sweaty mystery. In contrast, Maté Szentes, the lone man, gets a banal workout. In one section of the piece, he lifts Houk from an arabesque on one foot into the air in a split to arabesque on the other foot, and then does that again, back and forth, four more times.

As a former dancer, I noticed technical flaws in the dancers, especially regarding strength of pointework; Jones seems to have picked them primarily for their pulchritude, not their proficiency. But in spite of my technical objections, I am impressed with the overall quality of the piece.

After Barocco, the evening goes quickly off the rails. We are presented with a chamber music duet (just musicians, no dancers), the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Violin and Viola, then intermission. Then a number that strikes me as one of the most bizarre burlesque oddities I’ve ever seen; a group of dancers in white lace leotards, frilly at the bottoms like lingerie (maybe it is actual lingerie), pearl chokers, and white corsets done up with red ribbons. They walk out in pointe shoes and bare legs, tied to an opera singer (Anna Schubert). As Schubert excellently sings an aria from Vivaldi’s Giustino, the dancers weave among her, binding her in their red corset ribbons. The dancers don’t dance, they simply walk, like high-end strippers, the pointe shoes their stilettos, entwining Schubert in their ribboned web. By the end, the singer is immobilized, recalling a Steampunk BDSM aesthetic, though none of this feels purposeful.

The following scene is the “important note about beauty,” and then more chamber music, and then, finally, Jones’s new ballet. This new ballet is an almost exact copy of Concerto Barocco, using the same conceits. It features the one man as people mover; the women are dainty and stuck in two formations. The corps form a backdrop to two soloists, who perform similar steps to what we just saw in Barocco: grapevining in and among each other, darting onto pointe, doing attitudes front. The corps wear hideous lavender and light green short dresses adorned with hanging folds of fabric, fake flowers pinned amateurishly in their hair. My gaze drifts and I’m unable to watch anyone except Carmen Callahan, who, to use dance slang, is living. Even from her place in the corps, she inhabits the steps, instead of merely going through them. Her expression dares the audience to challenge her as she twists her torso in épaulé or strokes the air in reverence, like the steps are words she’s always wanted to use.

When the piece ends, in spite of my drifted attention, I silently entreat the dancers to please do one more piece. I am hungry for more dance and then the lights come up and it’s time to go home. A portion of the audience steps forward with flowers for friends and daughters. I am struck with the impression of the night being an elaborate recital.

At the end, I am not sure how to classify ACB or the evening. On one hand, what it lacks in professionalism, it makes up for in creativity, but on the other hand, the company perpetuates some of ballet’s most harmful foibles. It’s an all-white or white-passing company with a nearly all-white audience, but it’s not elite or snobby. One woman I talk to in the audience describes ballet up close as superior to ballet in a proscenium space, which she considers “far away.” That distance implies financial positioning – seats up close always cost more money. I picture the ACB audience as people who’ve seen the Nutcracker only from the nosebleed section and feel that at ACB they get the same quality of ballet zoomed in, at a fraction of the cost.

It’s not the same quality of ballet, though. A major ballet company has as many men as women; the women do more things with their bodies than hop onto pointe, bourrée, and look pretty. At its worst, ACB is a harem for director and founder Lincoln Jones, a sort of Barbie doll playpen for an adult man with a ballerina fetish. It’s a simulacrum of the richness that ballet holds, simplified and amplified for an audience that doesn’t get to access the real thing.

On the other hand, access is a good thing, right? One thing that strikes me about the audience is that there are so many straight men in it. I can’t tell if they are the macho fathers of the pretty women performing or new fans of ballet, but there is a distinct whiff of manliness to the whole affair.

If ACB is problematic, it all goes back to the central basis of the evening: beauty, whether as contained in objects or reflected in them. The dancers, here, are the objects in the display case of the stage: skinny, beautiful statues with dresses and lipstick, isolated from their classical setting in an opera house and put on display in a studio, inches from the audience. Balanchine’s assertion that “ballet is woman” fits perfectly with the evening and Jones’s ethos. But Balanchine’s quote doesn’t end with “ballet is woman.” The real quote is this one:

“Man is a better cook, a better painter, a better musician, composer. Everything is man – sports – everything. Man is stronger, faster. Why? Because we have muscles, and we’re made that way. And woman accepts this. It is her business to accept. She knows what’s beautiful. Men are great poets, because they have to write beautiful poetry for women—odes to a beautiful woman. Woman accepts the beautiful poetry. You see, man is the servant—a good servant. In ballet, however, woman is first. Everywhere else man is first. But in ballet, it’s the woman. All my life I have dedicated my art to her.” (Gruen 1976:284).

I do not have an issue with beautiful women, or with a male ode to female beauty. I happen to love Balanchine’s work, when situated in context. However, I did not see any evidence in the evening that Jones is aware of beauty not “of women” but from women, through women, through men, in men, in people. Like the perfumes in the cases, Jones’s dances are sickly sweet, floral or vanilla, never sandalwood or sea moss or musk. As a gay man, I am trapped in a world defined by straight men’s tastes; Art is usually a welcome respite. But at ACB, I was surprised to find myself in that rare substratum of the arts which is a man’s ode to the idealized female: man’s fantasy of woman. In ACB, Ballet is man. Man who adores woman.

Even with all that, I still cannot say that it wasn’t an interesting, fun, and thought-provoking evening. Go, if you are intrigued, rather than triggered, by the above. Go if you enjoy whimsy and immersion, or if you are a straight man, new to ballet. Go if you enjoy a personal and unpretentious touch within a snooty art form. Concerto Barocco: A Balanchine Ballet is running for one more weekend.

poster photo by Victor Demarchelier

Concerto Barocco: A Balanchine Ballet
American Contemporary Ballet
Two California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Avenue, 28th floor, in DTLA
at 8
at 8
for tickets ($40 – $110), visit ACB

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