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Post Mid-Air Changes: Ballet and Politics
Created by John Eipper on 02/16/20 4:37 AM

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Mid-Air Changes: Ballet and Politics (David Duggan, USA, 02/16/20 4:37 am)

Forty years ago, an unpopular incumbent president was seeking re-election, and the opposition party was deeply divided between the insurgents and the establishment figures. After failing in the Iowa caucuses and facing a moment of truth at a debate in New Hampshire, Ronald Reagan said, "I paid for this microphone," and the rest as it is said is history.

Little known at the time of the Gipper's Rubicon moment was that his son, Ronald Prescott, a Yale drop-out, was dancing for the Joffrey Ballet, one of the "big three" of American classical dance (with American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov's company, and the New York City Ballet of George Balanchine). I had fallen in love with the Joffrey 10 years earlier when I had seen the now rarely performed agit-prop ballet The Green Table, music by Fritz Cohen, choreography by Kurt Jooss, at Ravinia, Chicago's summer arts venue (25 miles north in Highland Park). Created in the inter-war 1930s, The Green Table shows the futility of war, as tails-clad, comically masked diplomats gather and gesticulate around a baize-covered table, then part, then re-gather all the while that the helmeted-and death-masked image of war starkly parades around extending his arms in cruciform. Vietnam was an ever-present reality to this draft-age college student, and the ballet's title comes from a paraphrase of Bismarck's immortal line: "Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided ... but by iron and blood." The 6'2" Christian Holder (very tall for a dancer, and nephew of Geoffrey, the "uncola" pitchman) played the role of Death, a role he was born to play. Together with Gerald Arpino's Trinity, and Twyla Tharp's Little Deuce Coupe, that evening's performances changed the way I, as a gymnast, viewed ballet. No more was ballet a tutu-clad ensemble of sylphs and swans hoisted by t-shirt clad men in tights, but a serious art form with the power to change our outlook, and society.

Shortly after he was inaugurated, Reagan saw his son dance for the first time and then the Joffrey moved to Los Angeles where it stayed for thirteen years. In 1995, the Joffrey moved to Chicago which hadn't been able to build a ballet company from scratch. By then Robert Joffrey (ne Anver Bey Abdullah Jaffa Khan of Pashtun parentage--he probably figured that name wouldn't go over in NYC fund-raising circles) had died, but his longtime partner, choreographer and company manager Arpino continued on. He was later immortalized by Malcolm McDowell in Robert Altman's 2003 movie The Company, with Neve Campbell. Parts of it were filmed at a bar around the corner from my house. "You're dancing like you have a load in your pants," has to rank as one of cinema's most memorable lines.

Escaping the boredom of mid-winter Chicago and oblivious to the NBA's all-star game playing here this weekend (I couldn't tell you one player starting, other than LeBron James), I went to see the Joffrey for the first time since it had moved here 25 years ago. Everything has cycles, I suppose, and it seems that ballet has gone from story-telling (The Green Table) to celebrating the joy of movement as mankind's first art form. Think of it: you don't need an instrument, a brush, paints or a substrate. The body is its own instrument, although 50 years after my gymnastics days and just having seen the physical therapist, I could no longer relate to the flexibility, power and coordination of the dancers on stage. Still the performances of Commedia to Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite (a harlequin-esque ensemble piece), The Sofa, a boy-meets-girl-meets-boy triptych of sexual pantomime interspersed with staged violence; and The Times are Racing, a sneakers ballet reminiscent of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story dances and Twarp's Little Deuce Coupe, were entertaining. Other than Stravinsky, however, I'd never heard the accompanying music before and doubt that I will hence.

Whenever I see a dance performance I am reminded of the others of my past: Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise dancing Balanchine's Jewels for the NYC Ballet; several versions of Michael Bennett's Chorus Line, a life-imitates art recounting of his relationship with principal dancer Donna McKechnie; sitting in the front row of Chelsea's Joyce Theater and seeing the genitalia of the Eliot Feld Dance Co.'s female dancers through their leotards (hey, I was married at the time and the tickets were my wife's birthday present to me); NYC Ballet's Peter Martins dancing solo for two hours to Bach's Goldberg Variations played at an on-stage piano; and the farewell tour of Merce Cunningham's company, a 60th birthday present which I shared with WAIS some eight years ago. Dance as art may not occupy the attention it did 40 and 50 years ago when I got hooked, but look at it this way: what is basketball other than dance with a ball and a hoop? Or put another way, basketball is the only sport where you can jump and change your mind in mid-air. Sort of like dance. Or politics as candidates change their positions mid-debate.

JE comments:  David Duggan makes me feel like a philistine!  I should work harder to gain an appreciation of classical dance.

Politics and political history are a stronger suit for me, but I couldn't remember off-hand the Republican winner of the 1980 Iowa caucuses.  It was George H. W. Bush, and the victory probably sealed his future as a VP and eventual president.  We tend to forget the level of animosity between Reagan and Bush in the 1980 primary season.  Look no further than GHWB's immortal claim of "voodoo economics."

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