Daily Archives: February 3, 2003

Why did the New York Times print this article about a “Dance in America” broadcast in the same edition with this article about the same “Dance in America” broadcast?

Wouldn’t one have been enough?

Not when the sexual ideology of the status quo is in question.

The pathfinding public television series “Dance in America” runs into rough terrain in “Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theater,”

begins Anna Kisselgoff’s “Four Regular Guys Who Work in Tights.”

If you have never seen live performances by Angel Corella, José Manuel Carreño, Vladimir Malakhov and Ethan Stiefel, four of Ballet Theater’s current and spectacular male stars, this ostensible documentary has enough clips from performances to show what the fuss is about.

But to hear everyone tell it in tonight’s broadcast, dancing is just a guy’s thing.

Really? As opposed to. . .whose thing, dare we ask?

Mr. Stiefel likes to ride a motorcycle and what chiefly attracted him to ballet, he says, is the opportunity to place his hands on women’s bodies.

Enter Marlon Brando on point.

No, no, no. Believe it or not, men in tights are drawn to ballet by a calling, a compulsion toward artistic endeavor and yes, ambition.

Let’s review, shall we? Motorcycles, women’s bodies, ambition. Yep, they’re straight!

Conceived and directed by Judy Kinberg, this strongly scripted package has an all-too-transparent message: male ballet dancers are not sissies and they lead regular lives as human beings.

In other words the “No Fags Allowed” sign that used to adorn “Barney’s Beanery” in West Hollywood, until the locals objected, has moved to New York.

Paradoxically, the program spends most of its time demolishing a stereotype about male ballet dancers that “Dance in America” and Ms. Kinberg (she is the producer here with Jodee Nimerichter) demolished a long time ago with their own fine documentaries.

Poor Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s current artistic director, is obviously prompted here to say something no artistic director would say unless urged by a television director in need of a title: “They’re not just any four guys, they’re wild,” he declares.

And gay male dancers can’t be “wild,” right?

Even so the emphasis is on what makes this quartet (Julio Bocca, another star, is omitted) regular guys. The artistic distinctions between them are covered fleetingly. Instead, there is a vivid picture of their roots.

The opening shots tell the story. The only American, Mr. Stiefel, rides a motorcycle in Wisconsin, where he was born. Mr. Corella, from Spain, drinks wine in Madrid and puts on a matador-style bolero. Mr. Carreño dances salsa in his native Havana and later, when his two daughters kiss him, he says, “I enjoy being a daddy.” Born in Ukraine but trained in Moscow at the Bolshoi school, Mr. Malakhov walks in Red Square.

Hetrosexuality that’s ethnically grounded. The perfect formula! Who could object to men so in touch with their “roots”?

A great deal of admirable effort has gone into interviews with the dancers’ parents and teachers in their hometowns. Alicia Alonso, director of the National Ballet of Cuba, speaks wisely ofCarreño. Sofia Golovkina, former head of the Bolshoi school, gets into incompletely rendered Soviet ballet politics with respect to Mr. Malakhov.

Mr. Corella’s loving family includes his father, who has switched from selling beer to Angel Body Wear, dance wear named after his son. Jo Jean Retrum, Mr. Stiefel’s first ballet teacher in Madison, Wis., and his parents recall their support.

We’re all just so impressed!

On the dance side, things are stagier. Commissioned by the producers, Mark Morris choreographs a seven-minute trifle to Schumann wisely called “Non Troppo.” He is funny, but both he and his assistant Tina Fehlandt regard ballet as a foreign language.

Plus he’s a Big Fag. How can he possibly teach anything to these MANLY, MANLY, MANLY MEN?!?!

Jacques d’Amboise, the former New York City Ballet star,

and noted Heterosexual,

is dragged in as a visiting sage and rightly notes that Mr. Morris is a modern-dance choreographer, not a ballet choreographer. Is this what a close-up of great ballet dancers needs?

Apparently. That’s also why the NYT elected to have journalist Fletcher Roberts confect a “second opinion” of sorts, simply entitled “For Four Young Dancers, the Dream Came True.”

ANGEL CORELLA came from Madrid, Vladimir Malakhov from Moscow, José Manuel Carreño from Havana and Ethan Stiefel from Madison, Wis. Now they are four of the premier ballet dancers in New York, and the paths they took to get there are the subject of “Born to Be Wild: The Leading Men of American Ballet Theater,” the latest installment of the “Great Performances: Dance in America” series, which will be broadcast tomorrow on PBS.

See? The tone is much calmer.

To Judy Kinberg, the show’s producer, the dancers’ stories are “quintessentially American.”

“They come from different places, each one, but they all came to New York to realize their highest potential as dancers,” Ms. Kinberg, 54, said. “That’s what we all think of as the American dream, isn’t it?”

In fact it’s downright “old-fashioned.” Such sentiments would have been perfectly acceptable . . .forty years ago.

These stories form the bulk of the hourlong show, in part a kind of travelogue with grand jet’s. Mr. Malakhov, 35, re-enacts a train ride he took as a 10-year-old when his mother sent him from their home in the Ukraine to Moscow to study at the famed Bolshoi Ballet Academy. There he is reunited with his mentor, the former ballerina Sofia Golovkina. “I wanted to be a dancer,” he says. “That is why I gave up everything.”

Pretty straigthforward, no? Where’s the “wild” side?

Similarly, Mr. Stiefel, 29, tools around Madison “Easy Rider”-style — Harley Davidson and sunglasses — visiting his first teacher, Jo Jean Retrum, at the Monona Academy of Dance. Young students greet him like the local boy who’s made good that he is. “They were pretty excited because once I came into class, I guess I represented about 50 percent of the male dance population in Wisconsin,” he tells them.

What did I tell you? Forget Marlon Brando. Think Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

The stories are framed around the dancers rehearsing a work created for them by Mark Morris. The show concludes with a performance of the seven-minute piece, set to the Fourth Movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44. The dance, Ms. Kinberg explained, serves as the show’s spine.

“A documentary is very much like a fiction film in that that has to be a story,” she said. “And to do that we tried to develop some sort of organizing principle that would give the story some forward motion, something more than just telling the dancers’ four stories.”

And what would that “organizing principle” be?

Ms. Kinberg got the idea three years ago while working on a program based on the company’s production of the 19th-century ballet classic “Le Corsaire.” (She won an Emmy for the program, her fourth for the “Dance in America” series since its inception in 1975.) It was a rare occasion in which three of the four dancers were working together, and “the idea kind of, I don’t know, it just hatched,” she said.

Like baby chicks?

She said it was not her intention to debunk stereotypes about male dancers. (The “Born to Be Wild” in the title was meant to convey something of the “fun and daring” of the dancers, she said, though snatches of the Steppenwolf song are heard at the beginning of the show.)

AHA! In other words Anna Kisselgoff was wrong!

Her aim was to show these ballet stars as she sees them: “These dancers are what I love about dancers: they have a great sense of humor, they’re not pretentious, they’re very disciplined. I guess it all boils down to that.”

Kind of like Leonine Massine in The Red Shoes, right?

Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of Ballet Theater, agrees. “To the people for whom the word `ballet’ is a foreign term, this program brings it all down to earth,” he said. “The pure athleticism and determination these four dancers possess is something that so many people will be able to relate to.”

In other words the same bushwah Gene Kelly tried to sell forty years ago in a television special called “Dancing is a Man’s Game” — a program in which the star of Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town and It’ s Always Fair Weather assured Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea that there was nothing wrong with Little Johnny taking dance classes. Nothing could be more MANLY in fact.

When asked to whom she thought the show would appeal, Ms. Kinberg recalled something Mr. Morris once told her: “Ballet is not for everybody, but it’s for anybody.”

Bringing to mind my favorite line from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I : “See? The little fag gets it!”

We get it too. How can you keep ‘em locked in the closet when they own the damned house?

Morris’ remarks suggest that he’s been paying attention to another charater in The Red Shoes — the ballet impressario played by the great Anton Walbrook.

“He has no heart, that man” prima ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina memorably remarked in a key scene of that Powell-Pressburger masterpiece. But he had a heart. And a mind. And so does Mark Morris.

What the NYT conspicuously lacks is a clue.