When Hollywood movies and TV shows increasingly make special effects their raison d'etre , can local concert dance be far behind?
A few weeks ago, choreographer Gilberte Meunier introduced a new work that didn't much resemble anything she had created in the past but closely mirrored recent French trends in movement spectacle--a work so overloaded with Expressionist paraphernalia and portentous stage trickery that it scarcely had room for dancing.
Now comes the Bethune Ballet Theatredanse with a program of mostly feeble, derivative choreographies and largely slack, devitalized dancing--a program built around film and video projections, fiber optics, computer graphics, holography and smoke machinery.
At the Bing Theatre, USC, on Friday, projection equipment in the orchestra pit obstructed sight lines for those seated in the side sections. In several works, cable and lighting troughs on the floor against the cyclorama restricted the space available for dancing. But only rarely did all this technology deliver any major artistic frissons .
In Zina Bethune's "The Trial of Saint Joan" (set, barbarously, to sections of the Poulenc organ concerto intercut with parts of the Faure Requiem), the presence of so much hardware was momentarily justified by the magical projection of Joan's beloved Saint Michael: waves of light streaming from his arms and shoulders. But, more often, the special effects proved crudely integrated or even ruinous.
For instance, many visionary images in this ballet were small, square, TV-scale projections seen in the middle of a long, otherwise empty cyclorama. When the images faded, the videotape machine continued to project a blue-green "ghost" square--plus a rolling frame line. At times this distraction became more prominent than the slow, dark dance-drama, and you wanted to rush up to the stage to adjust the "vertical hold" knob.
Just as Nancy Seruto's skeletal set replicated key elements in the classic Isamu Noguchi design for Martha Graham's "Seraphic Dialogue," so Bethune's choreography focused on the theme of Graham's masterwork: Joan's emotional crisis before accepting her fate.
But Bethune proved unable to create extended dance statements of Joan's feelings and the ballet ricocheted between short bursts of intense pantomime and longer passages of pallid academic ballet. The company's lifeless dancing and Linda Strangio-Hedberg's underpowered performance as Joan left the disconnected, weirdly diversionary choreography exposed as mere filler: connective tissue between lighting cues.
Like Bethune, Myles Marsden seemed unable to create inherently expressive movement, so his gladiatorial trio "The Challenge" (music by Keith Jarrett) again had no persuasive style, merely repeated contrasts between weighty emoting and classical bravura.
Ex-Joffrey dancer Laurence Blake had been a major compensation in "The Trial of Saint Joan," playing a sympathetic priest. Here he became the suffering, virtuosic central figure--a Rockyesque underdog facing defeat (from Lee Wigand) and rejection (from Strangio-Hedberg) inside what looked like a neon-roped boxing ring. Woozy projected artwork by Kathy Jacoby endowed the action with bogus mythic implications.
In Bethune's quartet "Liebeslieder Walzer," the special effects proved more insidious: excesses of technique rather than technology.
Initially, the capable, appealing cast coped with the brisk, quasi- ballroom maneuvers neatly, especially Diane Dickson and Patrick Russell, both formerly with Los Angeles Ballet. But as Bethune piled lift upon lift--most of them grotesque and out of scale with the intimate Brahms score--the dancers began losing their grip. Eventually they seemed nothing but stiff, glum functionaries, dance-furniture and furniture-movers.
The full nine-dancer company looked its best Friday in Blake's moody pop showpiece "Cross/ Roads" (music by Interior). Besides the surging sorties you'd expect in a Gerald Arpino ballet (part of Blake's heritage), it offered an unusual amount of challenging torso motion and coaxed maximum muscular stretch, heft and force from the five men.
With its undeveloped solo for Russell and off-the-rack women's vocabulary, "Cross/Roads" was no masterpiece. But it represented honest choreography exploring movement in space--and, for once, the special effects served to heighten that movement and define that space resourcefully.