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DANCE REVIEW : Prince Inspires Rocky Horrors at the Ballet

July 23, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

Well, they did it again. They invented the wheel. Golly.

The wheel, in this much ballyhooed case, was the rock ballet. The genre has been kicking around, literally and figuratively, for at least three decades.

Peter Darrell created a Beatles ballet back in 1963. The ever-sprightly, always with-it Joffrey Ballet came up with its epochal, multimedia extravaganza "Astarte" in 1967. The world has been blessed in the interim with such quasi-staples as "Trinity," "Weewis," "Light Rain" and, most memorable, "Deuce Coupe."

None of these, however, was quite like "Billboards," which the tireless Joffrey gang splashed across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday with a little help from someone who used to call himself Prince. The house wasn't quite sold out, but a lot of instant converts to the not-so-sacred tippy-toe aesthetic mustered a lot of instant whooping and hollering.

Ears not deafened by the megadecibels emanating from the very-loudspeakers might have detected a well-placed boo or two amid the cheers. But that is another matter.

The Joffrey company has always cultivated a youth image on both sides of the proscenium. Although its culture sometimes goes self-consciously pop, excursions in rock and schlock never preclude allegiance to the loftier muses. The Joffrey kids know their way around the finer pointes of classicism.

"Billboards," we are assured, is just another normal, healthy stretch in the direction of modernist sensibilities. Still, this opus isn't quite like its rocky predecessors. It is a lavish, full-length, would-be trendy detour. And, even though the Joffrey prides itself on being a generic ensemble, "Billboards" is an unabashed star vehicle.

The star, ironically, is no-where to be seen. He is a recorded voice, and a galvanizing, palpably zonking musical presence. He is Prince, a.k.a. Prince Rogers Nelson, a.k.a. .

Therein lies a tale. After Robert Joffrey's untimely death, his company teetered on the brink of fiscal if not artistic extinction. Gerald Arpino, Joffrey's longtime associate, won a nasty battle to retain control of the company, but it seemed likely that he might lose the battle to keep that company alive. Then, along came Prince.

The rock idol reportedly volunteered a number of hits from his catalogue to be used as a ballet soundtrack. The Joffrey jumped, literally and figuratively, at the opportunity to do this sort of princely duty. The rest is ecstasy.

The unwashed masses, it no doubt was reasoned, would come en masse. The media, ever receptive to crossover trends, would gurgle. The choreography, following the gutsy texts, would be brash and sexy. The money normally spent on a pit band would be saved.

It was razzle-dazzle time. Cash in the bank. Salvation assured.

What, me cynical?

Don't get me wrong. No thinking observer of the passing scene would regard rock ballet as an idea whose time has gone. The idea is still valid, still provocative. The problems with "Billboards" concern execution, not concept.

Arpino has assembled four grossly uneven mini-ballets and tied them together with a strong sonic thread. The result says very little about the universality of art, and it often panders to the lowest common denominator among its viewers.

It does prove, however, that the formal vocabulary of bravura ballet can coexist quite comfortably with the beat-beat-beat of popular song and the loose manners of social dance and contemporary show-biz.

Big deal.

"Billboards" tries very hard, most of the time, to be brash and shocking. To these aging eyes, most of it ends up looking tasteless, vapid and silly. A cliche is a cliche is a cliche, even if the cliche is placed in an unaccustomed context. This relentlessly "now" ballet already looks dated.

The best comes first, thanks to Laura Dean. In her section, labeled "Sometimes It Snows in April," she indicates just how interesting "Billboards" might have been.

After a disconcerting start in which the busy choreography contradicts the relatively languid music, Dean sends her energetic ensemble through a series of staggering flights to the accommodating tunes of "Trust" and "Baby, I'm a Star."

Freed from the constraints of minimalism, she blithely juxtaposes her own leitmotifs--hypnotic spins, modular repetitions and internal imitations--with knock-'em-dead tricks of the ballet trade. Here, the mingling of styles is alluring.

The 18 dancers, dressed in spangly white costumes designed by Rosemary Worton, crisscross the boards in breathless bounds and daring scissors leaps, their arms saying as much as their feet. It is anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-higher-and-faster time until, at the final cadence, everyone drops to the floor in a terrific, cathartic, orgasmic, unison thump.

Despite all the inherent agitation, Dean never overlooks the subtle eroticism at work here. She just masks it with clever abstraction and buoys it with musical sensitivity.

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