NEW YORK — At intermission during most dance performances, the curtain falls, the lights come up and the theater empties; patrons head out for a smoke, a jolt of caffeine, a stretch. But when Feld Ballets/NY is the attraction, all bets are off.
To begin with, there is no curtain. Often a majority of the audience stays in the auditorium, watching technicians rejiggering the lighting equipment and performers warming up for the next number.
"The last time we were in L.A.," laughs ballet master Eliot Feld, "the audience came right up to the edge of the stage and talked to the dancers. It was very sweet." Feld is sitting in the conference room at the Joyce Theater, shortly before his company ends its 5 1/2-week '96 New York City season and heads for Southern California and performances at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Tuesday through Thursday) and at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (April 19 and 21).
In response to the intermission chumminess, Feld says, he is sometimes tempted to put up "Please Don't Feed the Animals" signs, like the ones you see in the zoo. But he's not tempted to restore the curtain.
What is now a trademark began as an accident. A flood at the Joyce some years back damaged the drapery, and Feld's company had no choice but to perform without it. Now he insists on the curtain-less arrangement wherever the company plays, and often you'll see the slight, gray-haired but boyish 54-year-old onstage with his dancers, joking and encouraging them before the show starts.
In the 30 years since he began choreographing, Feld has made 89 dances, and he runs one of the country's most unusual ballet ensembles. More like a modern dance company in that he's its sole choreographer, it's definitely classical in its vocabulary, but it's also dedicated to the demystification of the classical, to making relevant what some may perceive as an esoteric art form.
In fact, the undraped stage is a kind of inadvertent symbol for the upfront commitment of Feld Ballets/NY: The company wants to make ballet accessible to a broad spectrum of people on both sides of the footlights.
Feld is Brooklyn-born, a product of New York's High School of the Performing Arts and School of American Ballet, and he danced in the Broadway production of "West Side Story" when he was only 16. He founded Feld Ballets/NY in 1974 and three years later the New Ballet School, a farm team for the company that offers free dance training to New York City public school kids, auditioning 30,000 of them annually.
Because the New York public schools are predominantly populated with black, Latino and Asian American kids, it goes without saying that Feld's training program will have a salutary impact on the effort to diversify the now practically lily-white ballet community.
It has already affected the makeup of Feld Ballets/NY. The company's lead male dancer, and Feld's co-ballet master, is Darren Gibson, a 25-year-old African American who began studying at the New Ballet School when he was 9.
"I used to be surprised when I saw a black person on the stage," Feld says. "But I've known Darren now for 16 years. He's changed me."
Adding dancers of color is only one of the ways the Feld company pushes for diversity. The performers have a variety of body types as well as complexions--some of the women are more curvy than ballerina-willowy, for example. And this season, two student apprentices are performing major roles with the full company.
From Feld's perspective, his ensemble's physical qualities both match and inspire his brand of choreography, which regularly adds vernacular movement to a ballet base and is set to pop tunes as well as serious contemporary and classical music. "In insidious, seditious ways, often quite positive [ways]," he says, "as my ballets have moved away from 19th century models, I've attracted certain kinds of dancers." And, vice versa.
At OCPAC and the Alex Theatre, Feld Ballets/NY will present nine works in four programs, including Feld's earliest dance, "Harbinger," and his latest, "Paper Tiger," a combination that neatly brackets the choreographer's stylistic range.
"Harbinger" was made for American Ballet Theatre in 1967, while Feld was a dancer there. It's pure Feld; in its time, its fresh, freer version of ballet movement, set to Prokofiev, was something of a revelation. And at one point, the work's colorfully clad dancers come together to form a formal rainbow--diversity with a capital D.