Exactly 29 years after his debut as a choreographer, Eliot Feld remains irrepressibly, unpredictably and even recklessly enslaved to the creative spirit. Brilliant experiments with classicism spill from his works, and if his ballets can sometimes seem maddeningly overloaded or arbitrary in movement effects, their inspired, moment-by-moment originality continually reminds you of how formula-ridden most other ballet choreography has become.
At the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday--the opening of a three-performance engagement by Feld Ballets/NY--the only formula Feld respected was the recapitulation-finale. Otherwise, his four-part program represented a kind of laboratory for testing the frontiers of dancer stamina, the riskiest strategies of futuristic partnering and the outer limits of musicality: precisely how much movement a score can hold.
In "Paper Tiger," a suite just 2 months old, Feld stuffs the music with antic, wiggly, rag-doll motifs perfectly suited to the raffish, whiskey-voiced style of singer Leon Redbone. The result: a celebration of human eccentricity that delivers its quota of ricky-tick nostalgia with supersonic, crazy-legged abandon. Dressed in velvety vests, silky bloomers and other Willa Kim adaptations of antique attire, the very young, very sassy Feld dancers sustain a party atmosphere that periodically yields to dreamlike imagery.
In "Harvest Moon," for example, Buffy Miller and Matt Rivera sit and spoon while Clay Jackson is slowly lifted and turned in the air by corps men--evoking a fairground Ferris wheel if not a spinning galaxy. Later, to "Sweet Sue," Philip Gardner sadly pursues the ultimate Romantic obsession: a Greco-Roman statue of a woman's torso, floating on wires forever beyond his reach.
More typical: a rambunctious glorification of individual and collective weirdness, which extends from the rebellious proto-feminist that Katja Wirth portrays in "I Hate a Man Like You" to the sublimely quirky, star-making "Sheik of Araby" solo that sends the audience scrambling through the house program to find the name Jassen Virolas.
The oldest work on the program, "La Vida" (1978), evokes a fantasy Mexico both in its score--Copland's "El Salon Mexico"--and in Feld's startling sculptural and spatial transformations of a sombrero and serape. A central pas de deux (the fine Gardner and Wirth again) ups the ante by adding unusual gymnastic challenges to the emblematic costume display, and a small corps repeats the partnering motifs until they become part of the landscape.
Focused on formal design, "La Vida" is ultimately no more "about" Mexico than the "Sheik of Araby" showpiece is about Arabia. But it does distill cultural stereotypes into disarming dance curios: obviously contemporary, certainly not p.c., but somehow carrying an aura of ageless myth.
So too the solo "Kore" from 1988, in which Miller depicts a goddess of spring from the Greek pantheon, not only suggesting an Attic shape come to life but syncing every stretch, extension and torso-ripple to the structuralist pulse of music by Steve Reich. In short, Feld wants her moving like a restless postmodern virtuoso but always looking carved from marble--a feat she makes as impressive in its own way as all the hat tricks in "'La Vida."
The large-scale "Ah Scarlatti" (1989) boasts a spectacularly inventive pas de deux--flawlessly danced by Patricia Tuthill and Darren Gibson--plus a solo of miraculous buoyancy perfectly executed by Marie Yip. However, the women's corps often looks over-drilled and mechanical, while Feld's game plan--keeping everyone's footwork intricately neoclassical but the arms and torso wildly idiosyncratic--quickly appears fidgety and disconnected from any primal impetus.
A major part of the problem: lifeless playing by Peter Longiaru on a wretchedly overamplified harpsichord. Definitely nothing to "Ah" about.
* Feld Ballets/NY performs tonight at 8 in the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $18-$49. (714) 556-2122. The company also appears on April 19 at 8 p.m. and April 21 at 2 p.m. in the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets: $27.50-$32.50. (800) 233-3123.