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COMMENTARY

Comparing 'Carousel' Ballets: Visions of Bitter and the Sweet

July 31, 1996|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Major ballet choreographers work in Broadway musicals so seldom that it's fascinating to watch two of them tackle Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking "Carousel"--one in an acclaimed new production at the Music Center, the other in a vintage film revived on television.

If Agnes de Mille's "Oklahoma!" dream ballet (1943) remains the most celebrated dance sequence in any Broadway musical, her Act 2 ballet for "Carousel" (1945) represents a much greater artistic achievement, "probably the hardest challenge I'd ever met," she wrote a decade later. "It entailed a real job of dramatic invention, close to playwriting."

Where the "Oklahoma!" ballet merely reiterated and heightened conflicts between the major characters, "Carousel" used dance to introduce a major new figure in the drama: Louise, the troubled teenage daughter of luckless Billy Bigelow (dead before her birth) and long-suffering Julie Jordan.

Through Louise's introductory solo, horseplay with town boys, interaction with the uptight Snow family and a duet with a carnival dreamboat, De Mille made you understand Louise and care about her fate--all in about 12 minutes.

De Mille's action plan for "Louise's Ballet" survives in the Royal National Theatre staging of "Carousel," currently at the Ahmanson Theatre through Aug. 25. And she is given program credit, along with other members of the show's original creative team. However, the production uses new choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan (his last before his death in 1992) radically different from hers in style and weight.

De Mille showed Louise to be a spirited adolescent increasingly oppressed by small-town morality and disturbed by new emotions arising from her contact with the carnival boy. MacMillan, however, focuses on Louise as sexual prey: molested by the town boys, forcefully subdued and then seduced in the carnival pas de deux.

Happily, it's possible for local audiences to compare the versions, since De Mille's choreography was adapted for the 1956 20th Century Fox film of "Carousel," currently on view in a pristine CinemaScope letter-boxed print on the American Movie Classics cable network.

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Best known for his 1965 Royal Ballet "Romeo and Juliet" (danced in Costa Mesa earlier this year by American Ballet Theatre), MacMillan is as revered in England as De Mille is in America. So you might explain their "Carousel" differences solely in terms of Zeitgeist: the energy and optimism at the end of World War II versus end-of-the-century nihilism.

You might also focus on their gender attitudes, with De Mille's Louise yearning for respect and acceptance as an individual, while MacMillan's Louise resists but soon craves the rough sex forced on her.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge MacMillan the more uncompromising. After all, De Mille's "Carousel" ballet prefigures her unsparing Lizzie Borden dance-drama of 1948, "Fall River Legend." Like "Carousel," it shows a young woman communicating with a dead parent, her alienation from a New England community and failure to find love. You could even speculate that only intervention from heaven keeps Louise from becoming just like the stifled, murderous Lizzie.

If De Mille's "Carousel" ballet looks forward in terms of her body of work, MacMillan's looks back, mining a whole series of works about female loss of innocence. For example, his dance-drama "The Invitation" (1960) concerns a girl seeking the affection of a married man--only to be sexually brutalized. At the end, she faces a bitter, isolated future: Louise's fate, too, if heaven hadn't intervened.

You can also link the harassment of Louise by MacMillan's town boys to the gang rape in "The Judas Tree" (his last completed ballet), and think of the nonstop gymnastics in the pas de deux as a retrospective compendium: MacMillan's Greatest Lifts.

He died before creating Louise's solo, which was worked out by his assistant, Jane Elliott, from movement ideas in two of his ballets: "My Brother, My Sisters" and "Prince of the Pagodas." Ironically, the solo seems no more of a pastiche than the rest of his "Carousel" ballet, but the dancing at the Ahmanson by Joseph Woelfel and, especially, Dana Stackpole gives every lurid stunt in the duet tremendous urgency.

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The sweeter pas de deux in the film boasts the winsome Susan Luckey and the sensational Jacques d'Amboise, two years after he danced in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and midway between "Western Symphony" (1954) and "Stars and Stripes" (1958), two Americana showpieces created for him by George Balanchine at New York City Ballet.

Since De Mille did not legally own her Broadway choreography, the producers could give her dances "to anyone for reproduction," she wrote, "as was in fact done without recompense to me of any kind when 'Carousel' was filmed. . . . I was forced to threaten suit to get credit for my work." But at least her ballet exists in some retrievable form--though most everyone agrees that the film itself has no coherent style or tone.

In contrast, Nicholas Hytner's Royal National "Carousel" is widely considered to be an inspired staging, even if its Tony-winning choreography looks mighty familiar to balletomanes.

De Mille died in 1993 and, right now, her gesture-rooted dance style appears dated, whereas MacMillan's obsession with sex and gymnastics gives his style the immediacy of MTV hip-hop.

But time may be on De Mille's side: Starting with Shakespeare's plays, anyone can name plenty of popular theater pieces that seemed hopelessly dated right after the creators' deaths--and 24-carat classics just a little later.

* "Carousel," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Also Sunday, 7 p.m.; Aug. 8, 15, 22, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 25. $15-$65. (213) 628-2722. The "Carousel" film will be shown Monday, 8:45 p.m., on American Movie Classics.

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