Here's a suggestion: Let's ditch the nightclub as a setting for ballet. No more predictable tales about the trials of courtship or the ballroom as a metaphor for life.
Miami City Ballet, Edward Villella's smart and spirited South Florida company, inaugurated the '08-'09 Music Center dance season this past weekend with yet another piece staged in a dark club frequented by prowling, brawling guys and preening, teasing girls. This theme has outlived its variations. Enough already.
This suggested moratorium is provoked by Nightspot, a talked-about premiere collaboration between choreographer Twyla Tharp and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist Elvis Costello that Miami Ballet introduced in March. Nightspot is the second new work by Tharp to make it to the West Coast since August — the first being American Ballet Theatre's overwrought Rabbit and Rogue (which featured its own unusual partnership, between Tharp and another pop artist, TV and movie composer Danny Elfman).
These are different works, to be sure. But neither particularly complemented its talented cast, nor demonstrated Tharp to be the feverishly creative artist we remember from years ago.
Nightspot is a sleazy ditty in toe shoes, focusing on three main couples on a night crawl, nattily costumed by Isaac Mizrahi. Central pair Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Rolando Sarabia have a spat, and Sarabia strays with sexpot Callie Manning. Her partner, the superb and electric Carlos Miguel Guerra, appears to encourage this tryst but then rewards Sarabia with a nasty beating. Kronenberg forgives her man, and he becomes both doting and wiser for the experience. A cheerful duo, Mary Carmen Catoya and Jeremy Cox, provide counsel to their fellow characters and some genuinely enjoyable partnering, but their encounters are too few to save this nightmarish affair.
Twelve demi-soloists and corps de ballet were used like wallpaper, decorating the background with waltzing and acrobatic leaps. Some shadow boxing guys foreshadowed the big fight. Designer John Hall's drably dark lighting made it too difficult to decipher the corps' lickety-split moves.
Costello is one of our most soulful and identifiable songwriters, but here he took a step back, trying not to upstage the dance. He touched upon the tango, breezed through some salsa, and delivered several nifty blues riffs, with the electric guitar as leader. He used an expansive array of instruments, from accordion to violin, with a band onstage and an orchestra in the pit (Tim Devine led the band, Juan Francisco La Manna was the evening's principal conductor). But the music made no definitive statement.
Composer and choreographer remained in separate bubbles. Tharp stayed in the brainy comfort zone she's inhabited for the last dozen years. There was no faulting the ballet's craftsmanship, but it was one chilly piece.
Tharp's encyclopedic dance vocabulary has become almost a hindrance. The seduction scene was uncomfortably referential to George Balanchine's Prodigal Son, with Kronenberg carried in by the male corps, a long red shawl draping her shoulders, and flowing across the stage. Finally, the Miami City Ballet dancers, so wonderfully individualistic and expressive the rest of the evening, here were interchangeable characters from other performances of Tharp works.
Happily, the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night had three other ballets to satisfy them, making for a full program. It opened with Balanchine's 1972 Symphony in Three Movements, a still radical work to Igor Stravinsky's brilliant piece of the same name.
Kronenberg was the lead ballerina, and thank goodness Nightspot was not her only role, because it was near impossible to tell how special a dancer she is from that. In the Balanchine piece, she showed off a gloriously expansive and authoritative style.
Soloists Patricia Delgado and Alex Wong, dancing with different partners, were enticingly engaging — she with fearless athleticism, and he with buoyant energy.
But the work's highlight was the crisp detailing that the entire 32-member cast brought to their performances. Villella, who was in the original cast, has coached this piece to near perfection. Every step rang with urgency, and the dancers pushed themselves to extremes.
We saw this again in Tarantella, a bravura showpiece performed with élan and ease by Jeanette Delgado and Renato Penteado. Pianist Francisco Renne) admirably played the Gottschalk score but was positioned so far upstage that the sound was muffled. Still Delgado and Penteado danced it large and "loud" and with earthy abandon.
Finally, we were treated to Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy, a slight but pretty duet to Arvo Part's mournful Fratres. The delicate Haiyan Wu and lyrical Carlos Quenedit formed body sculptures of Calder-like precision.
For 22 years, Villella has kept the dancing crackling and alive at Miami City Ballet. New generations have already followed upon the founding dancers for a while now — hard to believe — and yet Miami City Ballet manages to look young and fresh. That makes even the flawed works a little easier to swallow.