Go Man, Go!
By CLIVE BARNES
HERE we are: we (and I am talking about ballet critics) sit around in gloomy theatres for eternal years, getting a shine on our pants, a crick in our necks and a pain round otir hearts. We are waiting, as good- naturedly as only we know how, for something to happen, waiting for something to shout about. Now and again, being for the most part rosy-spectacled optimists, we let out the odd squeal of delight, but the belly-roar of approval is rare. Hold on to something, then, for here it comes: Jerome Robbins's Bullet: USA is tremendous; it lives, it works, it's about them, it's about you, it's about dancing, it's about music, it's one of the three most important ballet com- panies to visit Britain in thirty years.
This company of twenty dancers was, however, the third (and last) of the ballet imports which made up the dance attractions of the Edinburgh Festival that ends tomorrow. Before the Ameri- cans arrived to restore their wilted faith, Festival visitors to what they laughingly call the Empire Theatre had had a hard, thin time of it. Their trials started during the first week with the advent of Les Ballets Babilde. Although I only saw the second of the two programmes this Paris-based company presented, it was enough to remind me that ballet is not really one of those things that they order better in France. Speaking strictly, it had little to offer other than its bright ideas, a few nubile nymphets of gaily undisciplined brilliance, and, of course, Jean Babilde himself,
Nearly all French ballet, so far as I can, per- haps myopically, see, appears to be lamed from the start by academically styled choreography that is platitudinous, unexpressive, virtually inter- changeable from one ballet to the next, and bear- ing little relationship to either theme or music. Nevertheless, the French product is perversely in many ways more enterprising than its competitors; its themes are often more poetic, its ideas more compelling, its decors have for years been peer- less, and its dancers are nearly always real and interesting personalities. Unfortunately all that is not enough without the right choreography.
Yet, true to French form, the dancers were often worth watching, especially Babilee, with his sullen eyes, hungry cheekbones and angry, taut muscles, dancing away in a sort of casual frenzy. Much the same as when he first danced in Britain, although sleeker, possibly, and definitely less snarling, his fantastic control is still there, but his technique looks a bit out of condition. Yet you only have to watch him do a slow cartwheel to recognise the presence of a dancer you will never quite see the like of again. Of the others, apart from the tall, wiry Gerard Ohn, the girls domin- ated. Claire Sombert, Josette Clavier, lovanka Biegovitch and Catherine Verneuil made a quartet of Left Bank graces that all have, in varying degrees and shades, a quality of sex I never seem to see at Covent Garden, but perhaps I don't look hard enough.
I certainly had to look hard to spot the qualities of the Festival's second dance visitors, the National Ballet of Finland. At first glance they looked like a drearily provincial troupe, sadly out of their league in an international festival. At second glance they still looked like that. But this company, the infant of Scandinavian ballet founded a mere thirty-eight years ago, has one priceless virtue : its dancers have a natural, Russian-like feeling and enthusiasm for the dance.
The three programmes given by the Finns showed a handful of good dancers (notably its ballerina Doris Laine, whose technique could fairly coruscate in the right light, a versatile character dancer Heikki Viirtsi, and a young, Leningrad-trained boy, Leo Ahonen) together with a couple of goodish ballets. Probably the most interesting was a 'reconstruction' by George Ge of Fokine's L'Epreuve d'Amour, the choreo- grapher's last masterpiece, and not seen in Britain for nearly twenty years. Without knowing the original I cannot say how accurate the revival was, but most of my elders and betters seem to give it their seal of approval. An innocent-eyed piece of chinoiserie about a coolie's strategem to win a rich mandarin's daughter, it had a lot of (you know) charm that refused to be dispersed even by a not very appropriate use of Mozart music.
The Finns—as might be expected—are alone in Scandinavian ballet in revealing a strong Russian influence, in such things as the men's partnering. It was to Russia that they owed their other interest- ing work, Lavrovsky's production of Giselk. Based on his splendidly revolutionary Bolshoi version (the only version any company of sense would include in its repertory) it had a lot to recommend it. But although its heart was in the right place, the ballet looked tatty round the edges and the dancers were not mature enough artisti- cally to bring out its full value. Over the other ballets given, common Christian charity must draw a veil, The general impression left was of insufficiently trained dancers of basic quality in ballets of only mediocre interest. However, it would be my guess that if the Finns cared to bring
in a few foreign teachers and choreographers, in ten or fifteen years' time they really would have something to show the world.
And then came Robbins, but not without mis- adventure. On the day before the company was due to open, the aircraft carrying its scenery, props and costumes ditched in the Mediterranean, and the Americans found themselves in Edinburgh with nothing but practice clothes, scores and themselves. Deterred but undaunted, they put on their programme with such costumes as they could rustle up from Edinburgh's shops, and a stage bare enough to gladden Brecht's most Brechtian disciple, all introduced by Mr. Robbins with a brave grin and remarks like : 'Here we should use a Ben Shahn drop showing TV antennte.'
The four-part programme was danced in American without translation. Robbins, who apart from directing this company is also asso- ciate director of what is in effect America's great national ballet, has recognised that America not only possesses in its jazz-dancing an indigenous dance idiom, but that this and the American character have given its classic ballet an individual flavour and style. On the technical level that is what is offered by Ballets: USA. But that is only where the importance of the company starts. These twenty splendid, soloist-rank dancers are, with their unified style, a perfectly tuned instrument for Robbins's choreography,- yet it is the ballets themselves that matter.
Moves is 'a ballet in silence,' a human analysis of dance movements, chaste of atmosphere and alive with the motive power of dancers. It has a ritualistic beginning and ending. In between, the patterns of geometric movement play across the stage• highlighted by the unresolved fragments of human relationships that constantly emerge and dissolve. It's fascinating. In Afternoon of a Faun Robbins has taken the Debussy music and Mallarme poem, and created an impression of two dancers, like sybaritic demi-gods, stroking their emotions in the narcissistic atmosphere of a ballet class. N.Y. Export, Op. Jazz is a distillation of his musical West Side Story and his earlier Auden ballet Age of Anxiety. Set to a symphonic swing score, the beatnik generation grope for con- tact, struggle for identity and kick all hell out of themselves. Rounding it off is The Concert, a crazily zany ballet about an audience's reveries to Chopin, that gets all of the three jokes in the New Yorker, spins them round a few times and knocks you sick with laughter.
As a stylist Robbins is fresh and original. Simple gestures of the wrist, a flexing of the torso, a sinewy flick of the body, a slightly off-beat read- ing of the standard classic vocabulary—the man's Whole ballet language comes out as though no one else had ever danced before. These ballets, won- derfully staged yet seen without the tarting-up benefits of decor and costumes, were startling and true. On Monday the company come south to open a week's engagement at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, and later I hope to say some- thing more about Robbins.
So there you have the Edinburgh Festival dance scene—two misses and one hit. Is this good enough? Were the companies chosen really care- fully? Had a representative of the Festival management seen the French and Finnish com- panies before they engaged them? For that matter had they seen the Americans? I wonder, I won- der also whether this apparently indiscriminate policy of inviting visiting fire-brigades to make up the Festival is necessarily the best. Last year they tried out the seemingly worthwhile, but financially disastrous, experiment of producing twelve com- pletely new ballets with a specially organised company. Possibly this is what they should do again. I missed that Festival, but by a coincidence one of the ballets first created then, Andree Howard's La Belle Dame sans Merci, happened to be produced at Covent Garden last week. This
weak-kneed, indeterminate work had me day- dreaming half-way through of a time I went to a concert with an American friend. In an interval we talked to one of my more effusive acquain- tances, and afterwards the American said with mild interest : '1 guess that's one of your London queers.' When he was told that this was anything but so, he replied: `God! what must your queers be like!' 1 guess that in La Belle Dame sans Merci Covent Garden did not pick one of Edinburgh's flops—but God! what must their flops have been like!