BWW Review: FELD'S KIDS Execute With Polish and Finally With Glee
First, the good news: the dancers of Ballet Tech Kids Dance - all students of Eliot Feld's Ballet Tech School; The New York City Public School for Dance - knocked it out of the park, particularly the boys. The "bad" news: everything at this concert was polished to the point of looking mechanical. But then these performers were children aged nine through sixteen; the fact that they were nearly perfect should have been enough. And yet, one felt that something had been coached out of them. Save for the opening of Friday June 16th, 2016's Program A, the proceedings felt efficiently soulless. The lines were crisp, the formations were correct, but where was the personality? Obscured by the "machine dance like" choreography, which alternated between looking like Russian character dance and the "machine dances" of Fedor Lopukhov under the influence of Nikolai Foregger - think "The Bolt". We all know that Eliot Feld - who might be New York City's most accomplished man in dance - has a love for calisthenics, vernacular twists and grooves, and folklore. But since closing his ballet company in 2003, his work has been primarily with students who cannot understand the dry wit inherent to his choreography. The effect is decidedly discombobulating. One wishes that Mr. Feld would either up the ante in his work - there were no pirouettes or turns, though there was plenty of batterie, which tends to be more difficult - or further develop the artistry of his charges.
There is something irrepressible in this generation of boys that I have encountered while teaching for Dance Theatre of Harlem; they all have a competitive edge that shines through even when they are coached to sacrifice their individuality in the name of cohesion. This was especially true of Ballet Tech's young men. Though the general performance look was of "hardened soldiers", these boys had a sparkle in their eyes and a zest to their attack that nothing could hamper. Not so for the young ladies, who all possessed wonderful precision, flexibility, and grace but lacked any sort of tenacity. It might have all come down to the fact that most of them kept their eyes cast downward even when looking forward. Whatever the case, this did not prevent the dancers from executing complicated movement patterns and thoroughly owning the stage.
The concert opened with a wonderful rush in "Quick Step". This all male cast formed sleek lines across the stage that swooped, bobbed, and weaved into different geometric patterns and amongst one another before culminating in a clump that had the students break into an energetic run in place. This run was similar to the jagged sprint found in Mr. Feld's "Yo, Shakespeare" except that it ended with these dancers collapsing to the floor. What these dancers lacked in terms of raw physicality they more than made up for with their dogged commitment to their mission. In "Shakespeare" this run is inspiring in that you don't think that you will be able to keep up with the performers. In "Quick Step" the run is reassuring because you know that these boys are on the fast track to an incredible future.
"A Yankee Doodle" deployed a didactic construct: its performers taught us the vocabulary of the piece before forming a line that showcased each cast member in solo enchainments. The dance was overly long by seven minutes and would have greatly benefited from starting at the line of solo variations. Each solo was executed wonderfully but none so well as by the boy who completed 12 entrechats with flexed feet. What is it about watching a person excellently execute the same step over and over again that excites an audience? Was it that his jumps seemed to get higher as he progressed or that his batterie never slackened? This boy - whose name I do not know - was the only dancer to receive applause for his variation. He had something special. The dance continued with a show pony - played by Johnson Guo with a head and sculpture piece - followed by a set of dances swaying in lines while Megan Eng performed the "Ashokan Farewell Solo". Ms. Eng's exuded a gossamery quality of movement that wonderfully captured the "Ashokan's" wistful tone. There was a touch of Galina Ulanova or Elisabeth Maurin to her, particularly in her delicate arms with which she caught every hesitation in the music. Now if only she would offer her gaze up and out to the audience. "Yankee" ended with one of Mr. Feld's groove lines: pulsing arms, swaying shoulders matched with a dip in the torso, and switching legs. It was all too sophisticated for these students to understand and that is precisely why it worked. Aaron Copp's lighting was marvelous: an open blue sky that darkened and cast a halo around the dancers during iconic poses. Mr. Copp is a painter in disguise.
Julia Eichten contributed a solo as part of Mr. Feld's new endeavor to create a library of dance for his school. Set to Jacques Brel's "Ces gens-là", "Monsieur" seemed a curious choice for this concert. The students of this school are versed in modern and ballet. Ms. Eichten is a contemporary choreographer given to gesturing and elongated pushes of the pelvis. On an adult accustomed to her style, this would have been a tiresome piece. On Mr. Guo, it was simply poor casting. He gave it his very best, mugging and all. Thank goodness the song was not terribly long.
"Upside D∀N?E" closed the concert. Set to Scandinavian Folk Music, this ballet looked like Mr. Feld's character dance answer to Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering". It combined exciting tumbling, repeated lines of jumps crossing against one another, a pas de trois set against a solo (Bravo to the delightful Serena Chang who cast beams of light like a filly romping through a patch of clover), swirling chains of dancers creating wonderful formations, and wide-eyed children doing what they have always done best: squeal. It was in these alarming exclamations that we learned who these dancers were: happy kids who were in love with the world, dance, and each other. Finally. I only wish we'd been shown this earlier in the program.
Is there anyone in the world more accomplished than Eliot Feld? He was the original Nutcracker Prince in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker", performed on Broadway in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale", "West Side Story" - he played Baby John in the movie - and "Fiddler On the Roof", he danced with American Ballet Theatre as well as in the companies of Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Sophie Maslow, has choreographed for the best dance companies in the world, founded his own incredible dance company (three times), founded his own school, saved 890 Broadway from commercial development, and co-founded the Joyce Theatre with Cora Cahan. More than anyone else in the world Mr. Feld is responsible for the vibrancy that still exists in New York City's dance scene. Though I'm sure he has more than a few decades left to him, it appears that he is in his twilight years. If running this school is to be his last hurrah, I hope that he will devote more of his time to coaching his students as artists. One does not come to these concerts for exhibitions of perfection. Unfortunately that is exactly what was presented. Where was the trademark gusto and tang that one expects to find in dancers raised by Mr. Feld? It is a quality that is sorely missing in the tame dancing endemic to this generation of dancers. If anyone can cultivate an entire crop of dancers to move with daring that would have delighted Mr. Robbins or George Balanchine, it is Eliot Feld. Maybe next year he will show us that instead of dutiful soldiers who shout with glee at the end.
Photo Credit for "A Yankee Doodle": Christopher Duggan