Rasta Thomas/ Bad Boys of Dance "Rock the Ballet" tour-- and post-performance interview in West Palm Beach 4/09/09
Posted 11 April 2009 - 11:28 AM
Ordinarily, I don't think material like this fits on Ballet Talk. But I've been haunted by it -- and by my responses to it -- especially in relation to the current status of ballet in the dance world. Rasta Thomas had a great future open to him in the conventional world of ballet, but did not -- or could not -- go along with it. It's a fascinating story. The company he's putting together now is a fascinating chapter in that story. I hope that what follows doesn't come across as too negative. My frustration about the program -- and some of the choreography -- was strong precisely because I think that everyone involved is capable of so much more. This COULD be a very hopeful story for ballet.
Thomas and his wife Adrienne Canterna-Thomas were the stars, but they mixed very easily with the 6 young men who (I assume ) are the "bad boys." "Bad" in this case seems to mean cute, polite, cheerful, goofily romantic and approximiately 16-years old.. There are no "mean streets" in this neighborhood.
These are fine dancers -- full of energy, life, cheerfulness -- very attentive to presentation and remarkably well trained. There were of course the obligatory strip tease numbers, flirting with the audience, etc. And there was enough acrobatics to please those who need the stimulus of that kind of thing. But the beautiful balances, strong pirouettes, carefully controlled but thrilling leaps, make you really want to see them in more challenging material. Thomas (along with his wife) ahd the most extended balletic sequences, brief though they were. Strange to say, the biggest cheers of both evenings were in response to some very classical ballet work: his series of perfect grands jetes and her set of fouettes.
My problem is this: The cute, over-explicit, and unsubtle pop-ness of so much of the choreography undervalues the very real talent of these dancers. They can do a lot more than strut on a cat-walk, roll their eyes while removing their shirts, and exchange numerous high-fives with each other.
An example: "I Love 'Lucy'", an 8-10 minute piece choreographed by Thomas himself, the Maria Callas singing the "Habanera" from Carmen. It's a kind of "story ballet." Thomas flirts with and then breaks up with his girlfriend. He and his five friends discover the pleasures of inflatable plastic lady dolls. The plot is, basically, a variant of Coppelia. The girl catches them flirting with and making love to the dolls. She is disgusted, stomps, off, gets revenge, etc. etc.
It's a clever idea and very well performed. On the other hand, everything is UNDERLINED, HIGH-LIGHTED, AND REPEATEDREPEATEADREPEATEDuntil the dimmest wit in the audience getS the point.
(Examples: Canterna-Thomas does not merely "dance" being upset and disgusted; she mimics gagging, vomiting, etc. The dancers have unnecessary verbal exchanges. Everyone mugs.).
Thomas -- in trying to reach out to a younger audience -- seems to have aimed rather low. It will be interesting to see whether the company's aesthetic can grow up from here.
Ms. Canterna-Thomas was also reponsible for a good deal of the choreography, especially the entire second act -- a series of dances, "Rock You," set to songs by Michael Jackson, Prince, and Queen. The ensemble quality of her work in this full-act presenetation was impressive. There was much to enjoy, despite the limits of the "ballet rocks" format.
During a Post-Performance discussion Thomas came across as a serious, thoughtful, and very articulate young man. He was quite frank about his frustrations with the ballet business:
-- praise for Jeune Ballet de France, which he joined at 16: "I credit them for all my contemporary training";
-- his feelings that he was misled when he joined the Kirov and that he, as an American/outsider, was frozen out;
-- unspecified disappointments and problems with a powers that be at American Ballet Theater;
-- his belief that there are almost no ballet choreographers of importance nowadays, and that there probably haven't been since Balanchine. He referred to Lubavitch as an exception, and one other, whose name I've forgotten. Despite his 'high regard" for Balanchine -- whose work he danced for Arthur Mitchell at Dance Theater of Harlem -- he thinks "you can't define yourself in one style.";
-- coming to the awareness that "I was always a gypsy ... Never satisfied in one place."
-- his growing sense that ballet has become, for the most part, "boring ... regurgitating steps that are so old -- the reason for doing this is missing -- the Americans are just riding on the coattails of what was done before." As a result of this, ballet audiences are now mostly old.
-- despite that, company class consists of a ballet barre and center. They guys also work out a the gym.
-- his company, which tours extensively in Europe and the U.S., has a 40-week season and can draw on 20 men along with 10 women. (Canterna-Thomas has her own group, the Pretty Girls of Dance).
The excellent dancers on this tour (in addition to Thomas and Canterna-Thomas) were Robbie Nicholson, Anthony Colantone, Michael Keefe, Robert Roldan, Adrian Lee, and Chris McCarthy. They can all jump, turn, and balance with the best of them.
Here's a link to the full company:
Posted 11 April 2009 - 12:13 PM
From what you've described from his comments, I guess that neither Wheeldon nor Ratmansky nor Robbins, for example, rock his boat in a way that dancing with inflatable dolls to Callas, and not "regurgitating steps so old" -- I think that is what is known as "vocabulary" but I could be mistaken -- does.
Posted 11 April 2009 - 01:09 PM
I hope that Rasta was not holding out for a principal offer with ABT or another top US or Western European company; I hope that he did not turn down offers for lower-ranked positions. A lot of folks who won gold medals in the big competitions took offers as corps or even apprentices. Dancers like Yao Wei, Alina Cojocaru, Vanessa Zahorian and Michele Wiles -- all roughly of Rasta's generation -- commenced on the lowest rung of a ballet company after having won their respective gold medals in the big competitions. They are now principals. Rasta could have been with them.
Regardless, I respect Rasta and Adrienne for doing their thing, even if it's not necessarily the 'thing' that those of us who follow classical ballet may have wanted. It's their lives. I truly wish them well. But that will not keep me from sighing when I think about their promise in classical ballet 10 or more years ago.
Posted 11 April 2009 - 06:01 PM
Posted 11 April 2009 - 10:29 PM
Posted 12 April 2009 - 07:28 AM
Posted 12 April 2009 - 09:24 AM
And please believe that this is a company of really good dancers. They're well-trained individually and as an ensemble, with no sloppiness or fudging. They have charm and charisma on stage. Ballet vocabulary seems to come as naturally to them as the forms of "pop" dancing that have influenced this program. Someone has worked on and with them as a group, skillfully and lovingly.
A surprise for me is how much of Canterena's choreographic invention stays in the memory. I wish she would give Stravinsky or even Arvo Part a try. And how about trying serious contemporary music with a long sustained adagio line?
Clearly, ballet "lost" something when big careers in major companies did not materialize for this couple. But I wouldn't write them off yet.
Posted 12 April 2009 - 10:23 AM
What you described of what the company performed, though, sounds like a direct result of the attitudes about ballet he expressed in the Q&A. I'll take a pass on that.
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