NYTB stages delightful tribute to genius of Agnes de Mille

New York Theatre Ballet is doing important work — mainly preserving historic dances threatened to be

New York Theatre Ballet is doing important work — mainly preserving historic dances threatened to be lost to the ages.

In years past, the chamber ensemble revived many of Antony Tudor’s dramatic ballets. And more recently, the company, led by Diana Byer, has turned its heart and feet to Agnes de Mille. A legend in American ballet and Broadway, de Mille helped develop the fledging art of U.S.-bred dance for the ballet and musical theater stages. Her contribution was immense. But how many remember her or her dances?

That why it was so terrific to experience the art of de Mille on Sunday at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center. There, Byer’s small troupe danced two of her ballets and offered excerpts from three of her Broadway hits — “Oklahoma!,” “Brigadoon” and “Carousel.”

While de Mille is often associated with Broadway only, her work for the ballet was as crucial as her work in theater.

Her ballets bridged the era of fairy tales from Russia to the post-war modern America. Actually, she created the dance vehicle for real American people with real problems, loves and aspirations. But de Mille did not dwell too heavily on the darker side of life. She was too gutsy. And she was having too much fun honing her wit. That was evident in her “Three Virgins and A Devil” and “Debut at the Opera.” Both are hilarious.

In the former, a youth tries to beguile one of three virgins. Rebuffed, he turns to the devil for help. The lengths the devil takes to lure the three into his blazing cave of sin is quite amusing. And the piece ends with a surprise.

Equally charming is the solo “Debut at the Opera.” Danced by the versatile and engaging Elena Zahlmann, the dance conveys the crisis of confidence that a young ballerina might endure backstage, minutes before her first entrance.

The portrait is replete with slapstick, but ultimately it is a tender view of a what appears to the dancer at a momentously nerve-wracking time.

De Mille was known for her levity as a dancer, too. That side of her was portrayed in Tudor’s “Judgment of Paris,” a ballet in which she once starred.

This is a deliriously funny comedy in which three bawdy but aging showgirls try to seduce a gentleman. They clunk around, flat-footed and hunched as they unenthusiastically go about their tired bits with forced smiles. Ultimately, they get the job done with the help of some wine.

The second half of the program was devoted to musical theater. With Ferdy Tumakaka at the piano, the audience experienced snippets of these spectacles, uninterrupted by bows.

However, anyone unfamiliar with the plots might have found it hard to distinguish one from the next. And with the white costumes for the women in both the “Brigadoon” and “Carousel,” there was some confusion as to what was what.

That said, Zahlmann was again the star in each segment, brimming with glee as she finds her love in “Oklahoma” and “Brigadoon” and falling to pieces as Julie, the woman left behind in “Carousel.” Either way, she inspires tears.

While the musical dances don’t strongly stand alone, de Mille’s genius was still clear. Her dances are for and about people. And as long as they remain active, they will find a place in the hearts of dance lovers everywhere.

Thank you, New York Theatre Ballet, for making this possible.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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