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Another Balanchine: David Gordon's 'Trying Times'

by Mark Franko

December 11-20, 2008 -- Dance Theater Workshop, New York City

We go to the theatre wanting to know why David Gordon is interested in Balanchine. Not just in Balanchine, but in his breakthrough work “Apollo”, premiered in 1928 but still in the repertory of the New York City Ballet. “Apollon musagète”, as it was originally called, was the ballet through which Balanchine understood, as he recounted it, that dance should not exceed what the music tells us; that the fate of dance as expression hangs in the balance of music (in this case, the Stravinsky score was instructive to him), and that a certain reserve is both desirable and necessary for good choreographic composition. Balanchine here discovered what was ‘just enough’ for his taste in Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. This is where the choreographer’s experimentalism yields to a certain vision of the past: the Russian imperial tradition of Petipa, that, according to Tim Scholl’s “From Petipa to Balanchine”, takes us back through the Apollo figure to Louis XIV, as mediated by Petipa’s nineteenth-century vision of the grand siècle in “Sleeping Beauty,” Russian late-classicism’s tribute to French seventeenth-century neo-classicism. Trying times indeed.

David Gordon’s “Trying Times” itself was originally premiered in 1982. Clearly, he does not wish to perform it ‘again’ as it originally was, but to recall it. Gordon represents the reprise of “Trying Times (remembered)” as an exercise of memory, thus inscribing it by extension in another concatenation of historical memories and evocations underlying the advent of ballet modernism. The piece starts with photo projections of the original cast and a film projection of the first performance that unfolds as we watch the work performed live in the space between the audience and the screen. This occasions a sort of double vision.

Gordon’s remembering of “Trying Times” is a recollection of a work that recollects Balanchine and the effect “Apollo” had on Gordon when he first saw it. Although he was in “Trying Times” himself in 1982 he is not now. There are other interesting differences in both content and timing –  sorts of willful discrepancies that keep us aware of Gordon’s point that memory can be imprecise. Similarly Balanchine’s 1928 discovery of neo-classical modernism continued to evolve through a series of revisions to the original: the opening moment of the birth of Apollo and the pose on the stairs at the end were cut; changes in the costume – the original Muses wore bathing caps; Apollo was dressed in gold – eventually gave way to the basic academic attire one sees today. It is as if these very revisions are being reflected in Gordon’s revision of his own work – as if “Trying Times” were a recollection and/or homage to memory and revision rather than to a particular historical event, or even his own impressions of the piece.

We cannot but watch the dance as it mirrors or fails to mirror the film. Gordon imposes on our viewing a sense of comparison and of framing. “Trying Times” is literally framed by its own flickering, grainy black and white ghost, shot in the same theatre space. Such imposed comparison is further nourished by more subtle discrepancies. The motley pedestrian garb worn by the earlier cast – all muted reds, greens, browns, yellows – is transformed here into black and white shirts, vests, and pants (similar to Balanchine’s ultimate move to the more severe academic attire). The present appears less pedestrian, more stylized, albeit certainly not standardized. Yet, of course, this change is still couched in a postmodern dance dress code of everydayness.

When an empty frame is carried in and placed before a male-female duet being performed on a square vinyl patch, the couple suddenly gains a classical stylization, suggesting that Balanchine’s classicism is also the result of framing. Here again, Gordon plays with similarity through difference. Analogical formalities such as creating flimsy barriers between dancers successfully emulate classical restrictions (front/back, geometrical facings, obsession with lines rather than volume) without requiring the dancers to ‘be’ ballet dancers.

Perhaps the most notable discrepancy for our own memory of “Apollo” is Gordon’s movement vocabulary itself. This is, of course, to be expected. It is everyday movement with minimal acknowledgements of classical line and group compositions that suggest the three Muses and Apollo. But, the three-to-one relationship does not always hold. Comparison also arises in Gordon’s attitude to the music (the same Stravinsky score with some sections I did not recognize), which determines the reserved scope of the movement.

Gordon also introduces flats and folding fences that shape the stage space and point up the cutout sense of flatness in the directionality of classical technique. He references Balanchine’s procedures from a distance that is stylistically removed from the original. What at first appears to be discrepancy can turn out to be metaphor. In the sections performed to Stravinsky, one perceives the underlying gesture of Balanchine’s formalism without the customary aesthetic finish. Is this a comment on a basic form of abstraction? Everyday movement and downsized demeanor almost do suggest the way Balanchine extended the concept of ballet positioning of the arms and legs into the extremities. So, for example, Apollo opening and clenching his hands to and from a fist on the music seems to count as a ballet step. Rendered in every-day terms yet obedient to the rhythms of the music, a tension emerges between two types of discipline.

The copious spoken word might seem the most anti-Balanchinian of elements. The plot of “Apollo”, such as it is, in which each Muse dances for him in a sort of “Judgment of Paris” scenario, is nowhere in evidence. But, it is conserved paradoxically in the spoken word. A woman holds forth on her doubts about a man’s advances, and then a man does the same about the woman. Valda Setterfield asks: “Who does he think he is?” The narrative of this pick-up situation follows in which the man is aggressive and somewhat pitiful in his insistence. Why has Apollo been placed at the center of Balanchine’s ballet, Gordon seems to ask. Who does Apollo think he is?

There is no central male figure in “Trying Times.” If there is a central figure at all, it is Setterfield whose words evoke a Gertrude Stein-like text where the obsessive use of the term “go” for “says” (“he goes”, “she goes”); “I mean” and “you know” punctuate every sentence to which the chorus repeatedly adds: “Then what happened?” An extremely clever mise-en-scène of three pliable flats the dancers carry and manipulate constantly alters our perception of the space and introduces a formality the movement and the narrative lack. At the same time, the light portable rectangles (one red, one green, and one transparent) underline the body’s volume and weight measured against the ideal flatness of the rectangular frames. Balanchine’s vocabulary, Gordon seems to say, does not admit the volume of troubled humanity: beneath his neoclassical style lies a ‘trying time’ between the sexes rather than the birth of harmony and beauty.

So, men and women are at odds in their language, which itself is sufficiently diluted by what linguists call phatic functions (“you know”, “I go”, “I mean”) that the plot is pulled apart by its own language, transformed into movement. Yet, “Trying Times” was born of Gordon’s admiration for “Apollo”: it is not critical of the ballet, not a parody. Perhaps for this reason, “Trying Times” concludes with a mock trial in which the question “who does he think he is?” seems to take leave of the Apollo figure and apply to Gordon himself. In the original work, Gordon is present as the defendant, and his dancers prosecute him before a judge. In 1982, Valda Setterfield came to Gordon’s defense. The trial acts as both a touching disclaimer and a statement of individuality. In 2008, Setterfield seems to recount the trial rather than testify within it. With Gordon absent as the defendant, it is not so clear who is on trial. One is left to choose between Apollo, Balanchine, and Gordon.

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