Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ballroom. Reinvented.


By Linda Winer, chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday

In the beginning, people danced to grab the attention of the gods - or, at mating times, to grab one another.

Eventually, someone realized that the moving was almost as much fun as the mating. Folk dance became the Saturday night fever of the countryside while, up at the castle, the rich were formalizing the ecstasy into ritual.
The dances became more and more intricate, until regular people looked stupid doing them. Ballet got too complicated for the abilities of Louis XIV's court, and social dancing changed from a participatory to a spectator sport.

Which brings us, sort of, to the shocking new popularity of dance on TV and, perhaps, on Broadway.

It has been four years since mainstream America began calling professional dancers by their first names - Melissa, Ade, Karina, Maksim. "Dancing With the Stars" has demi-celebrities perform with ballroom champions. "So You Think You Can Dance" auditions contestants of all styles from around the country and lets viewers vote them off the island.

I can't say whether this newfound appreciation will translate into new dance-literate audiences. Certainly the outpouring of emotion last month for a seriously abstract, poignant modern pas de deux about breast cancer on "So You Think You Can Dance" suggested more than just a disease-is-bad reaction to the subject matter.

It remains to be seen how many TV fans will make the leap into paying audiences for "Burn the Floor," the touring show that opens Sunday night at Broadway's Longacre Theatre featuring Maksim Chmerkovskiy) and Karina Smirnoff from "Dancing With the Stars" (for the first two weeks of the 12-week engagement).

But I'm amused to see the ads that promise "Ballroom. Reinvented."

If we really want to see ballroom reinvented, I suspect the unlikely place to be this fall is the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. There, Twyla Tharp is opening (with intimations of a Broadway transfer) "Come Fly With Me," her full-length musical based on the songs of Frank Sinatra.

Tharp has had her slinky, thorny, exhilarating way with pieces of Sinatra, but for the dance world, not for Broadway. The director-choreographer - who had a Broadway smash in 2002 with Billy Joel and "Movin' Out," then a crash in 2005 with Bob Dylan and "The Times They are A-Changin'" - made a ballroom duet for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976 called "Once More, Frank."

Baryshnikov has memorably said, "Twyla's ballets make you feel like a fish in the sand. I always had the feeling I was out in a boat that had no sail, doing forbidden things."

Few have made forbidden things sound more seductive than Sinatra, and nobody in my lifetime has made his nuance more visible than Tharp. She did, after all, learn about American romance from working in her parents' drive-in movie theater in small-town California, and most of her career has functioned as a Missing Link between high art and pop. In 1982, she created a fantasy ballroom in "Nine Sinatra Songs" and, two years later, crawled back under our skin for more with "Sinatra Suite."

About the new show, according to the Alliance publicity, she intends to make audiences "remember that song, that dance, that special someone, that moment when you fell in love and fell in love again."

That doesn't sound much like radical Tharp, but if anyone can, I suspect she can.

This throwback to a more romantic time must also be part of the TV-dance appeal. There is a whiff of Fred and Ginger in the partnering, not to mention a sense of the old floor shows in fancy '50s nightclubs, the Ice Capades and Olympic figure skaters and, of course, the image of Tony Manero practicing his dips in front of three-way mirrors in Brooklyn.
Neither "Saturday Night Fever," in 1977, nor "Dirty Dancing," 10 years later, brought couple-dancing back to the heyday it enjoyed before the "Twist" taught people to dance with themselves in the early '60s. Music videos, especially those by Madonna and Michael Jackson, made a whole generation more sophisticated about watching stars dance - virtuosos, but solos with backup dancers.

What might be different now is an appreciation of partnerships. Not to read too much into it, but the return of dancing in pairs may signal
a hunger for mutual awareness. What's more, as Valentino proved, years ago, the tango can make a four/four downbeat seem like a naughty idea.

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