To Satirical Ballet, With Love

New York City Ballet’s recent All Robbins program included Robbins’s comedy/satire The Concert. After the performance, an acquaintance (at his first ballet) remarked that he’d been surprised to see such a piece. He hadn’t expected parody in ballet in the first place, and then he’d expected it to become serious at some point.

But no. This is a ballet that starts by poking fun at concertgoers and ends with the pianist chasing the attendees-turned-butterflies with a butterfly net. Throughout, it laughs at our relationships, our weaknesses, at ballet itself.

It always initially astonishes me when people are surprised at parodical or satirical ballets, but I’ve come to realize that I saw a somewhat unusual collection of ballets as a child. Most notably, I grew up on a steady diet of Peter Anastos works.

By “steady diet,” I really mean an average of one satirical Anastos work every two years (and sometimes more serious Anastos pieces as well) for the first nine years that I watched ballet. That’s not very much, in the end, but the fourth ballet I ever saw (after Nutcracker, Three Musketeers, and Bolero) was Fractured Fairy Tales, co-choreographed by Anastos and Bryan Pitts. Much of it is hilarious, and while some of the humor went over my head, other parts were quite accessible and funny to me as a five year old. The next year I saw Forgotten Memories and Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet, and four years after that I saw Table Manners.

By the time I was nine years old, I didn’t find comedic ballet odd at all, even though it doesn’t match popular images of ballet. Parody was just one of the many modes ballet could take, and it was a mode I loved. It’s one I’ve come to love even more as I’ve grown. I appreciate Forgotten Memories and Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet a lot more now, having learned more ballet history and having seen some Tudor and piano ballets.

Given my fondness for Anastos, it wasn’t a surprise that I loved the December performances of the company he helped found in the 70s, the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). I didn’t write about the Trocks here; I couldn’t figure out quite what to say that would be sensible and not just delighted flailing. And honestly, anything I would have said, Alistair Macauley said better. I loved the Trocks unabashedly, and I would go see any of their performances. They’re good dancers with great appreciation for ballet, and they also laugh at it — at the plot holes, the ridiculous stories, the history of Russian or “Russian” tours, and the interaction of ballet and gender.

The Concert, Anastos ballets, and the Trocks performances are all satire done with great love. This kind of parody/satire is a rare mode of ballet, but it’s one of the ones that best lets ballet be in conversation with itself and with the rest of the world. It is true, and it is funny, and in many ways it is kind. That’s what I appreciate about it so much.

A couple last related notes: Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is in this vein for contemporary dance. I appreciate it and have friends who list it among their favorite works; I just don’t love it the way I do the pieces I mentioned. And for a written treatment of ballet in this same tone, read the beginning of Meg Howrey’s The Cranes Dance, in which the main character, a soloist at an unnamed-but-clearly-ABT company, narrates the plot of Swan Lake with great honesty.

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