Bad Boys, baby dolls and dance as schlock therapy

Regular Art Scatter contributor Martha Ullman West, a noted national dance writer, went to see White Bird’s presentation of the Bad Boys of Dance at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on Thursday night. She was not amused. But as usual, her take on the performance is both amusing and enlightening. Here’s her report:

I’ve never much cared for dancing dolls,
including those in the first act of The Nutcracker; Coppelia, in which there are a slew of them; and Petrouchka. Mary Oslund made an interesting piece with dolls as a metaphor of sorts some years ago — Reflex Doll it was called, and it was a witty antidote to The Nutcracker, since it premiered in December. And Mark Morris made an extremely unpleasant and powerful piece about child abuse called Lovey, in which his dancers performed with small, naked baby dolls.

But the Bad Boys of Dance really took the mickey
on Thursday night when they came pouring onto the stage of the Newmark Theater in the fourth piece on a program of entertaining enough if derivative dances bearing life-sized inflatable mannequins (boynequins?) that looked a hell of a lot like sex dolls. And accompanied, for god’s sake, by a recording of Maria Callas singing the habanera from Carmen. The audience adored it. I wanted to walk out.

And yes, you’d better believe it offended my feminist sensibilities — not to mention the aesthetic ones — even more than all those damned second-position crotch lifts James Canfield used to put in his work. Those were ugly and degrading. So was this piece, mysteriously called I Love Lucy.

I was sitting in the middle of the row, in front of a six or seven-year-old girl whose view I hope I was blocking, so I couldn’t leave, and I did return after the intermission to see Adrienne Canterna-Thomas’ choreography for the company to music by Queen, Prince and Michael Jackson. She’s the wife of Rasta Thomas, a superb classically trained dancer who created this company and directs it. He has danced with the Kirov in St. Petersburg, the first American to be taken into that august company, as well as the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and I caught the last part of his performance in Balanchine’s Apollo several years ago at Symphony Space and regretted that traffic prevented me from seeing it all. He remains a terrific dancer no matter what he does, and some ballet virtuoso turns were part of the Bad Boys show.

Thomas, the advance press said, aims to build bridges between high art and popular culture — nothing new around here, where BodyVox has been doing just that for the past 10 years. And of course Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine weren’t too bad at it either, nor is Twyla Tharp in whose Movin’ Out Thomas has starred — and I’ll bet he was damn good.

The first piece on the Bad Boys program, set by Darrel Moultrie to Astor Piazzolla, certainly had a tinge of the Jets and the Sharks. In Love, a duet choreographed by Jerry Mitchell for the Thomases, looked quite a bit like some of Tharp’s Sinatra Songs, and so it went, one derivative piece after another.

By and large, the dancing was as good as promised, with, alas, Jon Drake, who was a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre until last spring, giving the weakest performance. He’s a fine dancer, now performing with Ballet Met in Ohio, and may well have been under-rehearsed, but he’s not quite good enough or experienced enough — as Thomas is — to transcend the cheapness with which this repertoire was loaded.

The second half featured some hip hop moves, including the requisite crotch-grabbing, lots of back flips and the like. The audience, I’m bound to say, adored it all; there was a standing ovation which induced a couple of encores, including an Angelalov-Myers solo called Bumble Bee performed by Thomas that may have been the best thing in the show.

Most of it, however, was pretty tacky. This group is all about marketing, so let’s have a little truth in advertising. Perhaps they should change their name to The Schlockaderos, because what’s “bad” about the Bad Boys is the choreography they perform.