David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 22, 24, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes in 'With a Chance of Rain'.  Photo © Marty Sohl

Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes in ‘With a Chance of Rain’.
Photo © Marty Sohl

Of all the reviews I’ve written in the past 10 years or so, this has been the most uncomfortable to write. This is because of all the dances I’ve seen in the past 40 years or so, none has been as needlessly controversial as Liam Scarlett’s “With a Chance of Rain”. The ballet, the first that the Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence created for American Ballet Theatre, premiered on opening night of the company’s Fall 2014 season , and was repeated, with a different cast, two nights later (the other ballets danced are reviewed here.

In short, buoyed by excellent individual performances, I enjoyed and thought I understood Mr. Scarlett’s new piece upon its initial presentation; and then, despite another set of excellent performances, in my eyes it all came unglued with a different cast. In the first, despite fleeting audacity, the work made some semblance of strained thematic sense; in the other, for a variety of reasons, the piece became a sequence of well-crafted but disparate dances, punctuated by gratuitous actions that diminished the quality of the piece as a whole – the same actions that I determined were audacious but inconsequential when the ballet premiered.

At bottom one must wonder what Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie had been thinking, since, based on his opening night welcoming remarks, he knew and sanctioned and perhaps directly or indirectly encouraged what was coming, and any controversy could have been easily avoided. Potentially more serious is that the piece, and the casting, might reflect conceptions by administrators and dancers as to what qualities are necessary to display in order to successfully portray a role – or to be cast in a particular role in the first place.

I suspect that some viewers will evaluate “With a Chance of Rain” based on their reaction to one act and another movement sequence within the piece, which I’ll call ‘The Grope’ and ‘The Twerk’. This would be understandable, since ‘The Grope and ‘The Twerk’ are presented in a visually shocking and deliberate manner, and even though not essential to the piece, could dominate a viewer’s memory. I disagree that these actions should be the guidepost on which the ballet should be evaluated – but I don’t disagree that there’s a multi-faceted problem here that these choreographic exclamation points and the performances of them – including one significant difference in choreography between the two performances – bring to the forefront.

To me the cause for concern arises in part objectively from what I saw on stage, and in part from what I sensed I was seeing, which would be a subjective determination that perhaps should not play a part in critical evaluation – but I think necessarily does. It has nothing to do with whether a dancer can do the steps, or the acts displayed; it relates to a mutual comfort level between the performer and the choreography, and between the performer and audience. And it makes me angry, because no dancer should be put in the position that Misty Copeland and Sarah Lane were put in (although for all I know one or the other or both were involved to some extent in the creative process, wanted the role, and wanted to be seen as doing what they did) – to be potentially evaluated not on whether they can act a role or dance the steps, but whether they look comfortable being explicitly groped on stage.

Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in 'With a Chance of Rain'.  Photo © Marty Sohl

Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in ‘With a Chance of Rain’.
Photo © Marty Sohl

To be clear, in the context of a ballet in which there are four pairs of dancers, Mr. Scarlett’s choreography has one couple dance in a particularly sexually provocative manner (the couple was portrayed on Wednesday by Ms. Copeland and James Whiteside, and on Friday night by Ms. Lane and Thomas Forster). The most jarring of these sexually provocative moments are two instances of the man placing his hands on the breasts of the woman, at one point ‘jiggling’ them (or, in the other performance, appearing to), and, separately, the two of them tempting each other through movement that resembles ‘twerking’. Lest there be any misconception here, there is no nudity – it’s ‘just’ a very deliberate grope and very suggestive sexual movement, which some viewers might find inherently objectionable, all within the context of intensely provocative choreography for the couple that includes metaphoric (as opposed to simulated) sex via repeated spread-eagled positioning by the woman.

I have less of a problem with including these images in a performance than others might. While I’m sensitive to the matter of the exploitation of female dancers, here – unlike another ABT gross miscalculation, the 2011 presentation of Demis Volpe’s “Private Light”, which I found repulsive based on considerably less graphic sexuality (and which I had hoped never to have to replay in my mind) – I found the contact and the movement, at least at Wednesday’s performance, though gross and shocking to see on stage, to have a purpose, and not in any way to be demeaning to the dancers involved. And there’s also nothing particularly new here – metaphoric sex is not at all uncommon, and ‘groping’, done in a comic, ‘deliberately accidental’ manner, is part of the choreography for many ballets, including one of the revivals this season: “Fancy Free”.

Through no fault of the dancers, I felt differently about it on Friday, when The Grope looked to me to be totally superfluous, gratuitous, and demeaning, and The Twerk to be playfully funny and somewhat stupid rather than audacious.

The difference in my response had nothing to do with the quality of the execution of the basic choreography. Ms. Copeland and Ms. Lane each played an aggressive, sexually provocative character, and each played her role well. While there are differences between their performances, the differences relate to how that role is executed, not to whether they can portray a particular type of character.

In a macro view, I found Mr. Scarlett’s ballet to be a beautifully crafted sequence of dances by the four couples in the piece: on Wednesday, Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo, Ms. Copeland and Mr. Whiteside, Gemma Bond and Joseph Gorak, and Devon Teuscher and Sterling Baca; and on Friday, Cory Stearns and Isabella Boylston, Ms. Lane and Mr. Forster, Luciana Paris and Eric Tamm, and Stephanie Williams and Mr. Baca. There are segues from one sequence to another, from one solo or duet to another, that are visually intriguing. And the dancing itself is filled with passages that display temptation, turmoil, exhilaration, lust, passion, and resignation clearly and compassionately. This is a highly emotional, highly personal ballet, and the fact that much of the movement is sexually charged is not inappropriate given what Mr. Scarlett seemed to be doing. Making an audience uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing.

Based on Wednesday’s performance I saw “With a Chance of Rain” as a meditation on sexual ambiguity, and, in Mr. Gomes’s portrayal, as having a central character around whom the ballet begins and ends, and around whom everything else takes place. For example, after all the dancers are seen at first quietly posed facing upstage, he is the first to move; everyone else moves thereafter, and subsequently separate to dance in pairs, solos, or other permutations. The ballet concludes with him in a duet with his partner in which he is the decision-maker in terms of whether to continue or abandon that relationship. And Mr. Gomes’s character is shirtless, as if his (partial) nakedness is intended to strip away any mask that might obstruct a view of his soul.

DHK Theater Promenade being decked out for the post-performance gala dinner - in scarlet.  Photo © Jerry Hochman

DHK Theater Promenade being decked out for the post-performance gala dinner – in scarlet.
Photo © Jerry Hochman

More significantly, the piece appeared to reflect Mr. Gomes’s character’s wrestling with the various impulses and temptations that surround him, and coming to terms with himself and his character’s ambiguous sexuality. In that sense, the absence of any passion between the ‘provocative’ couple – instead, only a meaningless effort by Mr. Whiteside to go through the motions of heterosexual contact – fits neatly as a lead-in to a subsequent duet between Mr. Whiteside and Mr. Gomes, to Mr. Gomes’s visualized spiritual angst, to his lukewarm response to the offer of affection by Ms. Seo’s character, and to his eventual acceptance of (or settling for) Ms. Seo’s companionship. This focus on ambiguity also led me to see the ballet’s title, which seemingly made no sense, as reflecting this underlying theme. The phrase ‘with a chance of rain’ is usually coupled with a prefatory phrase: ‘partly sunny with a…’, ‘partly cloudy with a…,’ etc. The title’s ambiguity with respect to what the ‘day’ is really like reflects the ambiguity in the ballet’s central character.

But then there was the second performance, and with a different cast my evaluation of the piece as a man’s coming to terms with himself and his ambiguous sexuality went out the window. Everything changed, and I must emphasize that it had nothing to do with the quality of the performances. Mr. Stearns danced very well, but he doesn’t yet command the stage the way Mr. Gomes does. So my sense that the character that he played was the piece’s focal point disappeared, and “With a Chance of Rain” devolved into a series of dances, related only by their taking place in the same point in dance time and having some overlap from one dance sequence to another, and I no longer saw or sensed a connection between the characters that supported an overarching theme.

But in the absence of any single presence to hold the piece together, Ms. Lane and Mr. Forster were an isolated couple relatively unconnected to the rest of the action; their only reason for being to be to display sexual attraction by movement in which Ms. Lane played the dominating figure, and Mr. Forster somewhat of a victim (as I watched them, I thought of the Siren and the Prodigal Son). Although Ms. Lane here was the aggressor, as was Ms. Copeland on Wednesday, she was more of a high-class temptress, and the duets between Ms. Lane and Mr. Forster showed some measure of passion and real feeling, whereas that between Ms. Copeland and Mr. Whiteside was vulgar and meaningless. This isn’t a criticism – both portrayals are appropriate to demonstrate a sexually provocative stage relationship, but they reflect different contexts based on the way the ballet played out (indeed, the partnering of Ms. Copeland and Mr. Whiteside was inspired – they present as kindred spirits, and belong on the stage together). And whereas I saw the emotional emptiness of the relationship between Ms. Copeland and Mr. Whiteside leading naturally to the mildly homo-erotic duet between Mr. Whiteside and Mr. Gomes, there was no such segue in the paired dance between Mr. Forster and Mr. Stearns – it was just two men temporarily dancing steps together.

So, to this point, fine. Both sets of dancers provide different stylistic interpretations to a role, the way different dancers always do. Both are valid, and the problem, to the extent there is one, is with the construction of the ballet. But The Grope opens up a can of worms, because it was different ‘factually’.

What made The Grope work in context on Wednesday was that it appeared to be both profoundly sexual and profoundly of no significance at all. Ms. Copeland appeared crude, and more than willing to make herself sexually available, and Mr. Whiteside to be desperately trying to pretend to be aroused by her. There was audaciousness and mutual (non-violent) aggression, but no passion and no emotional connection between them. On Friday night, Ms. Lane appeared to be playing a siren (as she did so well in “Chamber Symphony”, the second piece in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”), tempting Mr. Forster. Their dancing was equally contrived, but not superficial. But then The Grope came out of nowhere, was pointless (which is different from meaningless), and made both of them appear uncomfortable.

And most critically, there was an objective difference in the way The Grope was played between the two performances (I had clear views of the dancers at each performance), which convinces me that the differences in the way I sensed the dancers’ emotions was not solely a product of my personal judgment. While Mr. Whiteside planted his hands on Ms. Copeland’s breasts and kept them there awhile, playing with them while he held them (both of them with ‘isn’t this kewl’ looks on their faces), Mr. Forster, straight-faced and somewhat solemn, withdrew his hands from Ms. Lane’s chest almost immediately, and ‘jiggled’ empty air.

The difference in the way these actions were performed on stage raises questions beyond whether the ballet was too suggestive or demeaning, whether The Grope or The Twerk were necessary, and whether the ballet made any sense. And the questions potentially cut to the heart of issues relating to the perception and evaluation of a dancer’s abilities, issues on which casting decisions may be made.

I don’t know the motivations behind the casting and the execution in Mr. Scarlett’s ballet. Normally, such considerations would be irrelevant, but here I don’t think they are. Clearly both ways of executing The Grope were sanctioned or they would not have been permitted on stage. But which was the way Mr. Scarlett intended? Did Ms. Copeland and Mr. Whiteside volunteer the more graphic act because they’re more comfortable being ‘out there’, or to up the ante? Or did Ms. Lane and Mr. Forster tone down the portrayal that Mr. Scarlett preferred because of their discomfort with it?  Was Ms. Copeland cast in the role because her stage persona lends herself more to being seen as vulgar; and was Ms. Lane cast in the role because she felt, or someone told her, that she had to ratchet up the sexuality in order to be considered for roles that arguably require the ballerina to be somewhat more of a sexual aggressor or object of desire?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and don’t know if I want to know. That these questions inevitably arise because of the ‘choreographic’ differences in the two performances of “With a Chance of Rain” makes me uncomfortable, and makes me wonder about the rationale behind curious casting decisions in other ballets and opportunities inexplicably denied, and about reliance on criteria that demean and devalue dancers and their capabilities, and ABT and its audiences, in the process.