Schimmel Center, Pace University, New York, NY
September 19, 2015

Jerry Hochman

New York Theatre Ballet in Agnes de Mille's Three Virgins and a Devil Photo Richard Termine

New York Theatre Ballet in Agnes de Mille’s Three Virgins and a Devil
Photo Richard Termine

For each of its Legends and Visionaries programs over the past several years, New York Theatre Ballet has mounted at least one new ballet, one dance that is long overdue for a revival by the major company that first presented it, or one that has been long forgotten. For its first 2015-2016 program, NYTB revived Agnes de Mille’s warmly hilarious Three Virgins and a Devil. The program also included repeat performances of three pieces from last spring: Double Andante, a ballet by Pam Tanowitz that NYTB premiered last year; Merce Cunningham’s Cross Currents; and Nicolo Fonte’s There, and Back Again.

Three Virgins and a Devil, adapted from a tale by fourteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, premiered in London in 1934 as part of the revue, Why Not Tonight? Seven years later, ABT presented it in a version that included de Mille as one of the virgins (and Jerome Robbins as a youth). I first saw the piece during its ABT revival in 1973, and to this day cannot get the image of Dennis Nahat’s virtuosic Devil, with a vicious, impatient twinkle in his eyes as he twirled his tail like a lasso, out of my mind.

Three Virgins is set to parts 1 and 2 of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, an orchestral suite based on Italian Renaissance music primarily for the lute. The medieval senses of the two pieces complement and enhance each other perfectly. The dance itself is essentially an irreverent morality play, the plot of which can be reduced to a sentence: on their way to pledging themselves to God, three virgins meet the Devil and are diverted to hell. De Mille magnifies this into a sugar-coated ironic comic fable, which in just seventeen minutes manages to skewer multiple forms of libidinous excess and religious zealotry without offending anyone.

Three virgins enter a medieval setting. A closed monastery door is stage left; a cave entrance stage right. The Priggish One (also called the Fanatical One) tries to lead the other two (the Greedy One and a Lustful One) into the nunnery. While they pray outside the door, a strange, berobed beggar emerges from the cave. After first begging for money from the would-be novices, the beggar’s hoof betrays him as the Devil. The three virgins are horrified, but ultimately seduced by the thought of what he can do for them, or, in the case of the Priggish One, what she can do for him. The Devil’s goal is to entice the repressed virgins to cross the cave entrance into hell. The first two are easy, the Priggish One tougher, but eventually all succumb to their own weaknesses.

Three Virgins and a Devil Photo Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT--Richard Termine

Three Virgins and a Devil
Photo Richard Termine

Other than its comic flair, what’s noteworthy about the dance is how little ‘ballet’ there is. Long before Paul Taylor created a dance around ‘ordinary’ movement, here de Mille crafted a ballet that effectively did just that, filling it with skipping, walking, and most important, running; and it doesn’t take much to see in Three Virgins choreographic precursors of de Mille’s Rodeo, which premiered eight years later in 1942.

Three Virgins would seem to be ideal for NYTB. That the company didn’t quite nail it as well as it has other revivals may be, in part, a consequence of my memory of that 1973 performance (which, aside from Nahat, included Sallie Wilson as the Priggish Virgin). In hindsight, though, the piece also looked better on a larger stage, where the outsized acting appeared less restrained, and where the extra space to run had greater impact. And as good a pianist as Michael Scales has proven to be over the years, reducing the score to a piano instrumentation made the ballet feel smaller than it should.

Carmella Lauer (Greedy Virgin), Elena Zahlmann (Lustful Virgin), and Michael Wells (A Youth) danced well, and Amanda Treiber (Priggish Virgin) more than that. When it comes to the Devil, as good as Melendez is (and he’s been a stalwart for NYTB for several years), he didn’t display the broad strokes necessary to be demonically lovable. The comedy largely fell flat; a matter of timing, perhaps, but also of insufficient emphasis. For example, the audience simply didn’t get what he meant when, after capturing the first virgin, he raised a single triumphant finger. It wasn’t ‘big’ enough; nor were the succeeding two gestures after he’d captured virgins two and three. But this was NYTB’s initial performance of the ballet and I don’t doubt that they’ll all grow into their roles.

The company didn’t need much ‘growing into’ for the remaining pieces on the program, which I previously enthusiastically reviewed. Be that as it may, all three looked even better on second view.

Merce Cunningham’s Cross Currents is one of the few Cunningham dances that I like as much as appreciate. Treiber, Alexis Branagan, and Joshua Andino-Nieto (the only new member of the cast) executed the fiendishly-timed, emotionless steps precisely and immaculately, somehow looking less like machine-cogs than riveting expressions of human images in motion, with Branagan’s burning intensity (which I’ve observed previously) taking her to another, higher level.

Double Andante has changed a bit since its premiere last year, but the change is for the better. While the strong points in Tanowitz’s choreography remain (as well as the execution by the cast of ten – down from twelve at the premiere), the piece now looks tighter, less frenetic, and less busy. Treiber, the piece’s fulcrum of sorts, Branagan, and Mayu Oguri stood out.

Fonte’s distillation of the Hansel and Gretel tale, There, and Back Again, is a powerful confluence of original music by Kevin Keller, choreography, and performances. Zahlmann (A Girl) and Treiber (A Witch) reprised their brilliant performances, with Zahlmann taking hers to new dramatic heights. Wells (in the lesser role as Her Brother) and Melendez (Their Father) each improved significantly, with the latter now appearing on equal emotional footing with Zahlmann and Treiber.

NYTB is to dance another Legends and Visionaries program at Danspace Project on October 1, 2 and 3. Details here. These programs should not be missed.