Some people think of critics as the artistic equivalent of meat inspectors; they see our job as going from place to place stamping performances as prime, choice, select or -- heaven forbid -- cutter. We're the arbiters of taste who will tell them what to miss and what's worth attending. And although we critics know that our judgments are hopelessly subjective, we're not averse to being seen as all-knowing judges. We do like to pontificate, toss in clever analogies, point out those textual and contextual references we assume almost everyone else has missed. The trouble is, every now and then we're pulled up short. Unsure what to say -- because we don't even know what to think.
Movin' Out, Twyla Tharp's full-length ballet to the music of Billy Joel, presents just such a puzzle. The thin, stereotypical plot involves the lives of some working-class kids -- characters from Billy Joel's songs, actually -- who have just graduated from high school. There's slutty Brenda and good-girl Judy, tough-guy Eddie and athletic Tony. Brenda breaks up with the former and flirts with the latter. Meanwhile, Judy accepts an engagement ring from high-school sweetheart James, to the strains of "Just the Way You Are." The Vietnam War intrudes into these couples' playful lives, and the men go off to fight. James is killed. Tony and Eddie are messed up. Can Brenda and Tony find their way back to each other? Can Eddie find his way back to himself? "Who," as Eugne Ionesco said in The Bald Soprano, "has any interest in prolonging this confusion?"
Dance isn't the best medium for narrative, and this particular story has been told a thousand times. You watch not because you care about these stock figures, but because they're pure Americana. And, of course, they dance.
Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through June 6 at the 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
On a certain level, this show is brilliant entertainment, from the pulse-quickening music (given a first-rate performance by the Movin' Out band and pianist-vocalist Darren Holden) to the energy of the dancers. Tharp routinely demands the impossible, and the results are mind-boggling. At first, the overall effect is of being at a rock concert with extraordinarily sophisticated visuals. It's exhilarating. You feel as if you're thrashing around in a psychedelic washing machine, devoid of thought, blind to everything but sound, movement and rhythm.
By intermission, I was dazed by song and color, uninterested in the plot but still dazzled by the overall production. But my companions -- both serious dancers -- were less impressed. They applauded the athleticism of the dancing, but disliked its presentational style, the unabashed way the dancers preened for the audience after almost every showy move. They found the choreography unidimensional and unsubtle. "It's also cluttered," said one. "There are too many steps." They did agree, though, that there was one moment they liked: a scene in which a barefoot Vietnamese woman moved among the uniformed soldiers like a wraith.
There's a feeling you sometimes get when an actor, dancer or musician is performing beautifully. It's a kind of yearning, something very close to love. It isn't personal -- it's because the performer has become a conduit for the transcendent possibilities of the art form itself. But Movin' Out is not the kind of art you enter; it's art to be watched from the outside. If it's art at all.
Which is not to say that these aren't amazing dancers or that the production doesn't have some stirring moments. I liked the two pas de deux between Laurie Kanyok's Brenda and Corbin Popp's Tony, with Popp's power and Kanyok's live-wire energy; Matthew Dibble's classicism as James; the leaps and whiplike turns of Ron Todorowski, playing Eddie. There were also two particularly lovely dancers in the ensemble: Alice Alyse and Kristine Bendul.
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Thinking about the show later, though, I realized the predominant emotion it communicates comes not from the dancers, but from Tharp herself. And for the most part, that sensibility is fast, horny and in your face.
Performances don't end when the curtain falls --or, in this case, after a prolonged and shamelessly milked curtain call. They continue in your head. And it turned out that even if I hadn't entered Movin' Out, it had entered me. I awoke the next morning still thinking about it. I wanted to go back and see it again. I thought perhaps I'd missed something tricky in the steps, something that tied everything together, something that imparted depth.
So here's the critical stamp I'd place on Movin' Out: sensory pleasure; a lingering, ambivalent aftertaste.