Cowboy Hats and Baseball Bats

State Street Ballet Premieres American Legends

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Fostering the American spirit has always been central to State
Street Ballet’s mission. Since its conception in 1993, Southern
California’s only fully professional ballet company has prided
itself on bringing a distinctly American approach to what is
traditionally a Russian, French, and Italian art form. “There’s a
restlessness about the American spirit,” said SSB Artistic Director
Rodney Gustafson. “A youthfulness, and a desire to grow. I like to
bring that to making dance — to take ballet in a new direction.
Everything I do is kind of edgy.”

It’s fitting, then, that his youthful company of 18 dancers
steps away from classical ballet tradition in its new show,
American Legends, premiering at the Lobero this weekend. Conceived
for the reopening of the Granada Theatre, originally scheduled for
this September, Legends is a celebration of the best of American
culture.

As far as Gustafson is concerned, this period while the nation’s
reputation suffers a serious blow is the right time to remind
people what good there is in America. “I feel like America is about
innovation, creativity, and freedom,” he said. “Even thought the
arts aren’t greatly supported here like they are in Europe, there’s
a lot of cutting-edge stuff created in America because we feel free
to express ourselves as a people.” Gustafson was thrilled when he
recently received a phone call from the State Department asking him
about taking Legends on an international tour to boost the national
image. SSB’s strength is that it can follow tradition when it wants
to — this season will also include the Romantic narrative ballet La
Sylphide — but can also bring traditional technique to 21st-century
works.

Gustafson’s office is tucked away at the edge of the company’s
main studio. When I met him there, his dancers were rehearsing for
the show’s opening piece, “Baseball,” and there wasn’t a tutu or a
pair of tights in sight. The all-male cast wore baseball caps and
catcher’s mitts. Under the direction of choreographer Peter Pucci
they dodged, swerved, and slid across the floor as if stretching
for home base. In Legends, Pucci’s tribute to the All-American
sport will appear alongside Margo Sappington’s “Shed Your Skin,”
set to the southern pop-rock sound of the Indigo Girls, and the
urban pulse of “Rush Hour” from New York dance maker Robert Battle.
The crowning jewel of the program is “Texas Fourth” — a piece that
in some ways is the most traditional work in the show, and in
others, perhaps the most radical.

Choreographer Agnes de Mille, daughter of the famed filmmaker
Cecil B., premiered “Texas Fourth” in 1973. Though she came from a
privileged background, de Mille’s work celebrates everyday
working-class people, often focusing on ethnic and cultural
minorities. She democratized the stage by bringing members of the
public into her works; in an echo of the original production, SSB’s
production will incorporate Westmont College cheerleaders and a
host of other extras. “Texas Fourth” was last performed by American
Ballet Theatre in 1976.

Its restoration after 30 years lying dormant is no small
undertaking; ABT lent SSB the original costumes and sets, and Gula
Pandi, the original ballet master for de Mille, came to town to
stage the work. This production will feature guest appearances by
Mel Tomlinson as the unicyclist and Randy Jones as the roper. After
dancing with de Mille’s Heritage Dance Theater in the original
production of “Texas Fourth,” Jones went on to join the Village
People, establishing an international reputation for his image as a
cowboy with ’70s sex appeal. The hope is that a video of SSB’s
reconstruction of “Texas Fourth” will be added to the archives of
the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to stand
alongside its grainy predecessor.

In essence, “Texas Fourth” is about as American as ballet gets.
It celebrates America’s grassroots dance traditions, from
Appalachia to the Bayou. “‘Texas Fourth’ is about jubilation, joy,
and freedom,” according to Gustafson. In crafting American Legends,
then, Gustafson is taking a page from de Mille’s book — selecting
works that together celebrate and glorify the realities of modern
America. It’s a bold move, even a radical one, in an era when
America as a nation and American patriotism as a social attitude
are under attack on so many fronts. One thing’s for sure: Legends
is a far cry from La Sylphide. “I’m not sure there’s a pair of
tights in the whole production, actually,” Gustafson admitted. Even
for an edgy young ballet company, it smacks of revolution.

4•1•1 State Street Ballet performs
American Legends at the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, September 16 at 2
and 8pm, and Sunday, September 17 at 2pm. For tickets, call
963‑0761 or visit lobero.com

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