Turning the Bard into an antiwar sonneteer -- an Eliot Feld trick,with an assist from Mahler
New York — Eliot Feld has a mind of his own, which sometimes produces a stubborn streak in his ballets and sometimes a dance of genuine originality. The latter is the case with ''Summer's Lease,'' a new work being danced through May 22 by the Feld Ballet during its season at the Joyce Theater.
''Summer's lease hath all too short a date,'' says Shakespeare's sonnet. Feld transforms this love poem - better known by its opening line, ''Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'' - into a strong antiwar statement. It's this twist of interpretation that gives ''Summer's Lease'' distinction.
Set to Mahler songs, the ballet begins innocently as a parade of flower-bedecked couples flutters across the stage. We are primed for a pastoral, even jovial, suite of dances, for in the next section Feld's choreography humorously mimics the quaint precision of cuckoo clocks. Seemingly, ''Summer's Lease'' will explore the paradisiacal world of lovers in a comfy Swiss village.
Then, all of a sudden, the direction veers. A long duet contrasts a woman's love gestures with a marching motif for the man. One hears a vague militaristic beat in Mahler. Soldiers appear and lead the man away. His lover, returning in a red-stained dress, dances mournfully among the battling soldiers. She cradles a hysterical girl to rest, while on another part of the stage her lover, equally ravaged, is killed in battle. Then skeletons take over the field, their stark, Halloween-like costumes adding a grotesque humor to the danse macabre.
Rather than end on winter's note, however, Feld takes us back to spring in the closing dance. The innocent lovers return in full regalia, with flowers sewn all over their bodies.
As a way out of the ravages of war, a cyclical approach may seem a bit sentimental. One definite problem, however, is that Feld's choreography is often not powerful enough to support his theme. Feld adores theme and variation, reworking the same steps over and over in subtle permutations. Thus, the steps used to express sad farewell are the very ones used to express extreme grief. It just won't work, yet the scenario and surprise progression of the ballet is powerful indeed.
Repetition to the nth degree is the choreographic key to ''Three Dances,'' the second premiere of the season. Actually, though, dancing is the least important factor here. ''Three Dances'' is an environmental piece, a visual extravaganza, all boiling down to one idea: fragmentation.
John Cage's score bobs along with Javanese-like harmonies and regularity while a horde of dancers, each wearing a unique pattern of black and white stripes, thrust their limbs in a crosshatch of geometric shapes. Meanwhile, at the back of the stage, a set of mirrored modules splinters the light and dancers' bodies into still other geometric patterns.
As an eye feast, ''Three Dances'' is a must-see, and is best seen, I think, once.