As David van Tieghem's percussion slammed through the sound system in the Boston Ballet's `VII for VIII,' men swathed in black lifted bitingly bright-clad women at the ribs. Aloft, they snapped backward, legs almost meeting hands behind them. Dancers moved from crash to crash through split-second changes. Or almost split-second. The men could barely support the women, who were almost their size and flailing. When a play about a small town in Texas opens with country music, you can bet you're going to get worked on. The sweet, sentimental songs, the salty humor, the pig-headed and good-hearted characters -- these rope you into having a good time even though you know it's contrived.
That certainly happens with two one-acts by James McClure at the Alley Theatre. Between them, these companion pieces, ``Laundry and Bourbon'' (all-women) and ``Lone-Star'' (all men), piece together the fabric of life in this small, baked Texas town. The women tipsily fold laundry while discussing bratty kids and missed chances. One woman's husband has apparantly left her. In ``Lone-Star,'' two brothers, one of whom is the wandering husband, hunker down amid car parts to chug beer, confess, and spar.
While some serious issues are touched upon -- the husband mentioned above is a Vietnam veteran and is having problems adjusting -- the lifeblood of the play seems to be booze. Coursing through the plays is the assumption that people who drink are manly and those who don't are wimps. The big laugh in the first play is watching a snippy Baptist visitor get sloshed and loosen up.
And yet it's hard not to like these two plays; they have some of the funniest moments I've seen this season. The characters, with all their faults, have a rugged vitality and big hearts. And McClure breaks away from the predictable to provide some unexpected twists and satisfying ends.
The Texas dialect is, almost to a man, revoltingly done, and so is some of the overacting. But Robin Foley has a lovely, unflappable quality as the abandoned wife, and Ardys Flavell is quite funny as the shrill Baptist. Carl John Nolan, as the younger brother, is both laconic and sensitive. Paula Plum directed and co-designed the appropriately sloppy sets with Helen Wheelock. Through April 13.
The Boston Ballet looked turbulent on all fronts last week. The new artistic director, Bruce Marks, did not renew the contracts of five dancers, undoubtedly the first stage of a new plan for the company. Meanwhile, at the Wang Center last Thursday the Ballet struggled -- brilliantly -- through a dance that kept getting away from it. Elisa Monte's ``VII for VIII'' was partly paid for by the National Choreography Project, designed to introduce choreographers to companies they might not otherwise work with. Monte and the Boston Ballet would certainly never have crossed paths without it.
``VII for VIII'' is hectic and dark. It assimilates (without copying) the dancing you usually see on the street -- for a group that is usually asked to move as if it has never seen the street. As David van Tieghem's percussion slammed through the sound system, men swathed in black lifted bitingly bright-clad women at the ribs. Aloft, they snapped backward, legs almost meeting hands behind them. Dancers moved from crash to crash through split-second changes. Or almost split-second. The men could barely support the women, who were almost their size and flailing. On opening night, they looked underrehearsed and hesitant. But by Sunday's matinee, they hurtled gamely through it.
The couple to watch to see how it should have gone was Stephanie Moy and Christopher Aponte. In a flamboyant solo, Aponte showed you exactly what Elisa Monte makes of breakdancing. Moy, usually cast as a fairy princess, was just compact enough to be hurled like a missile and twirled like a baton. The Ballet was not at home in this choreography, but it worked so hard and willingly that it was exciting to watch.
Moy, a soloist, and Aponte, a principal dancer, were among those whose contracts aren't being renewed. Other dancers leaving are principal dancer Donn Edwards; Debra Mili, a soloist; and James Reardon, a corps member.
Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, still playing more than 70 concerts a year around the globe, is facing something of a programming problem: what to play year after year in each of his perennial stops -- most recently Symphony Hall Tuesday night. The problem is in designing a well-rounded, cohesive evening of music from a repertorial grab bag that shrinks after eliminating (1) selections played in previous concerts; (2) selections played repeatedly by the string of other world-class pianists parading through town; (3) repertoire that is still ``in the fingers'' -- not only studied and honed over the years, but repolished to performance level.
On annual stops to Boston over the past few years, he has almost always stuck to the longer works of Beethoven, Debussy, Lizst, and Chopin -- usually including no fewer than two sonatas of Beethoven (and usually the old chestnuts: the ``Waldstein,'' ``Les Adieux,'' ``Appassionata,'' and ``Moonlight'').
Thus, although his playing this week was classically Arrau -- prodigious command, meticulous phrasing, shimmering grace -- the program itself was an odd bird: Beethoven's Sonatas in E-flat major and F minor and Liszt's Sonata in B minor. That added up to great similarity in length (three to four movements each) and style (conscious, almost violent contrasting of themes, dynamics, and registers), without the relief of lighter, more accessible music.
Much of this is forgiven in a town of pianist's pianists who never tire of this classic repertoire and still want to glimpse ever-ripening interpretations by one of the century's true pianistic phenomena. (With probably one of the largest repertoires in history, Arrau became a legend in Germany in 1935 for playing the complete cycles of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Weber.)
But for those new or first-time comers, the pianist remained a bit too ponderous and plodding.