People don't make ballets based on other texts these days, except to deconstruct them. Glen Tetley's ``La Ronde,'' which opened the National Ballet of Canada's one-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House last month, was a textbook example of a genre gone out of style. ``La Ronde'' can be seen stylistically as somewhere in the middle of the Euro-American audience's obsession with couple-ballets that began 20 years ago, when John Cranko was transforming great works of literature into monumental duets. (Cranko's first big success, the 1965 ``Onegin,'' constituted the other bill on the Canadians' New York program.) Gradually, plot and production details got dispensed with, until finally they've disappeared entirely in the contemporary works of William Forsythe and many others. Who needs the complications of story, place, or period, the reasoning goes, when all people really want to see is superb young men and women grappling in lustful athleticism.
Arthur Schnitzler's ``La Ronde'' was no literary masterpiece, but rather a brilliant piece of social satire. As his characters made their way from bed to bed, the haut- and demi-mondes of turn-of-the-century Vienna merged in a great circling dance of hypocrisy and eroticism. Each character abandoned his or her lover for someone new until we met the first one again, and Glen Tetley appropriates this dramatic device as a pretext for a string of duets, with an occasional brief solo thrown in.
Evidently he means these dances to reveal some psychological dimension of each relationship, but they consist largely of different varieties of writhings and simulated passion. Everyone acts very hot-blooded, and in every scene one of the partners throws his or her loins onto the prone body of the other after tearing off a discreet quantity of clothing. Other than the whims of the moment, they seem to have no particular reasons for being attracted to each other. Tetley doesn't make even a modest stab at establishing reasons why The Soldier meets The Parlourmaid, for instance, or why The Sweet Young Thing is abandoned by The Husband and discovered by The Poet.
Tetley's ``Ronde'' lacks any sense of place, despite John MacFarlane's airy structures suggesting doorways, sketchy street vistas, a crumbling baroque ceiling. The program note tells us who the characters are, but there's nothing in how they behave that identifies their status in society, which for the Viennese of 1900 was all-important. In fact, psychosexual behaviors were probably less responsible for the public condemnation of Schnitzler than his dissection of the Viennese class system, which was being preserved in an elaborate pattern of social protocols while it was flagrantly violated behind boudoir doors.
The 10 peripatetic lovers were danced with high intensity, and the audience liked Canadian ballerina Karen Kain as The Actress, who had the most emoting to do. But the choreography offered little to distinguish them, or to convey the difference between fevered emotions and satire. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush, post-Straussian ``Sinfonietta Op. 5,'' written about 10 years after Schnitzler's play, suggests the decadence we don't see on stage. Tetley's choreography, however, brings out a triviality and extravagance in the score that show why Korngold later became a successful Hollywood composer.
Robert Desrosiers's ``Blue Snake,'' which shared the evening with ``La Ronde,'' takes the attitude that dancers don't even have to be lovers; all they have to do is jump around a lot. The less sex and the more action, comic-strip costumes, and funny objects (balloons, five-foot dunce caps), the better. Desrosiers seems heavily influenced by Japanese pop performance, and, since the dancers obviously realized how little the niceties of technique counted in this spectacle, I couldn't tell at all whether he can choreograph. ``Blue Snake'' was one of the silliest expensive ballets I've seen in a long time, but designer Jerrald Smith's gigantic, man-eating puppet, which turned into a great fanged snake that spewed out a blacklit snake-dragon, was a triumph.