In the Richard Strauss ballet, set to his Four Last Songs, Feld ran into legal troubles with the Strauss estate and came up with a viable solution. The estate said, in effect, that to choreograph to music that Strauss did not compose for dance is an act of appropriation. So Feld decided to perform the ballet, which he calls Endsong, in silence.
On the day of its premiere, last month, Feld invited friends of the ballet and the media to see a rehearsal of it with music. He said that he had choreographed it "not to Strauss' music, but because of it." Danced with music, Endsong certainly bore out Feld's claim. It was an act of love, and it seemed impossible that its softly anguished movements - its Straussian movements - could make any sense without Strauss.
Miracle of miracles, Endsong, which I saw minus its musical inspiration, along with the Stravinsky piece and two other works from the repertory, holds up much better than one could have imagined.
The ensemble sections especially make their own music as the women's arms float into the air and sink back softly in close sequences and slightly asymmetrical patterns. With no music to guide them, the dancers often seemed to be moving to an internal beat, perhaps their own breath. This gives Endsong an intensity, a sense of mystery that it had not enjoyed with the music.
Only the extended duets for Lynn Aaron and Jeffrey Neeck operate in someting of a vacuum. The intricate spirals they make together - as delicate and seemingly eternal as the inside of a sea shell - are good to look at, but the anguished thrust behind their movements seemed without sufficient motivation.
All in all, though, Feld won the big gamble he took. Music, after all, usually provides half the information of a dance. Endsong in silence tells the story it means to tell.
It's hard to know what Feld wanted to do in To the Naked Eye, besides providing the audience with a terribly difficult hurdle to overcome, the memory of Robbins' The Cage. The Cage is about a tribe of Amazonlike insects who kill men while making love to them. It focuses on the initiation rites of a newborn. Feld's ballet is without a story, but its movement motifs certainly have the slithery, spiky, knock-kneed ugliness of Robbins' bugs.
Was Feld's idea to take the sting out of The Cage by presenting its very particular palette of movement in a neutral context? It's also possible that I read insect imagery into Feld's choreography. Perhaps he had no idea other than to create a very tense ballet with very peculiar, almost grotesque movement.
But even on these terms, Feld has not freed himself of Robbins' hold on the score. A music listener with no experience of dance would hear in Stravinsky's score passages of great tenderness and sweetness - especially the middle waltz section. It was only by a great leap of the imagination called genius that Robbins could turn this waltz into a danse macabre. A choreographer with a fresh point of view would take the score at face value, and would not make a tense work with peculiar movement.
To the Naked Eye borrows Robbins' ear but doesn't follow through. And so the ballet is the proverbial funeral without a corpse.