Pennsylvania Ballet Takes On Issue Of Homelessness

Posted: March 01, 1996

The Pennsylvania Ballet's new production, One Thing I Know, at the Annenberg Center, is a dance about the homeless, and one thing that director Lynne Taylor-Corbett knows, I think, is that a little sympathy can be a potent and elusive thing. One Thing I Know, subtitled: ``A Tribute to the Homeless Nation,'' attempts to use that sympathy to close the distance between its audience and the homeless, but it falls far short of the mark.

One Thing I Know is a disastrous muddle of good intentions, sentimentalized choreography, and a questionable approach to making dance about social issues. The one-hour, 20-minute suite of eight short dances and three songs represents a number of interesting departures for the ballet - using film, using live cabaret singing, and using the company's dancers as choreographers - but it does not have the energy or liveliness of an experiment.

Taylor-Corbett took the title of the dance from a 1993 documentary consisting of film taken of homeless people in 15 cities on the same day. She opens the piece with a shot of a man lying over a steam vent across from the United Nations Secretariat Building. Other wordless scenes from the documentary are projected on a large video screen throughout the evening.

In addition to contributing her previously choreographed duet, Diary, at the end of the show, Taylor-Corbett supervised new dances by Jeffrey Gribler, Matthew Neenan, Meredith Rainey, and Cydney Spohn.

Rainey (Cracks In the Sidewalk, Interiors) and Spohn (Cart Full of Hope, Prelude of a Homeless Woman) were the most literal in their pieces. Hands were cupped toward the audience; a little girl slept in a grocery cart; people in rags approached each other delicately and tenderly - this could have been La Boheme or Les Miserables, if Phillip Glass and Arvo Part had done the sound track.

The dancers telegraphed their domestic abuse and drug problems in such obvious mime that I wondered whether the choreographers had watched the film at all. If they had, they might have noticed that homeless people move just like other people - with quirky energy and an unstudied grace. Not that crawling out of a refrigerator carton and into an arabesque can't work together, but the surreal juxtaposition of the two has to be understood and used.

Neenan's (2 A.M., Hoping Soul) and Gribler's (Blessed is the Man) work was more abstract and in more familiar balletic and lyrical territory. But both choreographers also seemed beyond their depth trying to match large ensemble movement to music.

The out-of-nowhere optimism of Hoping Soul, for instance, was cluttered with leaps, jetes, and upright Martha Graham-like postures. Blessed is the Man, set to Russian liturgical music, included some sensitively crafted male partnering, but the whole felt like an overgrown exercise.

Ken Page and Judith Lander filled out the evening with songs from Jacques Brel, Matthew Garey and Michael Colina. I'm sorry I missed Darlene Love, who is performing Friday and Saturday, and whose rendition of Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come is one of the highlights of her New York show.

In the end, it was a lack of vision and poor organization that overwhelmed the dance, and those were Taylor-Corbett's responsibilities. One Thing I Know was badly conceived - from its tug at the heartstrings stance to the anthem sung by guest artists Tribe 1 at the end of the show. Socially engaged art, which is what I think Taylor-Corbett was trying for, should arise from close observation and not manipulation.

PENNSYLVANIA BALLET Program: One Thing I Know, a multimedia collaborative work on homelessness by Lynne Taylor-Corbett and four of the ballet company's choreographers.

Performing at: Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., at 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 and $30. Audience members are asked to bring a nonperishable food item. Information: 215-898-6791.

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