by Everett Goldner · August 28, 2015
Let’s begin with the positives: the dancing in To Dance is great. I’m no dancer but to me it looks as pro as what you’d expect on Broadway. The choreography is nothing very complex; mostly the numbers we see consist of long, graceful movements and pirouettes, and these elite artists carry their bodies with refined grace both “onstage” and off, which the production doesn’t fail to capitalize on. Sometimes, as when the Russian dance ensemble we follow visits America, snapping pictures and gawking at the attractions, the crew’s movements become a kind of improvisatory jig. When our hero roughhouses with his best friend, their energy is contagious. When he grandly tells a girl he’s just met that she should dedicate her dance to him alone, the darling of the crowds, the shining star of the Kirov ballet, his easy poise draws you in; you can’t help but smile.
And they’ve all got it; the elegance, the finesse. Obviously; a quick look at the cast’s resumes shows me that they’ve all got years of dance and voice training behind them, including the kids who play our protagonist and his BFF as pre-teens. They’ve all got the seasoning and a stack of credits that could kill an elephant with envy, if the elephant hadn’t performed at the White House. (That’s the pre-teen.) And for FringeNYC, someone’s put them all together to tell the very deserving true story of Valery Panov, based on his autobiography of the same name. Panov grew up inside Moscow’s highest shrines to art; his charisma won him fans and his Jewish blood kept the KGB’s eye on him until he was ostracized from his church, beaten bloody by state agents, jailed and finally defected to Israel, stealing the Kirov’s top female dancer – his girlfriend – in the process.
So. If you were producing this show and you’d assembled all this amazing performance talent, you’d want to give them a top-notch book and score to create thrilling story and spectacle with, right? So it’s a mystery to me why the music and plotting of To Dance are so unremittingly flat. My notes were mostly reiterations of “songs are formulaic and repetitive”; I jotted it like morse code ‘till I stopped taking notes at all and doodled aimlessly. Most songs earned nothing but polite, tepid applause from the audience. Their enthusiasm was reserved for the moments when the dancers showed us what they could do without words at all.
95 percent of the musical numbers in To Dance follow the same schema, which I can outline and save you the tedium of discovering yourself.
Some of the numbers at least row the themes at play forward to the next patch of dialogue; some bog the whole house down in clichés. Rachinsky, the hard-handed director of the Kirov who reports to the state, sings of his nemesis Panov: “like a piece of glass / he cuts me deep inside…” This number is titled, yes, “Piece of Glass.”
And Rachinsky’s sentiment is non sequitur because we never have any real idea how Panov has threatened this man, or the state, or anybody. Throughout the show, Valery’s friends repeatedly warn him to be careful of offending the powers that be, but nothing lets us understand how he’s offensive, beyond the generality that anyone in Soviet Russia who’s well-liked and not of pure Russian blood would be “offensive.” Valery doesn’t have an agenda against Russia; Russia’s his home. He doesn’t care about his ethnic heritage (he took the name of his first wife, Panov, in order to blend in) and he’s no political activist; all he wants is to dance, after all. Presumably there was more involved in the hierarchy’s decisions to shame and silence him, but the show ignores those factors, whatever they were. (Meanwhile, Rachinsky tells us several more times that Panov is like a piece of glass before emphatically concluding that… Panov... is… like… a… piece… of… GLASS!)
So the whole play is left to rest on the vaguest notions we in America have about Cold War Russia; comrades with dour demeanors and bureaucratic tones having staring contests to determine who can be trusted with the jewels of state. Russian solidarity is not an expressive look, but after a while it was obvious to me that the dance company’s meek comportment was less a matter of subservience to authority than it was the actors feeling deeply bored.
To Dance closes on August 30th. Go for the dance numbers. Stay for… the other dance numbers.