The section about Balanchine — which expands from a theory connecting the choreography of his seminal “Agon” and the polio of his wife, Tanaquil LeClerq, to broader ruminations on disability and race — offers another angle. The scholar Georgina Kleege, who is blind, asks if sighted people might benefit from improved versions of the audio descriptions sometimes provided to blind audience members at dance performances. Since this section comes next to last, the idea resonates that “Paramodernities” has been doing something analogous all along.
Do the words enrich the experience of the dance or get in the way? Both. I often found my attention divided. As a writer who writes about dance, my loyalties were divided, too. For me, the words won. Ms Yerushalmy’s structural ideas, a grab-bag of postmodern gambits, don’t equal the scholars’ intellectual variety; despite the continually rearranging surface (new combinations of scholar and dancer, new arrangements of where the audience sits, attempts to thread the sections together), a sameness sets in. And so both the canonical choreography and the wonderful dancers, each endlessly deep in different ways, ultimately seem hemmed in, unable to expand in the viewer’s imagination.
One appeal of the production is its tone: wry, ironic. Even when the scholars are citing theorists, the show is never academically dry. Even as it’s taking on sex, death, commodification, the closeting of homosexuality, cultural appropriation and all the evils of capitalism, it keeps a sense of humor.
That tone, however, is also another limitation. The exception comes in the final segment, about Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” when the scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, talking about slavery and blackness, gets angry and nearly unhinged. As much as his words question transcendence, his delivery reaches for it. “Don’t you want to be free?” he yells, over and over. And in a show of questions, a show that in falling short of its crazy ambition gives more than smaller shows that fully succeed, that final question echoes poignantly.