The whole ball game
Baseball isn’t just the game played between the foul lines. The game that Abner Doubleday invented – or didn’t, depending on the version of history – has imbued the fabric and lore of America far more than any other sport. Baseball isn’t just balls and strikes, the infield-fly rule and double switches, but players scratching their privates and a crazed George Brett bolting out of the dugout at Yankee Stadium to argue the notorious “pine tar” call. Baseball extends out of the stadium to the canvas (Norman Rockwell’s “Bottom of the Sixth”), page (Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural”), song (John Fogerty’s “Centerfield”), verse (“Casey at the Bat”) and screen (“Field of Dreams”).It is this expansive idea of baseball – not just as a piece of American culture, but an instigator of that culture – that inspired choreographer Moses Pendleton’s “Baseball.” In 1992 – when baseball expanded into the Rocky Mountains and the tropics, with the addition of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins – Pendleton was commissioned to create a baseball-themed dance for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Giants, who held spring training in Scottsdale. Pendleton, a baseball fan and Vermont native who favored the Red Sox, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang around a diamond and rub elbows with professional baseballers. As MOMIX, the company he founded in 1981, presented “Bat Habits,” a 20-minute piece involving an oversized bat, ball and glove, Pendleton had a grand time running wind sprints with the speedy outfielder Willie McGee, and chatting with former pitcher Roger Craig (“who invented the split-finger fastball,” informs Pendleton).
But what made the biggest impact on Pendleton was the visual arts exhibit, “Diamonds Are Forever,” which “Bat Habits” was meant to accompany. The exhibit featured baseball-related works by Robert Rauschenberg and Alexander Calder, and writings by Phillip Roth and John Updike. Pendleton began to see baseball in the very big picture, reflected through text, painting, sculpture and history.It happens that when Pendleton was again approached by the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, about expanding “Bat Habits” into a full-length piece, the year was 1994. The year of the strike, the year the Players’ Association rejected the owners’ proposal for a salary cap and the World Series was canceled for the first time since 1904. Pendleton accepted the offer to expand “Baseball,” and the looming strike added a sense of gravity to Pendleton’s perspective. “Bat Habits,” which Pendleton describes as a “fun, athletic, energetic piece,” took on a variety of tones, not all of them sunny and optimistic.”I was very influenced by the back pages of the New York Post and Daily News, saying this was the death of baseball,” said Pendleton by phone from the MOMIX office in Connecticut. “That changed my way of thinking, that baseball wasn’t just fun and athleticism, but there’s a pathos to it – the passing heroes, and as the game goes, so goes the country. It’s about the ephemerality of the heroes. Heroes have this moment onstage, but it passes.” Pendleton also read former Major League Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti’s “Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games,” a book “about the necessity of leisure and games,” which he called a big influence. The full-length “Baseball,” which MOMIX will perform Saturday and Sunday, March 19-20, at the Aspen District Theatre in an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet presentation, retains the overall comic feel of the original shorter work. The emphasis is on the oversized props, and the dancers dealing with those dimensions.”The man in the oversized baseball is not only character, but a cartoon character,” said Pendleton, a former Olympic skiing hopeful who was in Aspen last month to work with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company on his skiing-inspired piece, “Skiva.” “There’s an oversized glove, with each finger made of a dancer, and they’re trying to move the way a glove moves. So, typical of MOMIX, they’re not playing the roles of people, but objects, animals, plants.
“It’s slapstick. Or slap-bat.”The longer format, and the deeper perspective on baseball that Pendleton has gained, allow “Baseball” to address the game and its surrounding lore from all angles. “Baseball,” broken up into short connected works, opens with “Spirit of the Green,” an optimistic dance that Pendleton says is “the essence of green, just entering into that world of baseball.”He traces the sport to what he imagines are its prehistoric origins with “Bush League,” “a Flintstonian idea of the game, with a rock and a tree stump, following it from combat to a game.” “Baseball” wanders outside the foul lines with “Something Bigger,” about the beer commercials that are an integral part of televised baseball and the business of the sport; “Requiem for a Slugger,” a eulogy for Mickey Mantle set to the music of Arvo Pärt; and “The Umpire Strikes Back,” with the umpire and catcher going after each other over a disputed call. Additional vignettes include “Glove at First Sight” and “Infielder’s Choice,” plus an abstract dance of the baseballs and a bit set to the national anthem. The musical background ranges from Pärt to James Brown, African musician Ali Farke Toure to Queen’s ubiquitous stadium anthem, “We Will Rock You.””Baseball” won’t instruct its audience in the strategic nuances of the game. But Pendleton believes that in addressing the enormous context of the national pastime, he has reflected a good-sized chunk of America. In a “Diamonds Are Forever” exhibit that he saw a decade ago, Pendleton saw how artists added their layers to the mythology of the sport; now, his “Baseball” assesses just how big that ball has grown.”I was very influenced by the game itself,” said Pendleton. “But also these artists – Rauschenberg, Calder, Roth, Updike. And why isn’t that the game too? I was freed up by how other artists saw baseball, how they were stimulated to talk about it.
“Baseball is not just the game, but the extensions: the radio chatter, the commercials, the paintings and writing. And what do the ball and bat represent? Is the ball the feminine, and the bat the phallic symbol? Freud would have had a field day with that. It’s a metaphor for how we are, what we could be, and where we came from. After a while, it’s what isn’t baseball?”Pendleton chuckles as he ponders how he has managed to squeeze barrels of beer, African music and the cycles of life into a work about baseball.”The game should allow us to play with it,” he concludes.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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