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American Ballet Theatre

'On the Dnieper' on the Hudson

by Jerry Hochman

June 1, 2009 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Just when you began to think that it was going to be a relatively unimpressive evening (certain individual dancers’ performances excepted) during American Ballet Theatre's current season at the Met, along comes a work that is so well-crafted, well-staged, and well-executed that, at its end, it leaves you breathless.

Alexei Ratmansky's new ballet, "On the Dnieper," had its world premiere at tonight's ABT performance. It took a while to get moving, but the piece is a major work.

The story, from a libretto by Sergei Prokofiev and Serge Lefar to music by Prokofiev, is familiar -- a young soldier, Sergei (Marcelo Gomes), returns to his home and reunites with his fiancée, Natalia (Veronika Part), but soon finds himself attracted to another girl from his village, the vibrant and beautiful Olga (Paloma Herrera). Olga, who is engaged, somewhat unhappily, to another (David Hallberg), the man she must (or is supposed to) marry. Olga and Sergei fall in love and leave the village together, with Natalia’s reluctant blessing.

Given the synopsis, an attempt to compare this new work with Antony Tudor's "The Lilac Garden" is difficult to ignore, and in many ways "On the Dnieper" is "The Lilac Garden" taking place in a cherry orchard. Perhaps if Tudor had been Russian and choreographed Chekhov, this might have been the result.

But this obvious comparison would be of only superficial value. Ratmansky's piece has nothing, except broad subject matter, in common with "The Lilac Garden," and the choreography looks nothing at all like Tudor. It is less a psychoballet than the simple telling of a story, an unmistakably Russian story, clearly, concisely, and movingly. And it benefits not only from Ratmansky's style and originality, but also from the scenery by Simon Pastukh, lighting by Brad Fields, and costumes by Galina Solovyeva. ABT spared no effort showcasing its new prize acquisition -- the piece is beautiful to watch.

But none of this really matters unless the dancing brings the piece to life. Here, each of the performances did. But it is Veronika Part’s Natalia that will be etched forever in my memory. I've always cherished Ms. Part's dancing -- and in roles that call for it, she conveys a warmth and emotional depth that grabs the heart; and no one, at least no one I can recall seeing, dances profound sadness as she does (her Odette cannot fail to move anyone with a pulse). "On the Dnieper" isn't full length, and obviously does not have the same opportunity for character development as, say, “Swan Lake.” But, like the piece itself, Ms. Part’s portrayal of Natalia was distilled to a simple purity. And, in the end she left me spent. I rarely shed a tear watching a performance unless someone dies. In this piece, it was the heart that died. And watching the death of Natalia's heart in Ms. Part's performance was simply shattering.

Unfortunately, the rest of the program didn't match Ratmansky's piece. "Desir", by James Kudelka, had its ABT premier tonight also. Although the performances were all stellar, the choreography, to me, was inconsistent. Sometimes it soared; sometimes it was simply frenetic and repetitive. Perhaps the choreographic dual personality is exemplified by Kudelka's choice of music -- excerpts from Prokofiev's Cinderella and from Prokofierv's opera, War and Peace.

Gillian Murphy and Misty Copeland, partnered respectively by Blaine Hoven and Carlos Lopez, danced with fiery brilliance. For Ms. Murphy, that's nothing new. But I don't recall seeing Ms. Copeland dancing quite so exuberantly before -- perhaps because she never really had the opportunity.

But the dance belonged to someone new - or at least new to me. I don't recall seeing Isabella Boylston previously, although, according to the ABT web site, she's been with the company as a member of the corps since March, 2007. But her performance presages more significant roles in the future. You could almost hear the pleasantly surprised audience, evident from the loud applause that greeted Ms. Boylston and her partner during the curtain call), collectively wondering who she was and where she came from. I don't know what she can do yet, but I'll look forward to finding out.

No less accomplished was her partner, Cory Stearns - and it may well be that Mr. Stearns made Ms. Boylston look as good as she did. I don't recall seeing him much either before this season, but obviously he commanded the company's attention, since he was recently promoted to soloist. Mr. Stearns looks more like a dancing eagle scout than a danseur noble, but he brings a realistic quality, a boyish naturalism, that is charming, disarming, and endearing. He also comes across both confident and deferential, appearing less interested in himself than in his partner. It's a rare quality. [I previously saw Mr. Stearns as Sarah Lane's partner in "Theme and Variations" (last week), and he did a superb job then also: the two of them dancing together brought an obvious stage compatibility and refreshing youthful spirit to roles that are too often performed reverentially.]

Finally, ABT presented Balanchine's "Prodigal Son." Actually, in a program change, it was made the first ballet of the night, rather than the last, as had been scheduled. Good choice. The evening would have ended badly had it been last. Herman Cornejo, subbing for an injured Ethan Steifel, danced the lead credibly and convincingly, although perhaps not quite as explosively as one has come to expect from him. But Michele Wiles's Siren was mechanical and lifeless, with no evidence of the force inherent in the role. The result was that a dance with incomparable power looked tepid.

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