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American Ballet Theatre

'Birthday Offering,' 'Seven Sonatas,' 'The Brahms-Haydn Variations'

by Carmel Morgan

January 26, 2010 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC

American Ballet Theatre’s mixed program got off to a surprisingly shaky start with Frederick Ashton’s “Birthday Offering.”  The women looked gorgeous in their glittery tutus and tiaras, designed by Andre Levasseur.  But sparkle and tulle alone do not make a ballet, of course.  Early on, I watched a couple, unsteady in their partnering, collide with each other.  Their heads and upper bodies noticeably knocked.  These few bobbles, plus subdued energy, made Ashton’s celebratory showoff piece, set to music by Alexander Glazunov, appear to be more exercise than exaltation.  Overall, the work seemed rushed and somehow stiff and dated.

Yet there were moments to celebrate nonetheless.  Hee Seo and Yuriko Kajiya stood out among the seven female soloists.  They offered the best of Ashton’s gifts.  Seo, in the third variation, showed emotion and fine technique in perfect balance.  She moved in a somewhat slow but mannered fashion, emphasizing her delightfully long legs.  Kajiya’s fourth variation, with fast high kicks and whipping arms, resembled a mini-hurricane.  Kajiya scooted and jumped with musical precision, mimicking the blowing wind.

Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence, choreographed “Seven Sonatas,” the middle piece in the company’s mixed program.  This new work, which premiered in October 2009, featured three couples in white – on opening night Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo, and Julie Kent and David Hallberg – plus a piano.  With the white costumes and the piano being played on stage, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mark Morris’s ballet “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” in which the dancers also wear all white and dance to live piano music.  “Etudes for Piano” by Virgil Thomson accompanies Morris’s work.  Ratmansky chose seven keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (played live by Barbara Bilach).

The two works differ tremendously, but I have to give the nod to Morris because of his mastery of the music.  In Ratmansky’s white piano ballet, the music gets the better of him.  Rather than sailing along with the feeling of what’s being played, the choreographic interpretation was too literal. For example, in one staccato sequence, the dancers arms became annoyingly like syncopated clock hands.  Strangely, despite the piano on the stage with them, the dancers didn’t seem to relate to its presence (or the presence of the pianist).  Also, “Seven Sonatas” dragged on a bit.  Four or five sonatas might have been enough!

Intimacy flourished in “Seven Sonatas,” but so did loneliness.  A man’s hand rested on a woman’s shoulder.  Dancers swayed.  Women deeply leaned into the backs of men.  When the men assisted in spinning them, they held their partners tight around the waist.  Their hands lingered there, as if squeezing a pillow. Arms extended above the head in a pretty movement that repeated.  It reminded one of longing.  The hands almost touched, but not quite, mirroring the way relationships in the dance felt close and simultaneously distant.

Mostly, “Seven Sontatas” came across as very classical, but I prized the more modern moves – especially the kneeling that appeared here and there and at the end.  I also appreciated some odd elements that were tossed in.  Little jumps and head tilts that were otherwise out of place jolted the work from its monotony.  Less impressive were some of the ballet’s juvenile moments.  Games of hide and seek and tug of war have been done before.  When the dancers began to rotate their forearms quickly around and around, one over the other like in a disco dance, my eyes rolled.  Slung back in the arms of the men, the women were slid along on the tips of their toes.  I’ve seen that before, too, plenty of times.  I longed for more originality.

David Hallberg, above the rest, made this ballet worth watching.  When he moved, you saw the music running through him like an electrical current.  His partner, Kent, shone the most among the women.  Together the long limbed couple pleased.  They danced with enviable ease and personality.

I had a quibble with the costume design by Holly Hynes.  Although undeniably lovely, I would have arranged for the skirts to hit the women’s legs at a uniform point.  Instead, the flowing white skirts of Abrera and Kent flirted with their ankles, while the skirt of the shortest among them, Reyes, hiked up a bit further, coming closer to her knees than to her toes.  This provided an unnecessary distraction – discord in the midst of what ought to have been harmony.

Twyla Tharps’s “The Brahms–Haydn Variations” closed the program without much bang.  It’s a fine ballet with a quiet sort of elegance, but it’s not one of Tharp’s best works.  The stage was completely full at times, which was enjoyable to see.   Sometimes, however, the busyness was overwhelming.  Santo Loquasto costumed the dancers in shades of mossy, mustardy, and minty green.  The number of dancers swelled and dropped quickly.  The stage looked like a forest populated by sprouts and spores.  Dancers, their backs flawlessly arched, soared into the air in amazing lifts, and then settled softly to the ground.  With the different shades of green, the dancers appeared to be reflections of one another.

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