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American Ballet Theatre

'Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes', PdD from 'Cruel World', PdD from 'Stars and Stripes', 'Rodeo'

'Symphony #9', 'The Moor's Pavane', 'In the Upper Room'

by Jerry Hochman

October 16 and 20 (m), 2012 -- City Center, New York, NY

Attending the opening and closing nights of a given American Ballet Theatre season may not be unusual, particularly for a balletomaniac; attending an opening night and a closing night in the same week is. But ABT’s abbreviated Fall Season at City Center (seven performances over five days of five ballets, one segment of a new ballet, and three pas de deux) proved to be a microcosm of where ABT is at this point in time. As with its 2012 Spring Season at the Metropolitan Opera House, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. And the forecast for the 2013 Spring Season, based on scheduling and casting, is for more of the same. The exhilaration, and the frustration, continue.

This season featured two ballets that were included in the first program of the first ballet performance I ever saw (aside from whatever turned up on The Ed Sullivan Show): “Rodeo” and “The Moor’s Pavane.” Both ballets are masterpieces of their genres – and in this viewer’s opinion masterpieces of any genre, as is Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” which demonstrates the ‘real’ ABT as much as any full length ballet that one will see at the Met. [Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves are Fading,” in this viewer’s opinion, is another mastepiece included in this brief ABT season. I was unable to see either of the two full performances of it – but I will comment on the programming and casting of it later.]

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Symphony #9” was the ‘world premiere’ for this season. The piece is one part of a three-part evening-length ballet scheduled for ABT’s 2013 Spring Season at the Met, all choreographed by Mr. Ratmansky to Shostakovich. Two world premieres for the price of one. I’ll discuss Mr. Ratmansky’s piece, and the wonderful performances of “The Moor’s Pavane” and “In the Upper Room” that followed it on the closing night program, after commenting on the less successful program on opening night.

Opening night at ABT was a gala celebration of I’m not sure exactly what. Technically, the evening was in honor of one member of ABT’s Board, and artistically it was trumpeted as a celebration of the 70th anniversary (‘to the day, and almost to the hour,’ as several speakers proclaimed) of Agnes DeMille’s “Rodeo.” The “Rodeo” homage seemed contrived to this viewer (is there something special about a 70th anniversary, as opposed to a 60th, or 75th?), but it provided the opportunity for a superbly constructed and informative video of rehearsals for and performances of “Rodeo,” and for extraordinarily interesting and informative interviews with those involved, including Frederick Franklin and the late Ms. DeMille. Ms. DeMille’s discussion of the creation of one particularly notable and idiosyncratic movement quality that permeates the ballet is as classic a description of artistic inspiration and imagination as I’ve seen. [However, unless such credits somehow escaped my view, the video was also notable for its failure to identify certain of the featured dancers. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but one Cowgirl in the film looked like Christine Sarry, the most memorable of the Cowgirls that this viewer has seen. Regardless of who it was, the dancer’s identity (as well as those of other dancers appearing in the video) should have been disclosed.]

The performance itself was delightful. Xiomara Reyes did a fine job as the Cowgirl, as did Jared Matthews as the Head Wrangler and Kelley Boyd as the Ranch Owner’s Daughter. But Sascha Radetsky was a memorable Champion Roper (both Mr. Radetsky and Mr. Matthews should be given the opportunity to dance leading roles), and Cassandra Trenary, as the ‘featured’ one of three ‘Eastern Friends from Kansas City,’ continues to demonstrate the promise that she first displayed a year ago, shortly after transitioning from an apprentice to becoming a member of the corps.

Mark Morris’s “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” which opened the evening, may have seemed adventurous when it premiered in 1988, but to this viewer it now looks somewhat dated, and not much different from other, similarly styled, ballets. Mr. Morris takes its cast of twelve through interestingly crafted and varied dances. However, even with the inventive and distinct component dances, the ballet itself leaves an overall impression of being less complex than it really is, and rather lightweight, without punch. This lightweight quality is emphasized by the unimaginative one-color-and-style-fits-all costumes and flat lighting. It is a good opening piece, but forgettable. Each of the dancers was excellent, with Isabella Boylston being the standout.

The “Stars and Stripes Pas de Deux” is the Liberty Bell and El Capitan pas de deux from George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes.” Like the ballet itself, it is not one of Balanchine’s greatest accomplishments, but it’s an enjoyable piece of tongue in cheek patriotism. What it isn’t, to this viewer, is a vehicle for bravura displays of athleticism. Sarah Lane got it right, albeit somewhat tentatively and with an unfortunate pasted on smile (coaching might have helped), but Daniil Simkin got it wrong, by demonstrating again the superb, explosive, technical wizard that he is, but in doing so converting the Balanchine choreography into Bolshoi.

The pas de deux from James Kudelka’s “Cruel World” completed the program. Why it was inserted into this one performance is unclear. Maybe it represents a metaphor for fund-raising in turbulent economic times, or a new continuing gala tradition: It was also included in the 2012 Spring Season’s gala tribute to Kevin McKenzie on the occasion of his 20th anniversary as ABT’s artistic director. To this viewer, the absence of any explanation for the obvious emotional undercurrent in the pas de deux is a detriment, but it is otherwise emotionally if not choreographically compelling. [I am not familiar with the piece as a whole, but perhaps this pas de deux does not lend itself to being a simple cut and paste.] Be that as it may, and as was the case at Mr. McKenzie’s gala celebration, the pas de deux was superbly executed by Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes.

Closing night provided a significantly better overall evening.

That “Symphony #9” is a significant work is not an issue: it is. But it is difficult to evaluate for at least three reasons: First: one viewing of a ballet this complex (both choreographically and thematically) makes a fair evaluation difficult. [This seems to be more the case with pieces by Mr. Ratmansky than other choreographers who come to mind – for example, I changed my mind about Mr. Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker” upon repeated viewings, as I did with “The Bright Stream,” after I came to understand what he was trying to say.] Second: it is part of a whole, and at this point it is not known whether, and to what extent, this ‘piece’ fits together with the other pieces. [Although each segment is supposed to be ‘free-standing’, like the individual gems in George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” some segments may stand more freely than others.] And third, an understanding of the music, and the history of Shostakovich, may be essential to fully understand what Mr. Ratmansky’s intent is.

I am not an historian either of Shostakovich in general or his Ninth Symphony in particular. My understanding, however, is that this 1945 work, anticipated (and perhaps originally intended) as a celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, came to be, instead, a bittersweet remembrance of the sacrifices and suffering of the Russian people under the potential tyranny of the Nazis and the actual tyranny of the Soviets. The whimsical passages that Shostakovich injected into the Ninth Symphony, which appear to be musical asides, reflect this ‘we won but we lost and are still losing’ sensibility. Shostakovich’s efforts to conceal his displeasure with the Soviets (specifically, with Stalin) didn’t work. The Ninth Symphony was subsequently banned by Soviet censors.

Of course, attending a ballet should not require a doctorate, in Russian history or anything else, and if the choreographer’s intention is unclear to an audience off the street, it is simply unclear, which in many ways is how “Symphony #9” appeared to me. Based on first viewing, this multi-faceted piece appears, at times, to be choreographically contrived (such that much of the movement and expressed emotions don’t make sense), and, spiritually too remindful of “The Bright Stream” – a result, perhaps, of quotations from that work that Shostakovich injected into his Ninth Symphony. That having been said, however, this is one of those rare pieces where, to this viewer, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The piece is abstract, as are the black and white unevenly splattered costumes (by Keso Dekker), but it is filled with emotional undercurrents that are clearly central to the choreographer’s intent. The large cast (two lead couples and one lead male, and a corps of eight and eight) are expertly interwoven throughout the piece. Beginning with four men, who are joined by one of the two male leads, the piece rapidly segues into permutations of solos, duos, and dancers observing other dancers. Although somewhat doleful at the beginning, these choreographic combinations move from pathos to humor, apparently inexplicably, much as the moods of people caught in a situation over which they have no control vary from day to day, from past to present, and from thought to thought.

“Symphony #9” includes wonderfully expressive and enigmatic choreography for the lead couples (Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle, and Stella Abrera and Mr. Radetsky), the lead male (Mr. Matthews), and the corps. Indeed, the choreography for the corps is as interesting to watch as it is for the leads – complex variations and choruses of varying dimensions, as well as formation movement (remindful, to my eyes, of aspects of the corps choreography in “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement,” which Mr. Ratmansky created for the New York City Ballet), that appears both mesmerizing and passively martial.

Veronika Part has proven herself to be the genuine article so many times that one tends to take her performances for granted. That would be an unfortunate oversight. Particularly with respect to choreography by Mr. Ratmansky, Ms. Part is the dancer who most clearly captures and transmits Mr. Ratmansky’s choreographic intent, whether the intent is apparent (“On the Dnieper”) or more opaque (“The Nutcracker”).

Led by Ms. Part’s masterful performance, the whimsy and the pathos inherent in “Symphony #9" and essential to begin to understand Mr. Ratmansky’s intent were clearly expressed. Mr. Bolle’s understated nobility complemented her perfectly. Ms. Abrera and Mr. Radetsky were equally fine (with Mr. Radetsky adding particular spice whenever he was on stage), and Mr. Matthews was simply superb – commanding and driven (representative of a recruited soldier, perhaps?).

Closing night closed with “In the Upper Room,” one of the highlights of this or any other season, and which I previously described as one of the finest examples of contemporary choreography. As was the case last year, ABT’s performance of it is so good and so naturally conveyed that the piece appears to have been set on them (it wasn’t) and is now imbedded in the genome of each dancer.

The piece is long, but it never loses focus. On the contrary, the intensity of Ms. Tharp’s choreography, which is at a high level from the first minute, only increases (matching the increasing intensity of Philips Glass’s score). As the piece progressed, the audience, from my vantage point, appeared transfixed. Not a fidget could be seen; not a wayward cough. And when it ended, no one in the audience wanted to leave. The standing ovation was well-deserved.

Every dancer in the piece (including Simone Messmer and Luciana Paris as the ‘pajama bottom/sneaker’ pair, and Nicole Graniero and Skylar Brandt as the twins in red toe shoes, each of whom I highlighted last year) was terrific. In particular, Mr. Radetsky, Mr. Matthews (both, it bears repeating, should be given lead roles), and Patrick Ogle (whose Hilarion last season was one of the finest I’ve seen) were super. Ms. Boylston, who had a wonderful mini-season, was fabulous as the lead girl in red toe shoes. And Craig Salstein, a last minute substitute for Herman Cornejo (who was injured earlier that afternoon during a performance of “Symphony #9), delivered a noteworthy performance. Mr. Salstein is one of ABT’s highly underrated soloists who does everything he does well – even as a last minute sub.

One additional observation – the curtain calls for “In the Upper Room” appear to be staged (as they often are). For example, I recall seeing the same mutually congratulatory jubilation by Ms. Messmer and Ms. Paris last season (as in – ‘we did it!’, ‘wow, you were great!’; ‘so were you!’; ‘what an exhilarating experience!’). But as this was going on, and as the audience was standing and cheering, I saw Ms. Boylston turn to Mr. Salstein and applaud him, recognizing the great job he did on short notice. She may be a ‘take no prisoners ballerina’ (a phrase I have used to describe her dominating stage presence), but she can also be a class act.

I have recently written about Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” the middle piece in the closing night program, and see no need to repeat all those comments here. Suffice it to say that Limon’s distillation of “Othello” is every bit as masterful, to this viewer, as Balanchine’s distillation of “Orpheus” – perhaps more so, since Limon’s piece tells the story within the confines of a courtly dance (a pavane, a dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance) that perfectly fits both the story and the period, and which complements and enhances the selected music by Henry Purcell. [The program notes indicate that the ‘direction and reconstruction’ of this production was by Clay Taliaferro. The name sounded familiar to me, so I checked. Mr. Taliaferro is a former principal, guest artist, and co-artistic director of the Jose Limon Dance Company, who danced the role of the Moor himself. Based on online photographs, these were performances I wish I’d seen.]

The role of the Moor (Othello) is one that fits Marcelo Gomes like a glove. I could visualize Mr. Gomes’s intense performance long before I saw it, and he did not disappoint. Craig Stearns’s ‘His Friend’ (Iago) was Mr. Gomes’s snake-like equal, and Ms. Part danced ‘His Friend’s Wife’ (Emilia) with a combination of intelligence, naivete, and pathos. [It is not in any way a negative comment on Saturday night’s cast, but it is unlikely that any dancer will ever eclipse my memories of Dennis Nahat’s venomous Iago or Sallie Wilson’s compassionate grace as Emilia.] Julie Kent executed the role of ‘The Moor’s Wife’ (Desdemona) admirably, but she has little to do but dance the steps, look young and pretty, and act like the innocent victim she is – a part that could have, and in this viewer’s opinion should have, been given to any of a number of soloist or corps dancers.

Unfortunately, casting decisions that appear to make little sense in the overall scheme of things, and unfortunate programming decisions, are as much a hallmark of ABT as great performances. This mini-season provides mini-examples.

ABT currently has an extraordinary group of soloists and corps dancers. With respect to its women, ABT has an embarrassment of riches. With its men, the potential is somewhat less universal, but it’s there. With few exceptions however (“Le Corsaire,” for example), opportunities for these dancers to grow and to prove themselves have been limited. While this may be a consequence of restricted leading cast opportunities in full-length ballets and the perceived need to rely on guest artists to sell tickets, opportunities are few and far between, and when logical casting opportunities occur, ABT rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The role of Desdemona in “The Moor’s Pavane,” which I reference above, is an example. I recognize that in one matinee performance (3 p.m. on a Friday), certain underused dancers were given opportunities. But the role of Desdemona could have been given to any number of dancers for each of the scheduled performances.

More egregious was the casting in “The Leaves Are Fading.” I haven’t read any statements by Mr. Tudor of his choreographic intent, but from the many times I’ve seen the piece, including its premiere performance in New York, a demonstration of ‘mature love’ as opposed to ‘immature love’ is not a component of it. Rather, the piece displays a view of youthful love as a remembrance of things past, and shows, through the eyes of the remembering woman, not how mature love differs from youthful love, but the difference between young love that may be only youthful infatuation, and young love that is real and grows. The sudden recognition by the lead couple that their love is enduring is what the pas de deux is all about: it is both beautiful to watch and emotionally stunning. The look in Gelsey Kirkland’s eyes as she balanced on Jonas Kage’s thighs at that premiere performance, a performing sequence permanently imbedded in my memory, was not the look of a woman who had loved her partner for many years, but the look of a young girl who suddenly realizes that she would love her partner for the rest of her life. Casting the lead pas de deux with more mature dancers, even though they can act and certainly execute their way through the parts, misses the point (as does excising the pas de deux from the piece as a whole, which was needlessly done in one of the performances this season). More importantly, however, it is yet another example of a casting opportunity missed. Hee Seo, recently promoted to principal, was cast in the role for one performance, but the role should also have been given to others as well. Having seen Ms. Kirkland and Amanda McKerrow in the role, this viewer believes that opportunities to dance the role should also have been given to Ms. Lane (perhaps with Mr. Radetsky or Joseph Gorak), and Yuriko Kajiya (perhaps with Mr. Matthews).

In addition to the unfortunately excised pas de deux, the programming for this brief season further demonstrates the lack of imagination that seems pervasive. Granted that seven performances allows for little imagination, but what was scheduled seems to have been as much an effort to prime its audience for the 2013 Met season as anything else. Why premiere one segment of Mr. Ratmansky’s new ballet, if not to build momentum for the new full-length Ratmansky/Shostakovich piece in the Spring? Why perform “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” when it is scheduled to be performed again in New York in the Spring? To this viewer, a revival of a Kylian piece, or of an Eliot Feld (speaking of Christine Sarry), would have been a superior choice if the company was committed to ‘Drink’ for the Met.

I expect to discuss frustrating ABT casting and scheduling in a further comments tied to the 2013 Met season. The primary concern, however, is that by focusing attention on pieces that are convenient, and on casting that works today, ABT may be either mortgaging its future or committing itself to rely on fundraising to import dancers to fill roles for which its own dancers have been inadequately prepared or are inexplicably overlooked. The result is season after season of many indisputably exhilarating performances, but also of the frustrating absence of potentially exhilarating performances by ABT's growing ranks of underutilized talent.

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