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American Ballet Theatre

'Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes', 'A Month in the Country', 'Symphony in C'

by Jerry Hochman

May 22(m), 2013 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

It never ceases to amaze me how different casts, different venues, and different points of view can impact one’s response to a particular ballet – but how with certain ballets such changes have little or no impact. Yesterday afternoon’s American Ballet Theatre program at the Met illustrated both these points. ABT is offering four performances of this same program – Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C – with, essentially, two different casts. I saw the program’s second performance, but the first in New York with this cast.

I am aware that many consider A Month in the Country to be a masterpiece. That it may be, although I would respectfully disagree. But whatever its artistic merit, and regardless of the quality of certain performances, watching it for an hour is like spending a month at the ballet. Its acquisition may be seen as a feather in ABT’s cap (its ABT premiere was the previous evening), but, like Antony Tudor’s Shadowplay, which ABT resurrected a few seasons ago, its appeal is limited. And my feeling about A Month in the Country now is that same as it was when I first saw it performed by the Royal Ballet decades ago. If anything, time has only made it appear more dated.

The story, as presented in the ballet (the ballet is described in its title as having been ‘Freely adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s play’), is set in a Russian dacha where Yslaev, his wife Natalia, her young son Kolia (he is identified at one point in the program notes as their young son, at another as her young son), and her teenaged ward Vera (she is identified in the program as her ward, not theirs). [‘Ward’ is Middle English for ‘one for whom another is responsible’ – like Robin was Batman’s ward. We’re not told why Vera is Natalia’s ward.] [I’m kidding about the ‘Middle English’.] Also present is Rakitin, a confidante and admirer of Natalia.

Into this mix enters Beliaev, a student who is retained to tutor Kolia. Vera sees Beliaev and immediately develops a crush on him. Natalia sees Beliaev and immediately becomes aroused by him. [With a young ward, it’s a crush, with an older woman, it’s arousal.] Beliaev has no interest in Vera, but he seems instantly attracted to Yslaev’s wife.

When they find themselves alone, Beliaev politely deflects Vera’s advances, but Natalia sees Vera with Beliaev and gets jealous. She slaps Vera. When Vera runs off like a humiliated child, Baliaev shows Natalia that her jealousy was unfounded, and Natalia affixes a flower to his shirt. Vera returns and sees Natalia and Beliaev embracing each other, and vengefully tattles on Natalia and Beliaev. Natalia denies any romantic interest in Beliaev, but only Yslaev believes her, and he doesn’t really seem to care. But after Natalia refuses Rakitin’s amorous advances, Rakitin senses that something’s up. He casually but effectively cross-examines Beliaev, sees him wearing the flower that Natalia gave to him, and eventually Beliaev confesses to their mutual advances. Rakitin thereupon suggests that he and Beliaev both leave to return calm to the family. [That Natalia rejected Rakitin had absolutely nothing to do with it.] Yslaev thinks it’s a good idea. Rakitin and Beliaev leave. But Beliaev, unseen, returns to see Natalia in quiet despair, drops the flower she gave him at her feet, and leaves.

The initial difficulty I have is a thematic one. I concede that I’ve never read the Turgenev play, which is considered a masterful work, and a precursor of Chekhov. But it seems that something critical has been lost in the ballet’s adaptation – the central thrust of the story.

My understanding is that in the play the critical ingredient is Natalia’s jealousy of seventeen year old Vera (in the play, Vera is Natalia and Yslaev’s adopted daughter). Beliaev takes up with Vera (or Natalia thinks he does), and Natalia schemes to get Vera out of her way to win Beliaev for herself. This thematic pattern would make more sense, and would provide more dramatic potential. In the ballet, however, this jealousy on Natalia’s part is not the focus of the action, since it quickly becomes clear that there’s nothing for Natalia to be jealous about – Natalia is attracted to Beliaev and he is attracted to her; Vera’s interest in him is easily dismissed and inconsequential. Instead, the ballet’s story focuses on Vera’s being a petulant child and vengeful tattle tale, and Natalia’s being a bored dachawife caught in a relatively insignificant lie.

Regardless, the problem for me is not only the banality of the story as presented in the ballet, but that the choreography seems, in large part, to be prissy, fussy, and bloodless, without any of the self-deprecating flair (even If unintentional) that rescues Mr. Ashton’s Sylvia, which ABT will perform later this season, or the choreographed magic of The Dream and Cinderella. The choreography appears either unnecessarily tentative (the romantic exchanges) or silly (for example, I recall dancers shaking their hands as if stricken with an uncontrollable hand muscle twitch, for no apparent reason other than to make their hands move while they danced). But for all too brief awakening jolts (Natalia’s slap; Vera’s ‘gotcha’ revenge), the ballet is all at the same emotional level; a slow cooker that never reaches a boil. Even the choreographed romantic liaison between Beliaev and Natalia is underplayed.

The ABT dancers did a fine job with what they had (and the set and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman are lovely), but to this viewer it didn’t jell. In the play, Natalia is supposed to be a young (twenty nine), bored wife of an older man (thirty six) [give me a break] she was socially obligated to marry. In this sense, Hee Seo’s casting should have worked. But because she looked so young, her having a ‘young son’ who looked close to her age, and a ward who looked close to her age, and a would-be lover close to her age, just looked unrealistic. Even suspending disbelief didn’t help – melancholy and boredom and controlled arousal can quickly look monochromatic, and except for an isolated moment when she slaps Vera, Ms. Seo doesn’t get to show much emotional range (particularly disappointing in light of her outstanding performance as Tatiana in Onegin a week earlier).

As Belaiev, David Hallberg lacked the magnetism that one would expect in the role, but in other respects admirably portrayed the smitten and somewhat befuddled young man who alters the family’s equilibrium just by being there. Sarah Lane, hardly recognizable with a blonde wig [why? – at least from my vantage point, it made her look older], had the most dramatic range to display and was convincing as a girl with a crush and a mean streak. I doubt that any of ABT’s dancers could have portrayed Hee Seo’s young son convincingly, given the lack of age difference, but Arron Scott did a nice job trying, and had a nifty pas de deux with a rubber ball. As Rakitin, Roddy Doble had more depth of character than others in the piece – he was Natalia’s supplicant, an unrequited lover, a casual but effective inquisitor, and a reasonable man who knows how to make a dignified exit. He was very good. Ormsby Wilkins’s conducting of Chopin’s musical score (arranged by John Lanchberry) was well done. Emily Wong was the fine solo pianist.

When I last saw ABT’s rendition of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, at its gala last week, I thought it was a poor substitute for the performances of the piece by New York City Ballet. In particular, the First Movement was poor, and the Second Movement was disappointing. Sarah Lane and Jared Matthews, on the other hand, were perfect in the Fourth Movement, and Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin were very good in the Third.

Although I still feel that, overall, the ABT version is performed at a slower pace and is technically less crisp looking than what one routinely finds at NYCB performances, what a difference a cast change makes! With respect to the First and Second Movements, it was like night and day. In the First Movement, Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm were pitch perfect. Right demeanor; right timing; right everything. And this brilliantly danced opening movement set the standard for what followed. For me, the surprise of the evening was the adagio Second Movement. Instead of being dour, ethereal and somewhat possessed, which is what I sensed at the gala performance, Polina Semionova was regal and dominant – and was partnered to perfection by Marcelo Gomes. Ms. Semionova was enjoying herself (well within the bounds of appropriate expression), and her smile never seemed pasted. Whatever one thinks of ABT’s guest artist (or pseudo guest artist) policy, the quality of her performance cannot be ignored.

Somewhat less successful, though not at all disappointing, were Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in the Third Movement, and Simone Messmer in the Fourth (Jared Matthews repeated his excellent Gala performance here). Ms. Osipova floated like a cloud, as she always does, but seemed less comfortable with the Balanchine choreography than did Ms. Boylston at last week’s Gala. And Mr. Vasiliev looked stretched to the breaking point (as opposed to Mr. Simkin last week, who made it all look effortless). But except for this appearance of considerable effort, they got through it admirably. Ms. Messmer was very good, but she was at times a bit ahead, and at times a bit behind, the music. As a result, her performance didn’t have the zing that Ms. Lane gave in the same movement a week earlier. But overall it was a thrilling performance. The supporting featured dancers, each of whom deserves to be credited for fine performances, were Luciana Paris and Alexei Agoudine, and Jennifer Whalen and Luis Ribagorda in the First Movement; Luciana Voltolini and Calvin Royal, and Katherine Williams and Daniel Mantei in the Second; Karen Uphoff and Mr. Doble and April Giangeruso and Vitali Krauchenka in the Third; and Gemma Bond and Julio Brigado-Young, and Marian Butler and Kenneth Easter in the Fourth. This was the first time I had seen Mr. Royal in a demi-soloist role, and he showed considerable potential.

Finally, I confess to being hasty and too dismissive in my previous review of Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, to sparkling piano accompaniment provided by Barbara Bilach. Clearly it is not just another piano ballet. I still think that scheduling the piece for both the City Center Fall 2012 season and the Spring 2013 Met season was a mistake. But whether the product of seeing a different cast (I don’t recall the earlier castmembers), or being performed at a different and more appropriate venue (it has a cast of 12, gobbles space, and seems to thrive with more room to breathe – notably it was created for ABT, and premiered in its complete form, at the Met, in 1988), or of seeing it from a different point of view (a higher vantage point permitted me to discern Mr. Morris’s intriguing patterns of movement as I had not seen them before), it looked like the glorious contemporary ballet that it is. And the cast, led by Yuriko Kajiya and Joseph Gorak, executed to perfection. Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Gorak were abetted by Gemma Bond, Kristi Boone, Mr. Doble, Nicole Graniero, Melanie Hamrick, Joseph Phillips, Mr. Scott, Mr. Tamm, James Whiteside, and Stephanie Williams, each of whom excelled both individually and as members of the ensemble. At various times, I’ve commented favorably on each of these dancers previously, except for Ms. Williams, who I first noticed last year but couldn’t identify by name. I can now. She’s a sparkling performer, and like the other Williams in the company, is a dancer to watch.

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