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American Ballet Theatre

Mixed Repertory Program

by K. Mitchell Snow

April 9, 2013 -- Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

The American Ballet Theater opened its annual spring schedule at the Kennedy Center with two contrasting masterworks from the mid-20th century showcasing the heritage of the evening’s main event -- the Washington premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s much anticipated setting of Shostakovich’s Symphony #9.

The company presented George Balanchine’s setting of Bizet’s Symphony in C to great effect, particularly the propulsive dynamics of the fourth and final movement. Even within the tight ensemble approach that is critical to its successful performance, individual dancers with highly differing gifts still found room to shine: Hee Seo’s imposing technical perfection in the second movement finding its balance in the ebullient turns of Danil Simkin in the third. The closing measures provided as close to an emblematic staging of Balanchine as any contemporary company is likely to achieve.

The ironies of the ABT’s eclipsing of the New York City Ballet – whose appearance here in March was marred by an unfortunately untidy Swan Lake – when it comes to Balanchine performance need no further commentary.

Although separated from Symphony in C by only two years, José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane stands in almost polar contrast to the Balanchine work in both technique and temperament. Limón replaces Balanchine’s speed with a Renaissance pace and his analytical abstraction with expressive drama. A strong quartet of performers, Marcelo Gomes, Corey Stearns, Stella Abrera and Julie Kent, produced a strikingly faithful re-creation of the work.

Gomes, as the Moor, seemed to be directly channeling Limón throughout his performance. His forward strides charged with imperial confidence, each step seemed a soliloquy in itself.

These paired compositions provided a stimulating introduction to Ratmansky’s Symphony #9.

Although firmly anchored in the language of neoclassical ballet, Ratmansky has clearly digested the lessons of modern dance – as well as the possibilities offered by its atypical partnerings. He offers a polyglot choreographic language, its shapes subtly softer; its statements less glistening exemplars of apollonian intellect and more affirmations of the human heart.

Even an audience unfamiliar with the political background in which Shostakovich composed his ninth symphony – the work was formally banned and the composer denounced (though not for the first time) a few years after its premiere -- will recognize the vigilance displayed by the work’s two couples, Simone Messmer and Craig Salstein and Veronika Part and Roberto Bolle. Messmer and Salstein

open the work, the initial expressions of wariness embedded in a goofy take on the conventions of classical ballet. Given their comical context and the sardonic impetus of the score, they pass almost unnoticed. The caution they introduce takes a much more serious flavor with the entrance of Part and Bolle. This sense of unease is ultimately sealed when Part lovingly approaches Bolle and covers his mouth in a silencing act before offering her caress. What, taken in a different context, would seem a transgressive act, becomes here a tender expression of protection from a repressive world.

Jared Matthews, who replaced Herman Cornejo as the soloist, provided a winning performance in a conceptually complex role where he served as both a catalyst and as a co-motivator of the action. His brilliantly executed entrechat, accompanied by his drolly bemused expression, was one of the evening’s highlights.

It is tempting to interpret Kesso Dekker’s costumes, whose mottled grey-black exteriors revealed rich golden interiors as the women danced, as an extension of the work’s central metaphor. Despite what could be perceived as the drab exterior required in a repressive regime, the richness of a culture and its people continues just behind the official facade.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, which concludes with a pair of abrupt, shocking color shifts near the work’s end, quite literally cast this particular world in a very different light. The multilayered implications of this scenic strategy added a crowning dose of theatricality to the choreography itself.
Symphony #9 should amply repay the experience of repeated encounters; one expects that early audiences felt much the same about Symphony in C and The Moor’s Pavane.

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