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Flash Review, 5-1: Democracy is Coming...to the ABT
Cornejo, Taylor, & Corps Storm the Citadel

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Indulge me for a moment, Dance Insider; I'm having rather a Howard the Duck year. First it was last fall, when I returned from France, that country which gave us the Statue of Liberty, only to find that tens of thousands of Blacks had been denied their liberty to vote by the brother of the Republican presidential candidate, which development was quickly followed by the toppling of Democracy by the Supreme "Court." Have all the Republicans stormed out of the room yet? Good, because the following might be too shocking for them. Next, I hied my downtown heinie uptown to the tres chic digs of American Ballet Theatre, opening last night at the Metropolitan Opera House, expecting the usual pas de ballet royalty -- you know, all the principals strutting their signature stuff in hundred-year-old plus ballets, with perhaps a pro-forma appearance by the corps -- and, who'd 'a thunk it, the star turn of the evening was delivered not by any of the certified stars, but by corps dancer Erica Cornejo; and the most dazzling passage was not the parade of principals, but the picture-perfect teamwork of the corps de ballet in the "Swan Lake" second act pas de deux. Oh, and did I mention that that old modern maven Paul Taylor stole the choreographic limelight from ballet respectables like Petipa, MacMillan, and McKenzie?

Let's start with the Taylor/Cornejo show. Actually, that's a bit dismissive, for most of the cast in the New York premiere of Taylor's "Black Tuesday" proved unusually (for dancers more used to the Petipa diet) supple. Setting the loose-limbed tone from the get were the ensemble and the two men they eventually resolved to, Jerry Douglas and Sean Stewart. This piece might be called a reaction, in dance to songs of the time, to the Great Depression that dropped from the stock market crash in October 1929 (Black Tuesday). Douglas was nicely "I've got no money but no cares either" free in his dancing, while Stewart, as my dancer companion put it, evoked the seat-of-the-pants Taylor-owning of longtime PT stalwart Tom Patrick; all the weight was in the right place.

Erica Fischbach, dancing opposite Brian Reeder, was so supple of back, eloquent of leg, and withal passionate and abandoned in body, that before I looked at the program I scribbled, "Boy, I sure love that Sandra Brown." Same thing happened with Karin Ellis-Wentz, dancing solo to "Sittin' on a Rubbish Can." (Music: Nelson Shawn, Bob Schafer, and Johnny Burke.) Watching Ellis-Wentz's devil-may-care, I don't care if I look like a fool, whimsical dancing, I wrote down, "Boy, Gillian Murphy sure looks perfect in the Lisa Viola role," a reference to PT's reigning Fool (that's a compliment). Nope, wrong again; Ellis-Wentz, like Fischbach, emerges from the corps.

...As do Elizabeth Gaither, Anne Milewski, and Ms. Cornejo, all of them beautifully dishabilled (in Santo Loquasto's perfectly appropriate, it may be the Depression but we ain't gonna get depressed brown dresses) and suitably ribald as the sexy foils to the cigar-chomping Marcelo Gomes, camping it up to "Are You Making Any Money" by Herman Hupfeld. Then the sexy suddenly takes a dark turn, as Ms. Cornejo, deserted by her comrades, turns on to "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (Al Dublin-Harry Warren), peopled by down on their luck "gigolos" and "gigolettes." She spins, she scrambles on the ground, her back collapsing beneath her. She kneels to Connie Boswell's sad lament, "But gigolo and gigolette still play a song and dance along the boulevard of broken dreams." Then a group of guys surge on the scene and toss her around, until she ultimately plummets upside down through the middle of a circle they've forged, Pilobolus-style -- is there a hint of rape here? No, probably not, for Cornejo recovers for one last sad sashay.

There's a nice girls-can-be-hobos turn next from Marian Butler -- what I love about the dancer deportment in this ballet, particularly in the women, is seeing ballet dancers not afraid to represent for ugly, in all its tawdry beauty -- before Ethan Stiefel appears for the star finale meant to bring the theme on home.

Only...he doesn't! This ballet is dark Taylor, a la "Company B" and "Oh You Kid." But the dancers have to fully be able to express his vocabulary, his style, to get the darkness; otherwise all these ballets, set to period tunes, can seem just, well, like nostalgic rhapsodic trips down memory lane. Memory it may be, but Taylor's backward periscope towards Democracy America reveals a bleak vision. In "Company B," the darkness comes from the falling of those shadow soldiers at the back of the stage; in "Oh You Kid," from the Ku Klux Klan parody. Here, for this ballet's money moment, it's left to Stiefel to express Taylor's expression of all the poignancy and not a little politics of Yip Harburg-Jay Gorney's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." Or, as Harburg put it and Bing Crosby sadly phrased it: "Once I built a railroad, I made it run/I made it race against time. / Once I built a railroad, now it's done. / Brother, can you spare a dime?" And: "Once I built a tower, up to the sun. / Bricks and mortar and lime. / Once I built a tower, now it's done. / Brother, can you spare a dime?"

This is a man -- and the men and women of this drama, a class -- that helped build America, and then saw its robber-barons spit them out like so much used-up goods. Taylor gives Stiefel's character the tools -- he even reaches an arm up to the sun, sure enough -- and Stiefel's dancing doesn't exactly have a pinpointable flaw, but his acting does not evoke the Ache of the Betrayed. So that when the rest of the company joins him, under the darkening sky, reaching out their palms in the climax meant to reveal the lurking desperation just beneath the surface of all their previous (fort he most part) seemingly carefree dancing, the heart-wrenching this moment should provide doesn't come. It's another surprise here; just as corps dancers like Cornejo surprised with their storming of the stage, Stiefel, perhaps ABT's finest actor, surprises by his dramatic retreat. My dancer-companion suggested the limitation may be purely physical; that he perhaps needs to get himself into Taylor class and learn about the spiraling from contraction of the back, a notion often alien to the ballet dancer.

Making the dance less alien, no doubt, was stager Susan McGuire. The Taylor company dancers, on whom this work was actually created, deserve some credit too, for the contours of the work.

Not that ballet dancers are unable to spiral in other ways; au contraire! One of the things I love about being a critic is that when it comes to reviewing the corps, particularly in ballets like "Swan Lake" and "Bayadere," you have a license to be a leg man without being accused of being licentious. With last night's "Swan Lake" Act II pas de deux, when the corps arrayed at diagonals behind Julie Kent and Robert Hill, their gleaming legs were just the beginning point. The perfect CORPS placement started there, continued as each gradually turned, on through the sloping of their backs, the gentle slow tilting of their heads, and their elegant arm placement -- all executed as a unit. It was a team ripple effect perfectly in synch, thus rippling through our senses as well. Or, as my dancer companion explained, it was the difference between everyone merely doing the same steps, and everyone dancing together. The stakes here can't be under-estimated -- we're not just talking about a pwetty picture. One of the things that saves ballet from being irrelevant is when it achieves perfect beauty, because perfect beauty in itself is a legitimate and inspiring aesthetic end. Last night -- at a gala evening, yet, where, out of context, one could be forgiven a lessening of dramatic concentration -- these dancers achieved that perfect beauty. If the performance which touched my heart most was Cornejo's, the one that left the strongest impression on my eyes was that of Jennifer Alexander, Tamara Barden, Kristi Boone, Marian Butler, Maria Bystrova, Carmen Corella, Erica Cornejo (again), Karin Ellis-Wentz, Alina Faye, Erica Fischbach, Elizabeth Gaither, Yena Kang, Anna Liceica, Ilona McHugh, Anne Milewski, Gillian Murphy, Carrie Peterson, Jennifer Quent, Xiomara Reyes, Maria Riccetto, Marta Rodriguez-Coca, Christin Seerini, Johanna Snyder (also supply and floatingly-armed earlier in the evening in the Waltz from Ben Stevenson's "Cinderella"), Shannon Volk, Alissa Wassung, and Michele Wiles.

Speaking of arms, if Stiefel was the surprise let-down, Paloma Herrera provided the surprise come-up. When last seen by this Dance Insider a couple of years ago, Herrera was lacking in upper-body mobility and expressiveness, and her feet were more flitting than savoring. But last night, in the Act I Variation from "The Sleeping Beauty" (MacMillan, after Petipa), it was as if Herrera had suddenly grown up. She was all patience, luxuriant torso, tasteful feet -- above all poise and class. A change has come -- in her bearing, carriage, and the weight and significance given to each step and motion -- and it's all for the good, imbuing her dancing with a newfound lyricism. Speaking of class, Nina Ananiashvili turned in a perfect Rose Adagio, teasing us before surrendering her hand to the last suitor, letting it linger above her a few seconds longer, as if to say, "I could stay on this one toe forever if I wanted to, but I will deign to surrender my hand.

Angel Corrella got the usual audience huzzahs, but I saw even less to warrant this approval than usual. At best he's an impressive jumper, but last night even Corrella's jumps were blurred and sloppy, his one justifiable source of pride presented carelessly. As for the other principals, beyond saying Julie Kent was as swan-like as could be expected under the excised circumstances, I'll have to cop a plea and say the selections -- mostly variations from pas de deux -- weren't substantive enough for me to have time to formulate an opinion. Other principals performing last night were Amanda McKerrow, Ashley Tuttle, Susan Jaffe (generous of countenance, sweetly languid in the upper body, but a bit wobbly in the legs -- looks like she could use some strengthening there), Jose Manuel Carreno, Irina Dvorovenko (suitably arch as the Black Swan), and Maxim Belotserkovsky. Somewhat bizarrely, Julio Bocca, after turning in a gallant "Nutcracker" Cavalier, hung around for the next and concluding selection, the Act I "Swan Lake" Waltz, his costume looking out of place, even if Bocca himself, ever the gallant, remained cool and collected. His chivalry extended even to the all-company curtain call, when, the rest of the principals ready to lurch forward for a second bow, Bocca alone turned back to usher the corps to join them, a king recognizing that on this gala evening, anyway, the dancers usually cast as "subjects" had stolen the day.

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