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Flash Review 1, 5-25: Will the Real ABT Please Stand Up?
A Flawless Rodeo, a Flawed 'Shades,' and a Tale of Two Pipers

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

One of the first modern ballets I ever saw was Agnes De Mille's 1942 "Rodeo," on San Francisco Ballet in 1994. The tomboy cowgirl was enacted by Joanna Berman, one of our greatest comic ballerinas. I thought I'd never see an apter one -- until I caught American Ballet Theatre's Erica Cornejo in the ballet Saturday, in a picture perfect performance supported by a pretty perfect posse of soloists and corps dancers. The first ballet I ever reviewed, in 1996, was Petipa/Makarova's "La Bayadere," also on ABT, in which the corps so dazzled me with their picture-perfect synchronicity on entering the "Kingdom of the Shades" that I began my review by simply naming every corps member. Especially when seen as a stand-alone, as is the case this season, this act is all about the corps, its magic resting critically on that first moment, as they descend into their kingdom, their white legs moving as one. When they don't move as one -- as they didn't last night at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the evening's first moment -- the magic and the audience are lost, and it becomes just another mindless parade of tutus. The good news is that on last night's second viewing -- we'll also talk about a first viewing last Saturday afternoon -- David Parsons's "Pied Piper" seems a little less silly, and a bit more theatrically sublime, even if the choreography still seems paltry.

For me, the money moment in "Rodeo" is when the tomboy cowgirl, initially spurned by the Head Wrangler and now, jeans replaced with yellow dress, being wooed by the wrangler and the Champion Roper, kneels to focus on the latter's tapping dancing feet. When he stops with a final boom, she claps her hands together, as if to say, He's the one; at that moment, she makes her choice. But there's more to it than that, as Berman once explained to me: As taught to her by Christine Sarry, who in turn learned the role from the first Cowgirl, De Mille, in that cupped-hand clap the Cowgirl is trying to capture the sound the Roper's making with his feet.

Cornejo, in the culmination of a performance as perfect as it was nuanced, didn't just capture the sound with her hands. She leaned her whole kneeling body to the side, as a baseball catcher might to snare a wild pitch, before clapping her hands together to catch the beat, going Berman one step further in that moment. In fact, in the whole ballet she surpassed the performance that had previously been my standard. What roped me in is that in this role that could easily be played just for laughs, Cornejo went for the pathos too; she approached it not as comic but as character work, both in her acting and in how she maximized the character implications of the tools the choreographer gave her.

It started from the moment Cornejo first mounted her (mimed) horse, no pretend wooden stallion but a wild bronco which she made us feel could throw her at any second. Then there was the restrained, unexaggerated way she played the manly gestures (e.g., hitching up her belt and pants) -- not for maximum laughs, but naturally. And the way she pined for Ethan Brown's Head Wrangler -- not with her emotions over-played on her sleeve, but subdued and just hinted at. One so rarely sees such naturalistic acting in ballet -- where, after all, a certain degree of telegraphing might be justified.

The rest of the cast followed suit. John Gardner's Champion Roper was a nice regular guy to Brown's strutting Head Wrangler. Sure, he's the champion, but he isn't going around bragging about it. This couple, Cornejo and Gardner, had lots to say in their naturalistic styles for modern relationships, actually: They started as friends, he treating her like a pal; then from this he seemed to see the potential beauty in her, suggesting she try a skirt and then, when he fell in love with her, you got a sense it wasn't just because of the skirt.

Brown hammed it up, but I'm not going to complain -- his pawing of the ground with his feet as he prepares to "fight" the Wrangler for the newly gussied up cowgal, like a male dog who smells a female in heat, was delicious. Looking up "Rodeo" in "Walter Terry's Ballet Guide," I see I shouldn't be surprised: one of the signature Wranglers is Kelly Brown, Ethan Brown's father and his first teacher. From the square dancers to Rosalie O'Connor's multi-dimensional Ranch Owner's Daughter, to Johanna Snyder, as great a rock in the ABT corps as she was a rock at the Joffrey before, there wasn't a weak link in this cast. Boo-hoo that we won't see them and this ballet again this season.

Speaking of families, this season's only "Rodeo" performance took place Saturday afternoon as part of ABT's annual "Family Day Gala." The kiddies seemed pleased with "Rodeo," judging by the many bobbing cowboy and cowgirl hats in the audience. They apparently were not, however, so charmed by "The Pied Piper"; if the kids onstage were following his tune, mesmerized, the kids in the audience found the ballet hard to follow, judging by the chattering which increased as the ballet wore on.

My colleague Susan Yung, reviewing the premiere performance last Friday, nicely nailed the over-all problems with this ballet. In the matinee performance I saw Saturday, Hector Cornejo succeeded Angel Corella as the Piper, making his debut in the role created by Angel Corella. Yes, he is Erica's sister, and all I can say is that these Cornejos must have taken time out from ballet school for courses in Method acting, because they've got that ability to match their dancing skill. Cornejo's Piper was boggled by the powers of the flute from the moment dying senior piper Victor Barbee bestowed it upon him. He went through the entire ballet, really, with a humble sense of marvel.

Speaking of marvel, one of the problems in this production, as my dancer companion Saturday pointed out, was the over-use of the high-tech film backdrops. I'd add that they didn't gibe with Michael Curry's low-tech rats -- small ones on very obvious sticks manipulated by humans, and large ones on very obviously costumed dancers. Then there's the supposedly independent-willed flute, whose tether we can clearly see as the piper dangles it as if it's flying of its own accord. I'm fine with suspending disbelief -- we do this, for instance, at puppet shows where the puppets are manipulated by black-garbed humans in clear sight behind them. The problem here is that what's been promised is high-tech marvel, and the "how did they do that?" reaction to these elements clashes with the "I see how they did that" reaction to the more stone-age technology.

Then there's the plot -- even knowing it ahead of time, this 40-year-old kid was confused. I think it's the choreography, or lack thereof. Prior to the performance, ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie somewhat ballsily placed the premiere of "Pied Piper" on the same plane as the premiere 60 years ago of "Rodeo," saying that the day after both, people realized that the art form had been changed forever. But I think he's missing one fundamental element: De Mille revolutionized the form, I'm guessing, by creating a whole vocabulary which vividly brought the West to life -- partly by acting, yes, but principally by (it's the) choreography (stupid). There are no horse puppets on that stage, no humans wearing horse-heads, and no films of rolling clouds in the background. But watch that ballet, and you see those horses, you are under that vista, and you smell the tumbleweed. (Does tumbleweed have a smell?) In Parsons's "Piper," as Susan noted in her review, choreography-wise you see a lot of spinning.

The dancers amplify and clarify what little choreography they're given with some damned fine dancing and acting. Even Corella, not known for his acting, surprised me last night, when he substituted for the scheduled Joaquin de Luz. I particularly liked the way his anger slowly built -- and was manifested in the increasing tension in his dancing -- as he realized the town leaders were going to stiff him and not pay him for banishing the rats. Then, after he leads the children off, turns them into stars, and watches their parents disintegrate, I actually believed the promised tone of this ending -- i.e., that the Piper is liberating the children from parents who ill-treat them. Here again the credit goes largely to Corella, who clearly, but subtly, projected an alternating tenderness for the children, and disgust with the adults. Chase Finlay, a more loose, lively, and less wooden Child Piper than Saturday's Javier Ubell, helped too. And Brown, again, chiseled some fine acting moments out of the generic mime he was given as the town mayor, particularly when mouthing an empty speech and crumpling at the ballet's end.

On second viewing, some of the darkness I was expecting from Parsons's 'Piper' was there, palpable. On second viewing -- maybe it was this cast? -- this ballet did evoke a mood, and even cast a spell. Perhaps it's a combination of John Corigliano's sophisticated, high-narrative score; the way flautist Carol Wincenc highlighted its key instrument, emerging first, as she did, onstage, with Corella and Finlay, out of senior piper Guillaume Graffin's cape; and Corella's pinpoint musicality. Come to think of it, Parsons's musicality is pretty pinpoint to. In this case, though, it's just a little too one-note for me.

So this ballet is not a lost cause, it has a chance; but I guess what still disturbs me is its lack of any kind of varied choreography. Kevin McKenzie has told me before that it is supposed to me "American...Ballet...*Theater*"... and that the 'Theater' is important. But so should be the Ballet. Agnes De Mille gave the ballet world, including ABT (in the current production, realized by stagers Susan Jones and Victor Barbee), a work that was truly theatrical *and* still truly ballet, her ballet vocabulary birthing the drama. David Parsons has given ABT a spectacle that doesn't really live up to his own potential to create stunning dark works, nor ABT's potential to *dance.*

....At least, that is, ABT's potential as manifest in "Rodeo," and earlier at this year's gala. But not, however, at least by the corps, in "La Bayadere," Act II, as seen last night.

The opening of this act, with descending dancer after descending dancer, is one of those moments in ballet that can take your breath away and remind you what it's all about -- remind you in the audience of the elevation of spirit ballet can deliver, and remind you in the corps what you've trained for all these years. But to do this -- well, this is one of those critical moments where the corps has to remember what that word means, corps, and behave and move like one unit. Ghostly white legs up and down at the same time. Humans maybe wouldn't be able to do this, after all we're only human, but these are shades -- ghosts. They can move as one, at the same moment. And the dancers playing these shades have to, for us to believe in them. This was not happening last night. Legs went up at different times; at one point I noted a women 12th or so back in line lift her leg before the leader. In this act that is really more about the corps than the principals, this corps lost me from the get and it was hard for them to get me back. Ladies, look at each other!

The performance was not a total loss; there were at least three performers up there who came pretty near perfection. Amanda McKerrow is not your glamorous Ananiashvili-Ferri-Kent-Herrera star -- just that ballerina who goes out there every time and invests her heart and body into every moment. McKerrow *was* a shade, ethereal, floating, pale, and perfect. A favorite moment was when, leaning on Jose Manuel Carreno's shoulder, one leg back, she cupped a hand before her mouth as if to whisper, It's all right, I'm here.

Carreno was noble as ever, giving only as much panache as was necessary for the role, and not overdoing it -- which is not to say he didn't stun, particularly when finishing sequences sideways on the ground, and then calmly and triumphantly lifting an arm.

Michelle Wiles stood out among the three Shade soloists -- perhaps in part because she was the only one able to keep up with conductor Jonathan Sheffer (why he??)'s too-frenetic playing of the Minkus music.

In the ballet universe, what Kevin McKenzie and his dancers and producers are attempting this season should be considered ambitious: three new one-act dances by essentially modern choreographers (Parsons, Paul Taylor, and Mark Morris) at the Met, where the conventional wisdom is that only evening-length story ballets fill the house. Even the Parsons ballet was a good bet -- I would have taken it. In light of the choreographically light "Piper" that was delivered, though, and in light of the similarly high-tech, low-choreography "Othello" debacle of a few years back, I hope Mr. McKenzie remembers that it's about the choreography. Those hokey sets ain't the reason "Rodeo"'s still around after 60 years, and this "Pied Piper"'s high-tech tricks won't (well, shouldn't!) ensure it a place in the story ballet canon. Mr. McKenzie is doing a good thing in trying to add to that canon; I just hope he remembers that the classics there now are classics because they've got ballet and theater.

And looking back at the lax and under-rehearsed corps of a couple of years ago, I hope this "Bayadere" corps will remember that the magic of the ballet doesn't rest on high-tech props and scenery, and not even always on superstars -- but just as often, on their own shoulders, heads, hearts, and legs, and on their ability to really dance like a corps.

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