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Flash Review 1, 5-16: Gala Fervor
Acosta Wows, Corella Goes for Gasps, and Murphy Goes for Grigorovich in ABT Preview of Things to Come

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- Ah, the American Ballet Theatre opening night gala. This year's event, held Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House, fulfilled every expectation -- it had the homage to tradition, the glitz, the tantalizing previews, the slam-bang entertainment, and what must be the fullest dose of macho fervor (courtesy of Jose Manuel Carreno and the newly acquired superstar Carlos Acosta) to be seen in quite some time on the stage of the Met.

In his opening remarks, artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the gala was meant to be a "preview glimpse" of the spring season. The season includes a number of ABT standbys, and we saw bits of a few of those on Monday. In addition to the Act II Waltz from "Swan Lake," which opened the evening, there was the Act II pas de deux from "Giselle," performed by Amanda McKerrow and Angel Corella (who, as Albrecht, appeared to be dancing himself to death not for love of Giselle but of the much-coveted audience gasp). There was also George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," part of the "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" ABT has presented during the last few seasons. To conductor Charles Barker's gloppy tempos, Gillian Murphy threw herself around the stage as if she were dancing something by Yuri Grigorovich. In contrast, her partner Marcelo Gomes was refined and powerful, giving every phrase respect. (And is that phrasing and technique ever solid! I hope Gomes isn't left behind amidst the glut of men at ABT this year; his is the kind of dancing that needs to be seen more often on that stage.) Ashley Tuttle gave perhaps the most satisfying performance of the evening, with a raffish Vladimir Malakhov, in the Act I pas de deux from John Cranko's "Onegin." She was every bit the young girl being courted by the older man -- fresh and childlike, yet full of serious dreams. In Malakhov's arms, she was beautifully pliable, but not without a will of her own.

That "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" will get a boost this season from David Parsons's "Walk This Way," a disarmingly witty send-up of the "I'm looking for my love and even though he's standing right there on the other side of the stage I keep missing him" trope in classical ballet. Susan Jaffe and Robert Hill gave a very funny performance of this at the gala; Hill's attempt to match his stride to Jaffe's (when they finally realized each other's presence) had timing worthy of Chaplin.

According to the schedule on the company's website, Kenneth Macmillan's "Manon" isn't part of the ABT spring season, so I'm not sure why its famous Act I bedroom pas de deux was included in Monday's program. As Manon, with Hill as her steady partner, Julie Kent whirled herself so ridiculously giddy that her hair came loose from its plaits. We also saw a rousing rendition of the fourth movement of Balanchine's "Symphony in C," looking far better on the Met's big stage than it did at City Center in the fall. Michele Wiles, all sweetness and vigor, led the energetic and musically sensitive cast.

Two of the most anticipated moments of the gala were the excerpts from Frederick Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee" and "The Dream," both of which are in ABT's repertory for the first time this season. Xiomara Reyes's interpretation of a variation from Act I of "Fille" was somewhat perplexing -- overly sweet and spiked with flourishes more appropriate to "Don Quixote" than to a French country garden. I look forward to seeing the variation in the context of ABT's entire production of the ballet. Even more do I look forward to "The Dream," after seeing Ethan Stiefel as Oberon in a brief pas de deux with Alessandra Ferri. The critic Laura Jacobs has noted that Stiefel is at his best in "magic forest" ballets -- ballets that let his pure-as-moonlight technique fly into fantasy. In a glittering green costume, he sparked through the air like lightning, both eating up space and reveling in the mischief of little-bitty steps, simultaneously dominating and luxuriating in Ferri's girlish Titania. If Stiefel's performance on Monday was any indication, this could be one of his greatest roles.

But let's face it: most everyone was there Monday to see ABT's newest acquisition, Acosta. He did not disappoint. (I *was* disappointed that Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca's magnificent, impassioned performance of the Act II pas de deux from "Le Corsaire" was shunted into the least auspicious slot on the program -- right after the intermission, with half the champagned audience still shuffling in several minutes into the piece.) Acosta, the former Houston Ballet principal, comes to ABT from the Royal Ballet, where he quickly gained international renown for his sensational technique and his (ahem) animal magnetism. Dancing the pas de deux a trois from "Corsaire" with Carreno and Paloma Herrera, Acosta brought down the house, blowing minds with his stallion-strong leaps and a stage presence that ricocheted off the rafters. The competition was good for his co-stars, too; in Acosta's wake, Carreno grew ever more intense, his pirouettes burning into the floor, and Herrera ever more fire-and-ice precise.

How ABT intends to handle all this heat, I don't know. Much less do I know whether there's a season of art ahead of us, or merely of gasps and gaudy thrills. Monday's gala promised a good deal of both.

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