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Flash Review Journal, 6-5: Hen; Hens' Teeth
From Filles to Hermans: 200 years in Ballet, One Weekend at Lincoln Center

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- At Lincoln Center last weekend, you could practically hear ballet being stretched limb-from-limb. Stretched thin in the case of the operetta-like "La Fille Mal Gardee," choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and performed Saturday by American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House. And across the plaza, Sunday at the New York State Theater, New York City Ballet was giving contemporary (outside of its own pantheon of choreographers) a whirl with William Forsythe's "Herman Schmerman," on an oddly mixed program which included Balanchine's one-act "Swan Lake."

As dance insiders know, Forsythe's cozy incubator of a nest -- Ballett Frankfurt -- is in peril, although as of this writing negotiations are underway with the town of Frankfurt to extend Forsythe's contract. Meanwhile, here in New York, performances of Forsythe's ballets are rarer than hens' teeth. Besides the company's visits to the Brookyn Academy of Music spaced by multiple years, we get an occasional very short work performed by a company entrusted by Forsythe not to butcher his distinctive style.

In the case of "Herman Schmerman," a Diamond Project commission in 1992, great faith has been shown City Ballet to bring this duet to the stage in fighting condition. It is not in the more traditional ballet vocabulary which can be seen in "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude." Indeed, it is full Forsythe idiom, which is nearly impossible to embody for dancers not working with Forsythe on a daily basis. Wendy Whelan, as one might expect of all City Ballet-rinas, was able to capture the essence of his style: she is agile, athletic, open-minded and generous of modern spirit. Still, her epaulement tended toward traditional jazz use of opposition; perhaps Forsythe's intention, but it felt apart idiomatically. Whelan did capture essential Forsythe in her hip-first chassees, echappes going deep into plie in second, and hyper-attenuated, floaty developpes, as well as her deadpan, are-you-joking demeanor.

One look at her partner, Albert Evans, and it is clear he is an athlete. After seeing his recent Diamond Project contribution, "Haiku," it is obvious that Evans has higher aspirations for ballet than the standard vocabulary. But he looked ill at ease with Forsythe's rubbery style, his limbs too thick, his joints inflexible, the articulation of his feet inadequate. In other dances, I've wanted Evans to give of himself more to the audience (well, if not give it, at least sell it) and this was so in "Herman," although Whelan coaxed him to the edge in her visual, stage-exiting game of chicken. He fared better in technical feats such as turns with the leg in second attitude, and in the final moment, when he and Whelan finally succumb to the assisted pirouette, back home to the coop of City Ballet's repertory. In addition to "Swan Lake," the program was rounded out by "Kammermusik" and "Mercurial Manoeuvres."

On the opposite end of ballet's spectrum is "Fille." One of the oldest ballets still being performed -- Jean Dauberval's first version being created in 1786, Ashton's in 1960 -- it tells the story of young country lovers who are united despite hurdles of all kinds. The ABT cast I watched featured Nina Ananiashvili (Lise) and Carlos Acosta (Colas), with Brian Reeder and Guillaume Graffin in supporting roles. With so much buzz about Acosta's first ABT season, I expected great things from him. He has a sharply cut musculature, is well-proportioned for leading man roles, and has a incredibly solid releve with absolutely no bounce to it. (Doesn't sound very impressive, but it is neat to see.) However, it was actually his reticence, his hewing to a somewhat conservative restrained line, which was notable.

The big surprise was Nina Ananiashvili, whose elegant, truly classical line was a pleasure to watch. In an age when ballerinas are becoming more and more athletic, Ananiashvili is effortlessly good at everything, which may not make headline news, but over the course of an evening-length ballet, was a relief. (A case in opposite point is City Ballet's Maria Kowroski, who is one of the most fascinating ballerinas in New York now, and yet whose past-vertical penche became a freaky side-show in Eliot Feld's "Organon," and appeared, ill-advisedly, in "Swan Lake" on Sunday.) Ananiashvili's physique is still girlish, and her natural lightness and sweet demeanor suited her well for the coquettish part of Lise. And she has a picture-perfect grand jete.

"Fille" is filled with fussy asides -- many involving ribbons, such as a maypole ritual which creates a woven tube surprisingly quickly, and a cat's cradle duet by the lovers that I thought would result in someone's asphyxiation. It is also rife with scenes that, to the contemporary sensibility, moved at a glacial pace. And yet Ashton created some wonderfully knit large ensemble movements, including the maypole dance and a post-harvest celebration. He did not feature the two leads so much that they would bore us, and tossed in some truly difficult feats for them to prove their mettle, such as Lise's slow promenade in attitude holding only ribbon ends pinwheeling around her, and some dead lifts by Colas, including a dreaded one-handed fanny press.

The supporting roles are caricatures, and only the role of reluctant suitor Alain, performed by Carlos Lopez, had any substantial dancing to it. Lopez made the most of his pathetic assignment, gamely running across the stage with his hands flapping and chewing through a tough petit allegro section; most of the time he clutched a red bumbershoot. Graffin performed the role of the mother of Lise, clogging away with some corps women outfitted with pointe clogs. Special mention should be made of the charming cockerel and chickens, who hopped sweetly from their coop to begin the ballet.

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