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Flash Review Journal, 11-6: Slow Down
Mighty Ambition, Mixed Results from ABT: Even in the Land of the Stars, Rehearsal Time Matters

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- Two different programs, two different worlds at American Ballet Theatre on the evening of October 17 and the afternoon of October 26 at City Center. Each program contained one new work, two small-scale pieces, and a rousing closer -- but while one performance was glum, lackluster, and poorly thought out, the other was joyful, strong, and focused. Whence the swerve? Vagaries of programming had something to do with it, surely. But the contrast says something, too, about some current strengths and weaknesses at ABT.

First, the new works: James Kudelka, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, is a respected choreographer. But his "Sin and Tonic," set to a dissonant/folksy violin concerto by Edgar Meyer, was simply incoherent. There were "The Lovers," Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes, she in a 1920s-style green dress and he in a dark suit with his shirt untucked. They meandered around each other on the empty stage for a good long while, until suddenly Cupid bounded in -- a beaming Angel Corella in a white unitard with little angel wings poking out of his back and one finger pointed up to the sky. This bit of Roman imagery interpolated into a rather modern scene was disconcerting enough. The entrance of two men dressed in S&M leather straps -- Sin and Tonic themselves (Craig Salstein and Carlos Lopez) -- made the picture even stranger. Their job seemed to be to harry the Lovers incessantly as they tried to get to know each other. Then (naturally!) there were five men in black see-through suits -- "The Wall" -- who snaked slowly around the stage holding hands. While the Wall was doing its thing, the Lovers were apparently off getting soused; when they reemerged again it was as drunken sweethearts, and they flailed about in topsy-turvy partnering until they collapsed into a spat and Cupid was lifted up above them, triumphant after all. Though it was fun to see Gomes, paragon of elegant technique, chaine-ing out of control and getting loose -- and though all the other dancers were faultlessly glamorous and concentrated -- it was difficult to understand what Kudelka could have had in mind in this muddled mix of styles and moods. The dance was as much a stepless, formless sprawl as the music, and it left this viewer more perplexed than moved, or even moved to thought.

Lar Lubovitch's "...smile with my heart," seen on October 26, was as winsome and integrated as Kudelka's ballet was murky and disjunctive. Marvin Laird's marvelous "Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rodgers" provided the sweeping score for this tribute to Rodgers in his centenary year. Six musicians sat on a platform at the side of the stage, bringing to mind a big band of the Rodgers era -- an impression heightened by the simple bandstand decor, simple black panels illuminated from behind and a fractured light pattern projected on the front. In simple gray and taupe costumes (the women in soft slippers), Sandra Brown, Erica Cornejo, Elizabeth Gaither, Joaquin de Luz (in for Corella), Ethan Stiefel, and Gomes began the ballet with a Busby Berkely-influenced romp to "Do I Hear a Waltz" and "It Might as Well be Spring." Swirling lifts and low-to-the-ground balances were the signatures of this movement, which then dissolved into three duets, each with its own distinctive psychological color.

For Cornejo and De Luz, it was "The Sweetest Sounds" -- they tossed each other to and fro in the highest of spirits, their wonderfully silly physical jokes bringing out the rowdy fun of young love. Lubovitch gave Gaither (in a darker dress than before) and Steifel layer upon layer of psychic drama to play with. Their music, "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "Where or When," sounded burnt with regret around the edges, and their duet, with its whiplash shifts of pace and physical architecture, was a potent story of combat and reconciliation. After seizing Gaither's arm and then begging forgiveness one too many times, the boyish but explosive Stiefel -- having just been on his knees, touching his hands to her feet, her hips, her shoulders -- had his heart handed back to him by a lover who, though deeply in love, had had enough of heartache. For Brown, Gomes was "My Funny Valentine," a lusty man in black who found everything he needed in her scarlet-clad body, and whom she was prepared to humor. These two gave Lubovitch's subtly sexy steps a deep attention; when, at the end, Brown (on her stomach) leaned her head on her hand as Gomes swept his head up her back, it was clear they were not finished with this story. After the lights came up I wished Lubovitch had given the ballet a proper ending -- all the dancers coming out again for a big finish, or something like that. But the ending he gave it is, I think, the better one, leaving you with the tang of Rodgers's music -- sweet, bitter, and everything in between -- undulled by an easy wrap-up.

"The Garden of Villandry" (by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett, and Felix Blaska) and "Sylvia Pas de Deux" (by George Balanchine) preceded "Sin and Tonic" on the October 17 program. The former needs more in the way both of decor and of motivation for the rendezvous it pictures to come off to full effect. Nonetheless, Sandra Brown (in a white Edwardian dress with a striking red flower at the breast), Carlos Molina (tall, dark, handsome), and Ethan Brown (convincing as a Parisian intellectual in wire-rimmed glasses and a pin-striped suit) made an interesting lovers' knot in this little drama set to a Schubert waltz. Leaning in close and and lifting the woman tautly, the men were dashing (if oddly affable) contenders for her attention.

As for "Sylvia," performed on both programs by Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belotserkovsky, it was a fascinating lesson in what a little competition can do for established dancers. These two are among the most beautiful human specimens currently to be seen on any stage -- and on October 17, that's about all they were. Knowing the sweet spots to hit -- big balances, big supported pirouettes -- they marked almost all the big things in between, doing with coy smiles and flowing burnished hair what might have been done more appropriately with, well, dancing. I don't know if they were injured or lazy or simply having an off day. But this was eyebrow-ballet at its finest.

On October 26, however, it was quite a different story. His jumps had height, his turns had force behind them; her hops on pointe were solid, her finale showed excitement and real energy in technique. (There were still some cringeworthy moments: Belotserkovsky jogging offstage after a solo, for instance, or the outright cheat in a long "balance" in side developpe, in which, as I could see from my seat in orchestra-right, Dvorovenko was leaning against her husband's chest for support after he let go of her arms.) The change was due in large part, I'd venture to say, to the performance that immediately preceded theirs: Michele Wiles and David Hallberg in Victor Gsovsky's "Grand Pas Classique." These young dancers may not have the dramatic flair of their Ukrainian elders. They may be, at this stage in their careers, mainly technicians. But their performance in the "Grand Pas" showed once again a curious truth about ballet: when matched with musicality, technique opens the door to real drama.

At any rate, these two are hardly cookie-cutter technique machines. With his gallant bearing and exceptional placement, Hallberg made smooth and charming the difficult battery of leaps and turns. He was also a steady and attentive partner to Wiles, who as she rises through the ranks will need a partner like him who can match her height, agility, and regal presence. This pas de deux is a lovely showcase for her at this point in her career; it shows off her pure classical style as well as her gift for understanding the dynamics of a particular phrase. In this performance, she would fill up every inch of the music, amplifying connecting steps on the way to long balances in arabesque -- then sparks would fly as she tore into triple pique turns and exuberant pirouettes. Lots of color, lots of light, and never a loss of gentility. Wiles and Hallberg brought down the house, and in the process raised the stakes for Dvorovenko and Belotserkovsky, who took the challenge and delivered.

The closing ballets on both programs were flashes of ABT Past: Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free" on October 17, Antony Tudor's "Offenbach in the Underworld" on October 26. The former, created for ABT in 1944, is better done these days at New York City Ballet, where the men seem not so afraid to let their danseur bearing slip a little. Jose Manuel Carreno is too much the stately prince to look entirely right doing a sexy little rumba. This is shore leave, not a pantomime scene from "Don Quixote"! He was far too "pulled-up," as were Stiefel and De Luz, though De Luz was winningly buoyant and Stiefel, gazing at Gillian Murphy in his slow solo, seemed full of dreams of a Charleston life. As the three girls, Paloma Herrera, with feet pointed like talons, was more scary than fun, and Alina Faye looked a bit too young to be vamping around with sailors, but Murphy was a regular pinup, curvy and gently flirtatious. In all, a performance whose moments of charm did not fully make up for its lack of consistency and stylistic coherence. This was not, as this ballet has to be, a team effort. It was a cavalcade of stars.

Any performance of a Tudor ballet is a special sort of test for ABT, so closely was he associated with the company in its early years, and so far has the company come from what it was in those days. Compared to a complex Tudor work like "Jardin aux Lilas," of which ABT gave disappointing performances a few seasons ago, "Offenbach in the Underworld," which ABT danced for the first time in 1956 (and most recently two years later), is a relatively easy test. Set in a French cafe in the 1870s, the ballet froths and foams, filling the stage with a huge cast of characters. In many ways it resembles Leonid Massine's "Gaite Parisienne," a staple of the Ballet Russe repertoire set to the same Offenbach music. But there's a strain of real melancholy here, which along with some quintessentially Tudor pas de deux takes the can-can ballet into a post-Ballet Russe era.

"Offenbach" is jammed with outsized characters: the middle-aged patroness of the cafe, a penniless painter, a virginal debutante and her friends, and of course an array of "local ladies" who end up in a heap on the floor with the young men in attendance. ABT brought back Kay Ambrose's marvelous set and costumes, which make up a scene that's down-and-out and garish at once. The ballet is one romantic episode after another -- some in the foreground, some around a table in the back, all involving champagne and garters -- but the fun only really begins with the entrance of the Operetta Star, danced in the performance I saw by a very game Nina Ananiashvili. This star was a singer on the edge of past-her-prime, a frowsy lady in hilarious pink and green who nonetheless could still charm the pants off any man. Of all the dancers on the stage -- including Marcelo Gomes as His Imperial Excellency, Carlos Lopez as The Young Officer, and Stella Abrera as the Queen of the Carriage Trade, in a breathtaking orange and black gown -- only Ananiashvili got just right the mix of bawdiness and regret that is at the heart of this ballet. Its motto could be "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die"; those two strains of emotion needed to be more present in those three characters especially. They sometimes seemed to belong in another ballet, a problem caused as much by the purely neoclassical choreography Tudor gives them as by anything else.

The secondary cast members -- the can-can girls, especially -- built impressively distinct and vibrant personalities. From them I had expected to see little more than a homogenized romp, but this performance gave no hint of the dreaded "international style." Bravo to Donald Mahler and Leslie Rotman, who staged and reconstructed the ballet, for so strongly emphasizing that this is, in the Ballet Russe tradition, *character* dancing. In the barely controlled chaos of the can-can, there was the wonderfully gauche Maria Bystrova in a state of perpetual fluster; pert Karin Ellis-Wentz fighting back at the slightest provocation; and elegant Adrienne Schulte letting it all hang out. In their mismatched skirts and floppy hats, soft black slippers and saggy black tights, these ladies were downmarket Toulouse-Lautrecs, sassy and loud and, amidst it all, longing for love.

As these two evenings showed, one of the greatest weaknesses in the company right now is the neglect of the principal dancers; when they are given mushy new roles like Kudelka gave Kent, Gomes, and Corella, or when they are sent seemingly uncoached into repertory works like "Sylvia Pas de Deux" or "Fancy Free," they (and we) are not being well served. And with so much variety now in the repertoire, and so many stars competing for roles, and a new administration at HQ, the little ballets just aren't getting the attention and rehearsal time) they need. Two words for ABT: slow down.

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