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Flash Review 2, 5-22: Is that all there is?
In Choreographic Purgatory with ABT in the 'HereAfter'
By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung
NEW YORK -- In "HereAfter,"
a season premiere from American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan
Opera House, Natalie Weir choreographed the first act ("Heaven")
to John Adams's "Harmonium," and Stanton Welch the second act ("Earth")
to "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff. The startling musical pairing
was suggested in a concert a few years ago by the New York Choral
Society, which sings both works. Seen May 16 and 17(matinee), the
two parts were choreographed separately, but both involve the passage
of two different men through, and from, life. Both halves might
have been better off paired with less similar tales as there seemed
to be a fair amount of deja vu. And mirroring the testosterone heaviness
of the current company, the women were cast in thin, nearly dispensable
"Heaven" is set in a
sort of pre-industrial bleakness reminiscent of Odd Nerdrum's paintings, and contains some lovely moments. Santo Loquasto
designed the set and costumes for both acts. The chorus, behind
clear venetian slats in this act, is cleaved in half by a staircase
which leads to a landing surrounded by ladders descending to a pit
on the stage, evoking a coal mine. A circular sculpture descended
carrying Ethan Stiefel as the Man. Stiefel made a strong impression
as someone in the prime of his life not yet prepared for death,
but in time acquiescing. In the same role, the dynamic Herman Cornejo
performed with more urgency, desperate to battle his fate. Adams's
music (conducted by Charles Barker) underscored the persistence
of man's spirituality despite his corporal limits.
The entrance of the
character Death made a particularly haunting impression, especially
performed by Marcelo Gomes, who virtually slithered into the pit
along the rails of the ladders, dropping silently and predatorily
to the ground to stalk Stiefel like a disease throughout the act.
In a duet, Stiefel repeatedly gives his weight to Gomes, who supports
him at the nape of the neck. David Hallberg was not as smoothly
powerful in the role of Death, but his pale skin gave him a phantom-like
aura. Stella Abrera and Julie Kent collectively comprised His Memory.
Stiefel and Kent performed the hands-on kind of partnering that
Weir is noted for, permitting almost no separation in a sustained
smooth, flowing section. Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes performed
the roles in the next cast, Herrera's sculpted legs and feet etching
clearer shapes, and Reyes exuding a youthful verve. Stiefel (and
Cornejo in the second cast) plunged into the arms of the crowd (Humanity)
as if it were a mosh pit, eliciting gasps from the audience in a
moment of surprise.
In "Earth," Welch closely
patterned the choreography after Orff's score. The resulting movement
tags along like a caboose during the course of the music, reacting
to its ups and downs. Welch seemed to have been pursuing a naivete
or fundamental reflexiveness in his choreography, which was at times
playful and jaunty, and at other times silly and performed with
a pall of embarrassment by the cast. The Man (Angel Corella), flanked
by Fate and Fortune (Joaquin de Luz and Herman Cornejo in the May
16 performance), zips his hands in a cruciform pattern to the opening
strains of Carmina Burana. As the chorus thundered to a crescendo,
the three men breached like whales, and all hell broke loose onstage.
This moment brought a power-chord, grand slam home run kind of satisfaction.
Corella revelled in the role, looking utterly happy, unleashed and
encouraged to soar and spin. With de Luz and Cornejo, this high
energy trio tore up the stage.
In the May 17 matinee
performance of "Earth," Julio Bocca replaced Corella with a loose-jointed,
relaxed emotional depth, if slightly less intensity than Corella.
Bocca danced in with Marcelo Gomes and Jose Manuel Carreno as Fate
and Fortune; the three larger, powerful men nearly burst off the
stage in the previously mentioned trio. Erica Cornejo, joining Herrera
and Reyes in the second cast, danced with clarity and precision.
There is a certain basic
satisfaction to the method Welch followed -- giving a kinetic guise
to Orff's quirky musical punctuation with jutting elbows, jiggling
heads, knocking knees, and skirts twirled to the music. But it so
closely followed the musical cues that when "Carmina Burana" hit
a lull or a kooky spot, as it does, so did the dance. The chorus
of 120 formed the main visual element, standing in two banks on
nine-foot high risers, allowing the dancers to be legible at all
times. The effect was like the boughs of a tree, with the individual
singers resembling leaves, shading the dancers. The costumes for
"Earth" seemed inspired by the decadence of the Roman Empire, with
helmets, straps, metal, metallic fabrics, and intricate headpieces.
"Earth" reminded me in spots of Boris Eifman's heavy-handed (though
at times oddly intriguing) mix of theatricality and bold physicality.
Neither "Heaven" nor
"Earth" forges new turf ballet-wise. Weir and Welch work with a
ballet vocabulary modified to be more casual and less technically
stringent than classical ballet. It is pleasant enough to watch,
but it raises a larger issue: Where is the next generation of ballet
choreographers, and where is the programming lineage at ABT headed?
Last year's George Harrison tribute, back in repertory this season,
seems to have sticking power despite mixed reviews. It included
pieces by these two Australians as well as Ann Reinking and David
Parsons, who recouped some of his dignity from the dumps after his
"Pied Piper" for ABT. Recent works by Lar Lubovitch
(whose "Artemis" premieres this season at ABT), James Kudelka, and
Mark Morris hold some promise, but there seems to be a dearth of
major works to add to the story ballet core repertoire. You can
almost feel the wonderful dancers at ABT impatiently awaiting choreography
that will challenge them both physically and emotionally.
Note: my husband, Andrew
Kettler, performed as a member of the New York Choral Society. Additional
credits: lighting designed by Brian MacDevitt; "Carmina Burana"
soloists were Troy Cook (baritone), Chad Freeburg (tenor), and Mary
Ellen Callahan (soprano).
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