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Flash Review 1, 11-9: Ballet Moderns
Tudor, Morris, Tharp Give ABT a Workout

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2005 Gus Solomons jr
Photography by Marty Sohl

NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre, completing the last of its three weeks of performances at City Center, matched ballets by three interestingly different modern choreographers on one program. Seen Thursday, "Gong," "Dark Elegies," and "In the Upper Room," by Mark Morris, Antony Tudor, and Twyla Tharp, respectively, clearly demonstrate three modern styles, even though Tudor's piece premiered in 1937.

For his 2001 work, Morris freely appropriates Balinese dance movement in two-dimensional silhouettes and lateral locomotion for ten women and five men in acid-bright hues by Isaac Mizrahi -- mushroom cap tutus in fuchsia, lime, and goldenrod, with gold belts, wrist bands, and anklets. As usual, Morris lets the music dictate the form -- here, Colin McPhee's Asian-influenced orchestral score, "Tabuh-Tabuhan." The women wear toe shoes, and throughout Morris comments on ballet convention, especially in two riveting duets in silence that contrast the rich orchestral sound. The movement is on toe, but it's hardly classical with dancers rocking from side to side with bent legs like bells ringing, folding their arms into angular halos, and sinking into a hip while rolling their heads.

Surprisingly modern is Tudor's 68-year-old "Dark Elegies," a deeply felt but restrained evocation of grief. Accompanied by Gustav Mahler's haunting "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs for Dead Children"), the ballet references traditional folk dance with circle patterns and flexed or turned in feet, torsos and arms held in rigid geometric shapes above busily jumping legs, and even Graham-esque skittering on the knees. But the unadorned movement and emotion makes the ballet seem startlingly contemporary.

Rustic decor and costumes by Nadia Benois reinforce the somber emotions. Painted backdrops of farm land in Part One and water in Part Two are rendered in muted tones. Benois clothes the women in loose-fitting peasant dresses in drab gray, blue, and magenta and wraps their heads in bandanas; the men wear simple shirts and pants.

In Thursday's performance, Simone Messmer and Isaac Stappas seemed unduly studied in their duet to the second of five songs in part one; and Jared Matthews carried his still torso with wooden stiffness for his solo to the third song. But Melissa Thomas danced the opening solo with delicate sensitivity, Hee Seo danced the fourth song with ethereal grace and utterly soundless jumps, and Jesus Pastor brought authority and dignified presence to his solo.

American Ballet Theatre in Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room." Marty Sohl photo copyright 2005 Marty Sohl.

Tharp's 1986 "In the Upper Room" -- set to Philip Glass's propulsive minimalist score and costumed in sassy black, white, and red by Norma Kamali -- takes the dancers through paces in both sneakers and toe shoes. The performers fly through the space in a relentless marathon of Tharp's signature bouncy, slangy motion, alternating with ballet spins, extensions, and aerial foot beats.

Tharp never lets your eyes repose; the action is non-stop. Kristi Boone and Michele Wiles begin with a bouncy, vernacular duet, wearing black and white vertically striped jumpsuits and track shoes. Periodically, throughout the piece, Misty Copeland joins the two to dance sextets with the male trio of Sascha Radetsky, Blaine Hoven, and Patrick Ogle. Yuriko Kajiya and Luciana Paris in red toe shoes flit between sections in brisk unison. Tiny Sarah Lane keeps up with another trio of men, Aaron Scott, Gennadi Saveliev, and Carlos Lopez, that spells the first three men, while they're doubtless panting in the wings. The jumpsuits give way to kimono tops then red leotards for the women and red pants with bare chests for the men.

Stage smoke adds drama to Jennifer Tipton's stark, white lighting; dancers appear from and vanish into the mist. But doing the highly aerobic movement in such an oxygen-starved atmosphere takes its toll on the game dancers, and by the finale their labored breathing shows. Still, the dancers of ABT are hands down the most versatile, physically gifted, and courageous around.

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