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Letter from New York, 7-05: Adieu Alessandra
A Fairy Princess, Three Tragic Heroines, and a Swan Song

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2007 Gus Solomons jr

Much Moor

NEW YORK -- Starting off American Ballet Theatre's spring season by seeing three of the four performances of the revival of Lar Lubovitch's 1997 "Othello" offered a good view of the range of interpretations the same movement can assume in the capable hands -- and talented legs -- of three different casts. Artistic director Kevin McKenzie likes to share the wealth by casting ballets with three or four sets of principals. Although it seems like an expensive strategy -- more costumes and shoes to buy -- it does reduce the physical stress on principals' bodies and demonstrates the company's depth, and it gives the stars the added urgency of just one or two shots at a role in the prime Metropolitan Opera House venue, upping the adrenaline quotient.

Lubovitch's dance roots are modern, which makes his version of "Othello" all the more remarkable, because it actually works as classical ballet on some levels. True, it is imitation classical, albeit a good imitation, but it poses the question why not make a story ballet in modern style? ABT capably does works by Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp, among other modernists.

Limón Company alumnus Lubovitch is schooled in the ways of telling a tale with interpretive gestures. His scenario here is the schematic tale of pure evil (Iago) driving his trusting commander (Othello) so crazed with jealously that he murders his new bride (Desdemona). The narrative moves inexorably from Othello and Desdemona's Catholic wedding to the denouement in her boudoir through duets and trios among the key characters -- Cassio, Othello's lieutenant who was promoted over Iago; Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's handmaiden; and Cassio's promiscuous girlfriend Bianca.

Elliot Goldenthal's dissonant, percussive score sometimes mitigates the movement repetition that full-length ballets usually entail, although it is occasionally overwrought, like epic-movie music. Conductors Charles Barker and Ormsby Wilkins wring every ounce of drama from it, sweeping us along for the ride.

George Tsypin's provocative set places Plexiglas columns and props onstage and projected photomontages on the cyclorama of period interiors -- and in Act Two a stormy sea. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes add Shakespearean lushness. The snare of these elaborate trappings is that they lead us to expect the other elements of classical ballet like grand pas de deux with tricky variations and virtuosic displays. And when they don't materialize -- however gripping the drama -- we feel let down.

The role of Othello was danced by -- in order of my viewings -- David Hallberg, Rasta Thomas, and Marcelo Gomes; their respective Desdemonas were Gillian Murphy, Xiomara Reyes, and Alessandra Ferri; Iagos and Emilias, Maxim Beloserkovsky and Marian Butler, Carlos Lopez and Maria Riccetto, and Sascha Radetsky and Stella Abrera; Blaine Hoven, Jared Matthews, and Herman Cornejo danced the respective Cassios.

Nordic-looking Hallberg's version -- despite a faux-brunette coiffure and swarthy makeup -- remained too princely and pristinely classical. Murphy, always technically in control, is still working on vulnerability. Also, some transitions in her Act One pas de deux with Hallberg were awkward, not yet entirely assimilated physically.

Guest artist Thomas -- the only one of the three with any African blood -- displayed the requisite physical passion without any sacrifices of ballet technique. Although smaller in stature than the other two, his dramatic modulation and physical daring made his performance the most moving of the three. Petite Reyes, who's grown better able to balance expressiveness with her strong technique, since entering the company as a soloist in 2001, still isn't a grounded enough Desdemona.

Gomes -- back in glorious form after an injury earlier this season -- combined his stature and presence with nuanced acting and confident partnering that made Othello completely believable and inspired Ferri to the most lavishly abandoned performance I've seen from her. In her farewell season with ABT, partnered by Gomes, she seemed to find complete physical and expressive freedom.

Beauty and the Buzz

Spanking new this season was Kevin McKenzie's reworking of Marius Petipa's 1890 classic "The Sleeping Beauty." With it, the return to ABT of Gelsey Kirkland after two decades -- to help McKenzie with the staging and portray the character role of Carabosse -- generated as much buzz as the production itself. All the fuss put additional pressure on the performers to live up to the hype. Kirkland's spouse Michael Chernov served as dramaturge. Lavish fairy-tale sets by Tony Walton and glittering costumes by Willa Kim scream expensiveness; sometimes there's so much glistening fabric onstage it's hard to see the dancing.

On opening night some of the special effects in the lavish new production misfired: The timing of shooting sparklers and fireballs that announce the arrival and departure of Carabosse, the wicked fairy, was slightly off; and flying her and Prince Desiré in Act II seemed gratuitous, especially since their mid-air suspension was partially obscured by hanging scenery.

As Aurora, Veronica Part managed to overcome the enormous pressure of the swirl of publicity and of her challenging steps to deliver a technically sure performance. But the regal ballerina wasn't ebullient enough to convincingly generate the infatuation of her quartet of suitors -- princes from Russia, Spain, India, and Scotland -- not to mention the love of Prince Desiré, who kisses her awake from her century-long snooze.

In a new but somewhat redundant Act II opening, the prince forsakes the hunting party and dances an adagio solo before falling asleep in the river of tears cried by Aurora's mother. In his dream he envisions the sleeping princess before finding her castle and awakening her. Even though the third act variety dances, except for the Bluebird variation, have been reduced to tokens, it is still a long ballet. Ormsby Wilkins brought the Tchaikovsky music to life, conducting the splendid ABT orchestra with his usual gusto.

Ciao, Alessandra!

Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle in American Ballet Theatre's production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon." Photo: MIRA. Courtesy ABT.

This season marked the end of Alessandra Ferri's 22-year tenure with ABT, and for the occasion, she invited one of her favorite partners, Roberto Bolle, to squire her in Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon" and "Romeo and Juliet." Set to music by Jules Massenet (including none from his opera "Manon"), the ballet is unduly long. That said, it contains some highly inventive use of ballet vocabulary, especially in the torrid duets for Manon and her lover Des Grieux, both when they first meet in a public courtyard, subsequently in his private quarters, and in their final tragic duet in a Louisiana swamp, where ravaged Manon dies in his arms.

MacMillan employs a clever kinetic metaphor in the Act Two party, where the men manipulate Manon like the sexually precocious courtesan she is. They swoop her up and pass her among them like a trophy. Another high point of this scene is the drunken solo by Manon's brother/pimp Lescaut and his ensuing pas de deux with his mistress.

On June 11, as Lescaut, Ethan Stiefel turned the steps of his variation into pure characterization -- a messy drunk -- staggering and stumbling into dazzling multiple spins and off kilter tours en l'air. Then, he partnered Murphy, as his mistress, in completely tipsy character. But in the same scene, endless iterations of the harlots' high-kicking hi-jinx grew tedious.

"Manon" is an ideal vehicle for superb dramatic dancers, and Ferri ranks as one of the most expressive dramatic ballerinas of her generation. She's retiring at her pinnacle; she's never danced better. Her handsome partner Bolle, judging by the rapturous reception he received in his ABT debut, could be on the verge of an American stardom as a dramatic hero that could approach his European rock-star status. Let's hope ABT invites this beautifully lyrical dramatic dancer back soon.

Seeing MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" a week after his "Manon," I was struck with the similarity in structure and visual design of the two; the harlots in both ballets even wear the same wigs. Both ballets have sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, richly monochromatic in bronzes, warm browns, and dusty reds. As in "Manon," the court dances outlast their welcome, and there's one, music-less scene change in Act III that retards the theatrical momentum at just the wrong time. Also, all that dueling in "R&J," though well rehearsed, is pretty static -- because endless chassé-ing to and fro in second position, swords or not, is just boring.

But Saturday evening (June 23), "Romeo and Juliet" was all about Juliet; it marked Ferri's final ABT performance, and her dancing was transcendent, especially in Bolle's capable arms. The entire performance crackled with excitement, but especially in the moments when the couple was onstage.

As Romeo's buddies Mercutio and Benvolio, Herman Cornejo and Jared Matthews created real camaraderie; their Scene Three trio with Romeo outside the Capulets' party was delightfully rowdy, and the complex turns -- MacMillan's specialty -- were in clean unison, which is no small feat for such disparate physiques as 5'5" Cornejo and 6'2" Bolle. Nonegenarian Frederic Franklin limned a spry Friar Laurence.

Ferri's dramatic acting is always convincing, but she also shows perfect comic timing when she feigns a headache to avoid spending time with her betrothed, Paris (Gennadi Saveliev, giving noble presence to the hapless role) and when she teases the bustling, good-natured Nurse (Susan Jones). Her use of utter stillness is masterful, when she first sees Romeo from the balcony and again in her bedroom, when she contemplates her unwanted marriage. Motionless, she lets Prokofiev's marvelous music reveal her inner emotions.

The SRO crowd rose to its feet to honor her two decades of artistry with a thunderous ovation, a thousand cell phone camera flashes, and a cascade of flowers, both bouquets presented by a parade of company principals and blossoms hurled onto the stage by her devotees. Her two daughters took a bow with her, and her photographer husband Fabrizio Ferri poked his head from the wings to give her a kiss. Then, she stood alone on the vast Metropolitan Opera House stage, waving her arms in appreciation for the applause that just wouldn't end.

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