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Letter from New York, 11-29: City Center, Ballet Central
Master's Tournament from ABT and Penn Ballet

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2007 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Seen during its annual two-week City Center season, on October 26 American Ballet Theater's program included a world premiere, a company premiere, and a revival. Balanchine's "Ballo della Regina," which premiered in 1978 at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, is set to music from "Don Carlo" by Giuseppe Verdi. Formal, symmetrical patterning for a corps of twelve women and variations by four female soloists, with a pas de deux threaded through it all, creates an acerbic counterpoint to Verdi's lush melodies.

Soloists Misty Copeland, Maria Riccetto, Hee Seo, and Jacquelyn Reyes executed their intricate steps with brio. Gillian Murphy, squired by tall, supple David Hallberg, danced with reckless abandon and her usual technical flawlessness. ABT's music director Ormsby Wilkins conducted at brisk tempos that gave the dancing breathless urgency.

Antony Tudor's "The Leaves Are Fading" from 1977 gave corps members a chance to stretch artistically in solo roles. Each of the ballet's five corps couples has a pas de deux. The lead couple was Xiomara Reyes -- having an off night -- and newly promoted soloist Gennadi Saveliev. Only Saveliev danced with the kind of maturity the ballet demands.

Paradoxically, this 38-minute work of Tudor's late career requires the technical strength of youth but the expressive subtlety of seasoned artists. The young cast showed its mastery of high legs, centered pirouettes, and buoyant jumps, but the partnering was less sure: the women's shoulders were tense, and the men were sometimes less attentive to their partners than to the height of their tour jetés. Still, no one sullied ABT's world-class standards.

The would-be sudden ending of Benjamin Millepied's "From Here on Out" might work better with the special effects film can deliver than it does onstage, when all twelve dancers fly offstage at once as the lights black out. Otherwise however, this high-gloss exposition of juicy, sinuous dancing for six pairs was thoroughly enjoyable. Millepied, recently emerging as a choreographer from his day job, dancing with New York City Ballet, has a kinetic voice worth listening to; his choreographic architecture is strong.

The movement spills out in a crisp, linear flow of expansive, angular shapes and fleeting lifts. Flicking limbs and hunched lifts turn the dancers into sinewy creatures of unknown species. Shimmering unitards in cool, dark tones (costumes by the choreographer) show off their streamlined bodies. The commissioned score by Nico Muhly builds from softly murmuring strings and occasional squawks from the brass, to a serene melodic climax for the central pas de deux and a percussive finale. Both Millepied, a Frenchman, and Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo -- creator of the season's second premiere -- capture the contemporary ballet zeitgeist of the moment: they derive their own distinct vernacular dialects by distorting ballet-based vocabulary often beyond recognition and usually at breakneck speed. But Elo, the more experienced dance maker, knows not to give everything away too soon, to build gradually to pyrotechnics via passages of slow, gestural movement that create a unique abstract mood. His "C. to C. (Close to Chuck)" had a sparkling premiere on October 27 with noted artist Chuck Close, who designed the set, making a spectacular curtain call in his motorized wheelchair, upended like a bucking bronco.

The curtain rose on mysterious, shadowy light by Brad Field, revealing dancers in elegant, floor-length carapaces over flared black skirts -- reminiscent of Christian Dior's 1950s silhouettes -- by couturier Ralph Rucci, and pianist Bruce Levingston at an onstage grand piano. A black-and-white self-portrait of Close in his signature neo-pointillist style backed the scene.

The dancers (Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes, Kristi Boone, Jared Matthews, Misty Copeland, and Herman Cornejo) begin to move with robotic, trancelike gestures and frozen poses with distorted backs. One might speculate that the twisted spines could refer to the spinal aneurysm that confined Close to the wheelchair -- if one were inclined to find a connection between the dancing and the self-referential musical/visual collaboration the engendered the project.

Levingston adeptly plink-plunks the persistent motifs of Philip Glass's "A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close" and "Etudes" #2, 9, and 10, as the dancers shed their skirts and begin to move more fully. The backdrop changes to another Close self-portrait in shades of red. Kent, the dramatic soul of the ballet, keeps reappearing in her skirt, like a commentator or observer, both outside the action and in it, as the intensity of action escalates in various pairings and trios. The ballet ends with the three women in arabesque, being rotated slowly by the men.


Pennsylvania Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet returned to City Center November 14-18 with two programs, each featuring work by its choreographer in residence Matthew Neenan. The company, founded by Barbara Weisberger, began as a regional repository for Balanchine's ballets. Under the direction of Roy Kaiser since 1994, the troupe looks good and is dancing with technical polish and youthful dash.

Happily, all the ballets but one were done to live music. One program opened with a sparkling rendition of Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco." Music director Beatrice Jona Affron conducted Bach's "Concerto in D minor for Two Violins" at a sprightly pace. This program closed with ubiquitous dance maker Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena," a tasteless concoction of African-infused ballet movement, set to Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson's arrangement and recording of the same name, which mingles Bach and traditional African songs.

The ballet gives us half an hour of earthbound, spine-pumping contractions, sprinkled among airy sauté arabesques and barrel turns, alternating with prosaic ballet pas de deux. The dancers try hard, but even the only African-American in the company, Jermel Johnson -- a dynamic, articulate corps member -- can't bring it off in his solo section, because it's all so contrived.

The second program opened with a creditable performance of Balanchine's legendary "Serenade," set to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings in C." The oddly entrancing ballet starts off as a lyrical etude for 17 women in long, eggshell blue tutus (after originals by Karinska), and transforms into a touching, tragic romantic quadrangle. The dancing was accurate and clear but lacked the weight of personality that Balanchine's original ballerinas brought to it.

In "Serenade," the men are virtually invisible by Balanchine's design; one man squires the lead ballerina in the waltz section, and another partners the three women in the second part. Four other men of the corps appear late in the second movement, shuttling between two partners each and finally bearing the heroine aloft in the austere processional ending.


Matthew Neenan

The featured attraction of the company's City Center engagement was two ballets by Neenan, who is developing into a major choreographic talent. His "As It's Going," set to various pieces for string quartet and piano by Dmitri Shostakovich, is a suite of short pieces, separated by blackouts, that manifest the deadpan wit and brisk pacing that make Neenan's dances delight. With flexed feet the women look like paper doll cutouts, getting lifted straight up in the air. Another recurring motif is chainé turning on the heels, done not as a joke but an alternative way of utilizing toe shoes.

Carl Orff's 1937 setting of 13th century secular poems and songs, "Carmina Burana," has irresistible choreographic appeal, and Neenan has taken on the unedited, 55-minute score, performed by live orchestra and chorus, with a full-company cast of 34 (and reviewed here in its Philadelphia premiere by Lisa Kraus). The New York Choral Society, directed by John Daly Goodwin, and rehearsed by Michael A. Ciavaglia, sang from the sides of the proscenium, women left, men right, with a view of the orchestra pit.

Although there are no translations of the lyrics or program notes to identify the characters, there is a sense of narrative in the various pairings and interactions that comprise the many moods of Neenan's Dionysian reveling. Overlapping scenes, some ending with blackouts, some transitioning seamlessly, build repeatedly from romantic couplings to orgiastic groups.

A spinning lift with women's legs flying like streamers ends one section; a gorgeous soprano aria backs two couples in black where the men use the women's beetle's-wing tutus to steer them. Another group passage in khaki outfits reminiscent of Scouting uniforms ends with a woman being hurled into the wings. In the final scene, under a low hanging arch before a fiery hued sky, the swirling human mass in nude leotards finally coalesces into a tableau that looks like a scene from Dante's Inferno.

Ably abetting Neenan's vision of earthly delights are his collaborators: James Hoey's colorful, active lighting keeps the space shifting. Mimi Lien's set has a huge rust-colored moon and a lopsided fabric and metal pyramid on casters that serves as a sort of cabana for the dancers to play around and inside it. And remarkably inventive costumes by Oana Botez-Ban transform the dancers from unitard-clad insects with greenish carapaces tattooed on their backs to battling warriors in dhotis, ruffle-skirted princesses, and revelers in beige jersey sheaths, whose stretchy trains transform into capes, wings, tails, and hoods that connect partners to each other, turning them into fanciful, Nikolais-esque creatures.

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